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Chuck wagon cook-off revives Western tradition

La Plata-Archuleta Cattleman’s Association to host 20th camp-style event
Lavenia Taylor of the Poverty Flats chuck wagon checks on the progress of bread cooking during the annual La Plata-Archuleta Cattleman’s Association Chuck Wagon Cook-Off in 2016. (Durango Herald file)

Gallop into the untamed spirits of the Old West on Saturday, where the tantalizing aroma of sourdough biscuits, slow-cooked pinto beans, hearty potatoes and peach cobbler emulate the legendary cattle drive supper of the 1800s.

The annual Chuck Wagon Cook-Off, which will feature six chuck wagons at the L-J Ranch north of Bayfield, has previously taken place at the La Plata County Fairgrounds, however construction at Durango High School pushed organizers to find a new venue this year.

“This will be year 20 of putting on this Western tradition,” said Harry Baxstrom, member of the Chuck Wagon Cook-off committee. “We haven't missed a year since starting.”

Historically, the annual event has been held in conjunction with Durango Fiesta Days June 24-30. However, Baxstrom said organizers were unable to secure a suitable venue during that time.

Sponsored by the La Plata-Archuleta Cattleman’s Association, the cook-off will take place at LePlatt’s pond, located in L-J Ranch off County Road 501.

Masterful cooks will arrive with their traditional chuck wagons on Friday night and set up camp along the Los Pinos River. They will start preparing nearly 300 meals early Saturday, and the dinner bell will ring at 5 p.m.

Peach cobbler is ready to cook in a Dutch oven during last year’s chuck wagon cook-off. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

“My favorite part about the event is getting to educate people on Western tradition. (The) chuck wagon was a huge part of the Old West,” Baxstrom said.

The chuck wagon served as a mobile kitchen and was a vital element of cattle drives and frontier life during the 19th century. The head cook, also known as the “cookie,” provided hearty meals for cowboys and ranch hands on long, rugged journeys.

The chuck wagon became a central gathering point where cowboys could find camaraderie and a taste of home.

Baxstrom said the tradition continues to live on through the La Plata-Archuleta modern cook-off.

Contenders wield compact and cleverly organized chuck wagons all day Saturday, cooking delectable meals in Dutch ovens over open flames. Each meal will showcase local beef from Sunnyside Meats.

A panel of judges will score the food in one category and the authenticity of the wagons and camps in another.

“This year, I think we will be involving the public more in the judging,” Baxstrom said.

The event will include local participation, as well as wagons from the Denver area, San Luis Valley and McElmo Canyon.

Curly Cue Camp prepares to serve 300 people for the La Plata-Archuleta Cattlemen’s Association Chuck Wagon Cook-Off in 2022. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

“I met a gentleman one year that told me it was his 15th year attending the supper, he travels from Iowa every year,” Baxstrom said. “It brings a lot of folks out.”

Event organizer Barbara Jefferies said tickets are $25 per person and can be purchased at Basin Coop south of downtown Durango, the Valley Feed and Ranch Supply in Gem Village, or online at chuckwagon2023.ticketleap.com/chuckwagon/.

Proceeds are dedicated to the La Plata-Archuleta Cattleman’s Association’s scholarship fund, which supports agriculture students attending college and trade school.

The grounds will open at 10 a.m. Saturday, giving the public an opportunity to view the authentic wagons and dinner being served.

“You never see a dull face at the cook-off,” Baxstrom said. “People always go away with a smile and full stomach.”


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