Chuck wagon to dish up ‘cowboy fare’ at Age of the Gunfighter event

“Age of the Gunfighter,” an event Saturday at Old Cowtown Museum, will feature historical re-enactors staging gunfights.
“Age of the Gunfighter,” an event Saturday at Old Cowtown Museum, will feature historical re-enactors staging gunfights. File photo

Even gunfighters need to eat.

And they’ll be able to Saturday, thanks to Becky and John Conway, whose working chuck wagon is part of the “Age of the Gunfighter” event at Old Cowtown Museum.

While much of the attention will focus on historical re-enactors staging gunfights, even organizers admit such battles were rare in Wichita’s days as an actual cow town.

“There weren’t that many here,” said Anthony Horsch, the museum’s education coordinator, adding that the re-enactments are more for entertainment than to represent the area’s history.

Horsch said dime novels that became popular as literacy boomed after the Civil War made it seem like every Western town was a shooting gallery.

“If a person in the 1870s read a dime-novel version of what was happening, it probably wouldn’t look anything like Wichita,” he said. “They made the West seem a lot wilder than it actually was.”

But chuck wagons are a different a story. They really were used to feed the cowboys who drove cattle from Texas to railroads in Wichita and other Kansas towns.

Becky Conway said she and her husband got interested in the rolling kitchens because of their “love of history and our roots in the Flint Hills.” The Conways live in Cambridge – 0.17 square mile, population 82 – in Cowley County, about 45 miles southeast of Wichita. Becky said they were extremely lucky to buy their 1910 Cooper wagon from the family who bought it new from the lumberyard in Grenola, Kan. She said some people look for years for a wagon from that era. The wagon’s owners “wanted to see somebody use it again.”

“It was a farm wagon,” said Conway of the Cooper, which is about 10 feet long and 3 1/2 feet wide. “They used it for harvest and to feed cattle in the winter.”

The Conways converted it to a chuck wagon, which Becky said was the usual way the rolling kitchens came to be.

“All chuck wagons were made from whatever,” she said. “Some were old Army ambulances or Army surplus wagons.”

To turn the Cooper into a chuck wagon, the Conways built their own “chuck box” in back and stretched the characteristic canvas cover over the top. The chuck box takes the place of kitchen cabinetry, holding cooking equipment, ingredients, cups and plates. Chuck wagons also carried things like sewing equipment and what passed for medical devices, she noted.

“It was the lifeblood” of the cattle drive, she said.

On Saturday, the Conways will set up camp around the chuck wagon and cook over an open fire using cast-iron Dutch ovens. They’ll prepare beans and biscuits – “the fare of the cowboy,” as Becky put it. They’ll also whip up a little “cowboy stew” – beef and vegetables – for some of the historical re-enactors.

In addition to viewing gunfights every half-hour, attendees can take carriage rides, enjoy performances by the Entre Nous Victorian Dancers and Dixie Lee Saloon Girls, have old-time photos taken, chow down on hot dogs and sarsaparilla in the Cowtown Saloon and more.

Becky Conway said she and her husband hope to show “what it was like to be out where there were no accommodations and to live for three months out in the weather. That was the average trail drive, from Texas to the railhead in Kansas.”

Although they usually transport the wagon by trailer, they have pulled it behind horses. The 22-mile trip from Cambridge to Winfield took eight hours.

They participate in chuck wagon competitions where the vehicles are judged for authenticity, and for the past two years they’ve represented Kansas at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

And they still feed actual cowboys out of it. The Conways named their chuck wagon the Rafter JB, the same brand they use on their livestock. Although not full-time ranchers themselves – John is an electrician, and Becky works for the Walnut Valley Festival – they have relatives who are, and set up the Rafter JB to feed roundup and branding crews in the Flint Hills each fall.

“I am the fourth generation of the people we are cooking with and for, and when my children are with us, they’re the fifth,” Becky said. “And now that their children are helping, they’re the sixth.”

If you go

‘Age of the Gunfighter’

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Old Cowtown Museum, 1865 Museum Blvd.

Admission: $7.75 for adults, $6.50 for seniors (62 and older), $6 for youths (12 to 17), $5.50 for children (5 to 11), children 4 and under free