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For the love of chuckwagons

2021 Cheyenne Frontier Days Chuckwagon Cookoff brings wagons and visitors from around the country

Most chuckwagon cookoff competitions are one or two days long and are more local in attendance and atmosphere. The crews set up their wagons, get them judged, cook food to be judged and served, and then pack up and return home. But like everything else the “Daddy of ‘Em All” does, the Cheyenne Frontier Days Chuckwagon Cookoff is a bigger deal.

Arriving beforehand to set up and then stay in place to cook for 10 days at the world famous event, chuckwagon crews from around the country help connect the cowboy vibe of Cheyenne Frontier Days back to its historical roots of cattle drives and out-sized ranches in the American West. It is the love of that old west history and its iconic cattle drives — along with the chance to share its history with more than a 100,000 visitors — that seems to bind all the participants together.

“We are actually living history re-enactors,” said Sam Howell of Odessa, Texas. Howell shared his passion for chuckwagon cooking as he prepped a dish between breakfast and lunch on a Thursday morning, his latex covered hands mixing flour and lard together in a black metal bowl. The grey-bearded cowboy has been cooking for 22 years and described how chuckwagon cooking is “pretty significant” to him.



Ron Reed of Cody, Wyo., starts prepping a cast iron pan for cooking over the fire. Part of the Two Mules Chuckwagon that cooks at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody (where Reed works), he says the chuckwagon "is probably the only chuckwagon here that actually still works for a living."

“As chuckwagon cooks, we are telling the history of the chuckwagon,” Howell said. “The beauty here (in Cheyenne) is I get to see 100,000 people and spend time talking to them and pointing out the significance of the chuckwagon and why it is so important. I like to tell people, I had a choice of two hobbies,” he added with a grin. “Chuckwagon or a bass boat. You can spend the same amount of money on either one. But with this one, I get to meet a lot more people. Sitting out in the middle of a lake, you don’t meet anyone.”

“It is an exciting week,” said Ron Reed of Cody, Wyo. Part of the working Two Mules Chuckwagon owned by his friend Rich Herman, Reed talked while tending to his fire and a large cast iron pan. “We enjoy talking to folks. That is part of a chuckwagon cookoff is talking to people about the wagons and about history and stuff. My favorite part is talking to people about the history.”



Sam Howell from Odessa, Texas, works on a recipe in his authentic Newton chuckwagon during some down time in the 2021 Cheyenne Frontier Days Chuckwagon Cookoff competition in Cheyenne, Wyo. "The beauty here is I get to see 100,000 people and spend time talking to them and pointing out the significance of the chuckwagon and why it is so important," Howell said.

EASTERN COWBOYS

Loving the history of the old west does not just apply to cowboys from Texas and Wyoming. It can even spread as far east as Middlebrook, Va. Adam Hanger and his eastern state crew of family and friends fit that description, as they refurbished an authentic chuckwagon in 2017-2018 and then promptly jumped into the competition scene’s deep end by signing up for one of the biggest cookoffs in the country.

“We did jump in the deep end,” acknowledged Adam Hanger with a smile. “That is kind of the joke we have had about it. We were looking (to enter contests) and I was like, well here is a great one, Cheyenne Frontier Days. We didn’t really know that much about the event. I talked to dad and said, let’s do it. Then we were like, we are really going to Cheyenne Frontier Days for our first competition.”

The crew of The Shenandoah Chuckwagon from Middlebrook, Va., at the 2021 Cheyenne Frontier Days: Left to right — George Cox, Josh Cox, Glenn Hanger, Laurin Hanger, Adam Hanger and James Hulvey

While growing up in Virginia may not seem conducive to developing an enthusiasm for chuckwagon cooking and old west history, the farm raised Hanger caught the cowboy bug while being looked after by his grandfather.

“My granddaddy, he watched me since I was a baby,” explained Hanger as he stood enveloped by smoke from the wood fire in front of their chuckwagon. They named the refurbished wagon (which they purchased for $250 and which Hanger said was in terrible shape) The Shenandoah after their Virginia roots. “I grew up watching Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Bonanza and Gunsmoke. At noon we were going to be sitting there watching Gunsmoke. That is what we looked forward to. That is where I got my whole western enthusiast part of it.”

Although Cheyenne in 2018 was their first cookoff, the Virginia crew enjoyed the massive event so much they have been back ever since.

Lined up next to each other, one of the draws for chuckwagon crews in the Cheyenne Frontier Days competition is the ability to talk to a lot of Cheyenne Frontier Days visitors about chuckwagon cooking and the history of the chuckwagon and associated old west cattle drives.

“First of all it is the ‘Daddy of ‘Em All’,” said Hanger about why they liked competing in Cheyenne. “It is different than any other chuckwagon cookoff, because most cookoffs are two-day events. Here, we get in basically the week before and get set up. You are out here for a longer time, but you come out here and honestly, we are competing and stuff, but everything is so laid back. Everybody is like family. Every year it is a reunion for everybody. We will make stuff and share it with each other. We will share recipes and help each other out. Everybody is honestly one big family.”

On top of the family reunion type of environment, the western atmosphere also draws the Virginians to return.

Dutch ovens and cast iron cookware are plentiful during the Cheyenne Frontier Days chuckwagon cooking competition in Cheyenne, Wyo.

“Coming out here, it is nice because you have all that western stuff out here,” said Hanger. “I love the area and the landscape. When you see and experience how vast it is, that is just really nice to be able to do. (And) everybody is so personal and down to earth. That is the nice thing, everybody works together. Everybody jumps in to help unpack, everybody jumps in to help pack back up, whatever the case may be. That is how we got into it, just loving the western stuff, and I love it out here.”

Whether it is rodeo or even authentic cowboy cooking, the “Daddy of ‘Em All” makes people love coming to Cheyenne Frontier Days.


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