RIVERTON — Everyone calls him “The Colonel,” but Paul Vance has always thought of himself as a cowboy.
The Kentucky man found his forever home in Wyoming 15 years ago, and now he’s bought himself an honest-to-goodness chuck wagon to continue having cowboy adventures. He now lives in Afton, but will soon move to Riverton.
“It’s a cowboy thing, which is going to be fun,” he said. “You know, it will bring back a little bit of history.”
Vance and his friend, cowboy poet Jack Schmidt, found their chuck wagon sitting out in a field south of Riverton on 17 Mile Road. It was one of three options.
“I liked this one the best,” Vance said. “They said the other two were chuck wagons, but they just didn’t look right to me.”
Vance has had to do a lot of work refinishing his new wagon to bring it up to snuff.
“I had to take the bed completely off, replace the floor, put in some crossmembers and some tweaks, and, you know, put all new bows on it,” he said. “We rebuilt the seat, it was busted, and there’s more stuff I can put on it now.”
What Goes Into An Authentic Chuck Wagon
Chuck wagons were the center of the cowboy universe when Texas cowboys were trailing herds of cattle from Texas to places like Wyoming when the West was still young and wild.
While there’s evidence that many cowboy operations out on the open range had moveable cooking stations, the credit for the legendary chuck wagon goes to Texas rancher Charles Goodnight. Using a durable army-surplus wagon known as a Studebaker, he put all of the best ideas into one mobile unit that’s become legendary.
He outfitted the Studebaker wagon with steel axles that would hold up to hard terrain, then, working with a cook, he added an efficient layout of boxes on the back-end of the wagon that would hold all the cooking tools and supplies. A “boot” underneath the box held larger items like the Dutch ovens.
Goodnight added amenities like a water barrel and coffee mill to the outside of the wagon, and suspended a cowhide beneath the wagon to carry firewood and cow chips. There was also a waterproof tarp, which was held up by wooden bows. This kept everything inside the wagon nice and dry.
The wagon would carry water, tools, feed for horses, medicine, needles, thread, food, and all the other things cowboys might need on the range, including barbershop, dental, and doctoring supplies. Often bedrolls were also carried in the chuck wagon.
Making It Real
Vance is watching movies and visiting museums to learn how best to outfit his chuck wagon with historically authentic artifacts.
His most recent addition is an authentic oak barrel, lined with paraffin wax, just like they would have been back in the chuck wagon days.
He’s also been looking for a maker’s mark on his chuck wagon, so he can uncover its history. So far, no luck on that, though he has noted some features of the wagon that suggest an Amish origin.
Vance isn’t planning to be the “cookie” — what chuckwagon cooks are called — for the chuck wagon, though. He’s teaming up with a friend named Jack Schmidt, who is a cowboy poet and chuckwagon cook, and his daughter, Jill, who also has the cooking skills.
“Jack and I talked about doing this for years,” Vance said.
Vance’s part will likely be riding a horse and looking the part of a cowboy, he said, as well as telling stories about Western history, which he’s been studying for a lifetime.
“This is just something we can do and still have some fun,” he said.
His Heroes Have Truly Always Been Cowboys
Vance has looked up to cowboys since he was young, and has watched many a cowboy movie, from A-lister John Wayne to a more recent favorite, B-lister Tim McCoy.
McCoy, like Vance, moved to Wyoming because he dreamed of being a cowboy.
Vance has been researching McCoy’s history to learn more about his latest cowboy hero.
“He moved out here (to Wyoming) I think in (1909) when he was 17 years old,” Vance said. “And he became adjutant general for Wyoming and helped promote a movie called “Wagon Train.”
McCoy grew up in Michigan, the youngest of seven children of Irish immigrants. He got his first taste of the West when Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show came to Saginaw. He saw the show again in Chicago, where he’d been sent to learn Latin.
McCoy packed up his belongings that spring and headed West, determined to become a cowboy himself.
According to historical records with Wyoming State Archives, McCoy took a job on the Double Diamond Ranch near Lander, where he started out working in the hay fields. Eventually, he homesteaded on Owl Creek, west of Thermopolis, establishing a ranch he called Eagle’s Nest.
McCoy was eventually tapped to hire 500 American Indians for the film “The Covered Wagon” and quit his job as adjutant general to serve as a consultant for the film. From there, he would go on to appear in 90-some movies, including the movie “Wyoming” in 1928.
“John Wayne was actually in a movie with him before anyone knew who John Wayne was,” Vance said.
Vance likes cowboys in cowboy movies because they’re always the good guys, and that’s what he aspires to be as well.
“Everyone should have heroes you can look up to,” Vance said. “Cowboys have always been my heroes.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.