Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs If you and I were cowboys and cowgirls living in the Yampa Valley in spring 1912 instead of 2012 (and sometimes I wish we were), by this date, we would already have driven the cattle into the foothills to begin the annual shove up.
If we were lucky, the cook driving the chuck wagon was an even-tempered fellow who knew when to stop boiling the coffee and didn’t hesitate to serve his biscuits warm. Though, either of those two qualities would have made him a relative gourmet.
Early in the 20th century, the Yampa Valley still was the territory of the mythical American cowboy. Outfits like the L 7, Two Bar, Keystone and the Two Circle Bar still rounded up cattle on the Snake River east of Baggs, Wyo. Some cowboys trailed cows from Bear River to the Williams Fork, others pushed the dogies from the mouth of the Williams Fork south of Craig to Twentymile Park in the vicinity of Steamboat Springs.
Some of the best grazing was in Slater Park, up the Elk River from Steamboat, and the cowboys drove large herds south of Columbine to camp amidst the sweet grass in Trilby Flat. The next day, they drove the cattle around Pilot’s Knob and past the Deep Creek Valley to Steamboat.
If those cowboys were lucky, the guy driving the chuck wagon knew his business.
One of the best accounts of old-time camp cooks ever written is contained in the late Steamboat author John Rolfe Burroughs’ 1962 book, “Where the Old West Stayed Young.”
From the spring shove up into the mountain pastures, Burroughs wrote, until New Year’s, a cowboy’s life centered for eight or nine months on the chuck wagon.
“Almost all chuck wagon cooks were short-tempered, not without cause,” Burroughs wrote. “For one thing, rain or shine, wind, snow or sleet, their day began before dawn — usually before 3:30 — which in itself is sufficient to sour a man’s disposition.”
Burroughs described one feisty little rooster of a cook named Pat Dawson, who was known to beat a green cowhand with a stick if he failed to bring in the right mixture of sage knots and aspen kindling for the cook fires.
Dawson’s job included preparing the all-important morning meal for the cowboys, serving cold biscuits, canned tomatoes, salty bacon and sometimes freshly fried meat. But when it came to the morning coffee, he was a disaster.
“Dawson’s coffee was as vile as his disposition,” Burroughs wrote. “Pat made coffee in a five-gallon water bucket. Each morning, he tossed a couple of handfuls of freshly ground coffee beans in on top of the old grounds and added water until the proportion of liquid to solids was approximately one to one. Bitter as bile and almost as black as coal, the resulting brew was like nothing that ever had trickled down a protesting gullet before.”
So, my wish for you, as you settle in with the Sunday paper, is that someone other than Pat Dawson brewed your morning cup of Joe.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com