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Minnesota man excels in chuck wagon competition

Aug. 29, 2013 | 0 comments



The cook-fire crackled and smoked as J.T. Hallson carefully pulled the lid off his Dutch oven to check on a blueberry cobbler he was preparing Saturday.

Hallson, who goes by his initials when he’s in a chuck wagon competition, piled a few more coals on the ground under the huge cast-iron pot, replaced the lid and piled more coals on top to finish the old fashioned baking process.

Making a desert like that is old hat to the Dassel, MN man who loves cooking with antique tools at chuck wagon competitions like the one held over the weekend at "Taking the Reins."

It was the second year for the equine event put on by the Wisconsin Horse Council and Midwest Horse Fair as a way to draw people into a different kind of event.

On Saturday, a team of five judges looked over the wagons, judging them for soundness and for the competitors’ quality and selection of goods.

Hallson explained that the judges look for roadworthiness of the wagon and the harness, but the wagon must also include a host of items.

"We have to have stuff to fix harness. We have to have a working harness, a set of tools, a fly over the top, a clock, a medical kit and a pot of sour dough."

The wagon must also include bed rolls, kerosene lamps, a log book and three-tined forks like those that might have been used well over 100 years ago. "The setup is supposed to be as authentic as possible."

Cooking tools, including the bars, hooks and pokers used over an open wood fire, cannot be made with modern methods like welding, but must be hand forged. "It’s kind of a step back in time."

The setup must include a variety of authentic firearms and ammunition as well as a water barrel filled with water and copious amounts of rope – good for pulling wagons and people out of trouble on the trail.

Though he was only preparing desert on Saturday, Hallson and the other chuck wagon chefs were planning a full-meal deal on Sunday when they would all be asked to prepare large amounts of roast beef, beans, potatoes, biscuits and desert using their own special recipes.

Part of the fun of the event for visitors to the horse event is that they get to try the chuck wagon cuisine after it’s prepared on Sunday and after the judges have their say.

"I did well last year. Overall I was in first place," said the modest chuck wagon re-enactor after some prompting.

Any modern cooking conveniences – required by the health department – are off to the side in a screened tent and are to be used only as necessary, said Hallson’s assistants, Tilly and Rose.

A white rag hanging on the end of the tarp signaled to all that a woman was in the camp – as tradition requires.

His "wood monkey," Dave, was on hand to keep the fires burning.

Hallson got started 20 years ago with Old West Society re-enactors and gravitated to the chuck wagon competitions that are held all over the country. The wagon he brought to Madison is his third.

"Like most of the wagons people use for this, it’s a mixture of old and newer parts. This is a mountain chuck wagon, which is different from the ranch chuck wagon that is smaller with wider wheels."

The mountain wagon was designed with a heavier frame and higher wheels to get into the rough terrain of higher elevations when cattle drives moved up there.

His wagon has an original set of running gear that is completely refurbished and then newer parts to complete the unit.

This is the second year of the event during "Taking the Reins" but Hallson is a regular at numerous events, including one that’s near his home.

Last year in Albert Lea, MN, organizers planned the "Big Island" rendezvous, which drew in 3,000-4,000 schoolchildren during events on Thursday and Friday and a total of 30,000 people over the weekend.

"We had a ball talking to the kids about the trail and the wagon and what it must have been like back then."

He’s looking forward to that event again this October.

"I just love sharing with people all about this era. It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun, too."

Hallson, who is also a leather worker, shares his "Lost Creak Wagon" from 1880 and interprets cattle drive history from a strict window in time – 1865-85.

Chuck wagon competitions like the one held in Madison are fixtures at festivals all over the country. There’s even an American Chuck Wagon Association. It was founded in Texas in 1996 by Old West enthusiasts to keep the old ways alive.

Much like Hallson, they wanted to keep alive the short but colorful heritage of chuck wagons and how important they were to cowboys and ranchers in those days.

Today that association has members in 31 states, Canada, Germany and Switzerland.

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