As you might expect from a small town where Lane Frost was born and where Bents Old Fort is located, La Junta, Colo., has roots strong in agricultural tradition and frontier history.
So it should not have been a surprise that the first Doc Jones Chuckwagon Cooking Contest on Oct. 26 — organized by longtime resident Delbert “Doc” Jones — drew a big crowd.
Nearly 400 people from the area paid $15 each for the opportunity to eat tasty vittles cooked up by six chuckwagons that traveled from as far away as Kansas to compete and have fun. The ticket numbers surprised Jones, who didn’t dream of that amount when he began organizing the contest.
Asked if this initial event exceeded his expectations, Jones didn’t hesitate with an answer.
“About 10 times (the response I expected),” he said with a smile before repeating himself for emphasis. “10 times. We had 400 tickets and there was just a handful left. We got so many people from out of town. It was unbelievable.”
Speaking of unbelievable, the food served was in that category, and happy ticket holders had as much as their appetites could handle.
Every one of the six wagons cooked up chicken fried steak, beans, potatoes and bread, along with peach cobbler for dessert. While the chicken fried steak was fairly standard from wagon to wagon, every other dish allowed room for plenty of personality.
“You can use your own spices,” revealed Rex Wailes from Bennet, Colo. Wailes cooked for the Lizzie II wagon, which keeps busy doing four to six competitions a year on top of two to three caterings every month, including brandings, cattle drives and weddings. “They’ll all get a cube steak and (then) we do our own thing with the breadings and taters and beans.”
“(Using your own) seasonings is the main deal,” said Kent Anderson, who brought his chuckwagon from Holly, Colo., to participate in his first cook off. Asked for clarification on what he uses to give the dishes their own flair, he was willing to share a few ingredients.
“(We use) garlic powder and season salt and stuff like that,” he described. “This is really good food and it’s not hard to do.”
While hundreds of people milled through the grounds enjoying their food, one of the big draws of the day was the old west atmosphere.
Set in a location outside of town that was populated by a large weathered bunkhouse, rustic fences and a roping arena, the authentic antique chuckwagons and their cowboy/cowgal crews, using dutch ovens over wood fires, made it seem like the past stepped through time and landed smack dab in La Junta.
“People love to see the cowboy history,” acknowledged Jones. “Have you ever gone to a chuckwagon deal and seen this many real chuckwagons in action? If people are digging for history and old cowboy and wild west stuff, it is here.”
“If you haven’t got a camera standing here taking pictures, there’s something the matter with you,” Jones added with a grin as people carried cameras throughout the grounds. “These are real deals. There is stuff on these wagons that I don’t have and I use (a chuckwagon) all the time. If people like anything that’s real and Western and authentic, they will have a good time.”
Fellow cooks agreed with Jones’ sentiment.
“If people want to go see a big glamorous thing, they’ll go to a dude ranch in the mountains,” explained Fred Dorenkamp of Holly, Colo., while he and his wife, Norma, cut and chopped food beside their wagon. This was the Dorenkamp’s first competition, but they’ve known Jones for years and were happy to make this their initial foray.
“But this, they’re seeing the authentic deal,” he added. “They’re cooking with wood and there’s nothing phony about it. People like to see that (and) it doesn’t cost them a great deal of money.”
While the food and atmosphere were the stars of the show, most of the public had no idea the hours of work each crew logged just to bring the food to their plates.
“A lot,” laughed Anderson, when asked about the labor put in to bring the food out for consumption. “Especially by the time you get everything set up. But the big fun of the whole deal is the camaraderie of the wagons; the camaraderie and meeting people. It’s a lot of stinking work, but we enjoy it.”
Between getting to and from the event, setting up the wagon, preparing the vittles and then cleaning up afterward, Mark Moore of Parker, Colo., estimated he and his Rockin’ M crew each put in over 20 hours of work to make it happen.
The response of the public, however, helps make the toil worthwhile.
“I really enjoy the living history side of those types of events,” said Moore of a positive aspect to all the effort. “I think it’s a very important part of Americana and how we have gotten where we are.”
“It was fun that we were that much of an attraction,” he added about the stream of people walking by and taking photos. “It’s fun that people get that excited about it. All in all, I think it was a very successful event and the people of La Junta definitely got their money’s worth and I think they enjoyed it.”
“We had a heck of a response,” agreed Jones after the cooking and eating was in the rearview mirror. “We did good.”
Asked if this will be the start of an annual event, Jones indicated the town and public’s reaction was a gauge for the future.
“I think we did all right,” he began. “I haven’t heard a bad thing yet. I really had no visions of next year, but we’ve been so well received by the entire community.”
“I’m not the kind of guy that deals with city councils,” he added with a grin. “But they are 100 percent behind us. 100 percent.”
If this year’s enthusiasm continues into the future, chuckwagon cooking just might be added to Lane Frost and Bents Old Fort as things for which the town of La Junta is already famous. ❖