Dinner bell’s a-ringin’

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Eldon Simmons, of Mancos, gets the bacon going during the Durango Fiesta Days Chuck Wagon Cook-off on July 28 on the lawn at the Durango-La Plata Senior Center. The event was sponsored by the La Plata-Archuleta Cattlemen’s Association for the ninth year at Fiesta Days.

After a long, hard day on a cattle drive, there was no more welcome sight for cowboys than the chuck wagon, its pots and pans emitting the enticing aroma of dinner. (Although, I guess a hot bath and shot of whiskey might have come close.)

For the last nine years, the La Plata-Archuleta Cattlemen’s Association has sponsored a Chuck Wagon Cook-Off as part of Durango Fiesta Days, and July 28, almost 500 people had the chance to enjoy stick-to-your-ribs beef, potatoes, beans, bread and dessert cooked in the time-honored tradition over an open fire.

For many of those years, I have been honored to be a judge, which is a real responsibility. Not only are bragging rights on the line, there’s cold, hard cash involved, too. Judges are divided into categories, and this year, my team, which included Susie Ammann and Karen Zink, scored the dessert category, which is, if you’ll forgive the pun, a sweet deal.

The other judges putting their taste buds to the test were Dan Ammann, Christi Zeller, Monte Miller, Wayne Carsburg, Phyllis Ludwig, Maria Carsburg, LaVina Mars, Rhonda Zellitti, Carl Macht, Tracy Baker and Randy McKee.

How does one get the judging gig? Being a newspaper columnist is one good way, and another is being a regular attendee at the event as the Ammanns have been. Letting Barbara Jefferies know you’d be interested is a close third.

Before I go any further, major credit goes to the organizing committee, led once again by Jefferies and consisting of Cattlemen’s Association President Kyle Beebe, Larry Zubaris, Davin Montoya and Jerry Zink. Getting everything set up so the chuck wagons can do their thing and be prepared to feed almost 500 people is a massive effort.

Almost 300 pounds of beef is just the beginning of the equation, but thanks to Sunnyside Meats, they had a quality ingredient for the main dish.

Seven wagons participated, each with their own menu and recipes in all five categories. Attendees get to choose one wagon from which to dine, and I didn’t hear anyone upset with their choice.

Prizes were given for the top three scorers in all categories, with the Top Wagon prize going to the most authentic wagon. Wagon judges were Jim Branwell, Wayne Schaaf and Sandy Cooper.

Bud Winbourn was delighted to win that honor, which this year included a great embossed Dutch oven lid proclaiming him the champion that he can use to “trash talk” his competitors at future events. Cooking with Winbourn, who is based in Cortez, were Eldon Simmons and Glen Simons. Competing under the moniker “The Rocking W Outfit,” the team won first place in meat, third place in beans and third place in potatoes.

Winbourn comes by his love of wagons honestly. His father was the steward of the Teamster’s Union in Durango and had a few wagons he had collected. Winbourn has built several wagons of his own, including the one he competed with here, and also owns a doctor’s buggy, two surreys (with a fringe on top?) and several spring wagons. He made an emotional appeal to the young folks in the audience to continue the chuck wagon tradition. (He came in second on prize money, with $700, and that didn’t hurt, either.)

Second place for Top Wagon went to Family Affairs Farm out of Ignacio, with head cook Homer Huston, and crew members Billie Huston, Russ Jones and Michelle Kroschel. (This was my choice, and the beef was delish.) Who knew chuck wagons came in makes and models? Huston’s wagon is a “Springfield No. 3,” and the La Plata County native enjoys reliving the days when chuck wagons were a necessity.

Third place for Wagon went to went to Canyon Trails Ranch and head cook Rodney Carriker. His team included Bill Vicary, Kristie Carriker and Martin Winslow. They “drive” a 1911 Weber Dame wagon with a magnificent team of Percherons. Chief and Ringo brought them over safely from McElmo Canyon south of Cortez. The Carrikers do a lot of work with young people, providing horse trips into the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and Canyonlands National Park. The Canyon Trails gang also won second place for potatoes and third place for meat, bread and dessert, sending them home with a check for $500 as the third place money getters.

Montoya Cattle Co., named for head cook Davin Montoya, with team members Teresa Montoya, Val Hobson and Dean Hobson, went home as the overall money winner with $750. They won first place for beans, potatoes and dessert and second place for meat. Davin Montoya, who is better known to most locals for his many years on the La Plata Electric Association Board, is based in Hesperus. He has competed all nine years of the event, but this is the first year he had his own team and wagon, an 1880-style ranch wagon.

Another prize winner was Harry Baxstrom’s Poverty Flats Wagon out of Bayfield, with crew members Lavenia Taylor, Vince Taylor, T.J. Taylor and Ann Harold, which had second place finishes in beans and dessert. When Baxstrom became interested in chuck wagon cooking, he first took a class in woodworking and built his own wagon before ever getting started on the food. He has competed at the national level.

The HX Chuck Wagon owned with head cook Monica Hightower (finally, a woman), and team members Farris Hightower and Willie Mitchell, came all the way from Lubbock, Texas. Very involved in preserving the cowboy heritage of the West, they won first place for bread.

And the Dos Rios Ranch Wagon from Pagosa Springs went home with second place in bread. Head cook Arno Grether and crew members Ash Tully, Cutter Stapleton and John Humphreys work out of an authentic 1880s wagon that has been so lovingly maintained, it has never needed any restoration. It’s a beauty.

Kudos to all for working so hard on a hot summer day to feed us so well.

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Enjoying their birthdays in the dog days of summer are Bob Sieger, Raymond Walker, Koltin Bassett, Stephanie Bowles, Maren Stransky, Dianne Milarch, Susan Johnson, Alice Crapo, Cheryl Birchard, GordonThomas, Evan Hening, John Priaulx, Shirley Newby, Brad Stamets, Wally Mason, Suzanne Sullivan, Doug Mason, Wanda Ollier, Mary Chapel, Nancy Peake and Debbe Speck.

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My apologies go out to Mary Orsini, who was the actual designer and donor of a necklace at the Durango Friends of the Arts’ potluck luncheon July 12, which I wrote about in my July 25th column. I gave the credit to Pat Lorenzen, who said she donated beads, but Orsini did all the heavy lifting on the necklace. It’s always important to give credit where credit’s due.

Sorry, Mary.

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Enjoying lazy summer anniversaries are Scott and Robin Southworth, Dick and Betty Perry, Renee and Preston Knight, Len and June Hahl (62 years!), Bertie and Don Brown, Robert and Shirley Newby and LaVern and Loranell Nelson (64 years!).

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