Tom Ross

Tom Ross

Tom Ross: Home, home on the range


Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or

Find more columns by Tom here.

— 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


rhys jones 5 years ago

"Bacon, frying pan, knives, forks, plates -- that's bacon. Flour, water, salt, baking powder, lard, Durch oven -- that's bread. Beans, canned truck, spuds, pepper, -- that's extrys." "Don't forget the water for potatoes. Or are you doing that little ditty to exercise your lungs?" "Son, if this is delayin' you any,:" said Emil benignly, "try to put up with it, will you? I'm considerable old maidish and set in my ways. And I can tell you something useful." "Go as far as you like." "All right! John Watterson, Junior; I have twice heard you strongly voice opinion that most men in this country do things well. It is true. We admit it. And now I am to tell you why. It is because a man in this country is always trying for two things; to be his own foreman, who says what now and next to do, and to be his own inspector, to see that before he quits he makes a good job of it. I'm inspecting; and I don't want my attention distracted. You keep still! . . . Shot gun and shells -- that's quail and rabbits. Rifle and cartridges -- that's venison. Blankets -- that's bed. Your saddle and truck -- that's under the bedsprings. Canteens, water-buckets, hobbles, ropes, nosebags -- that's sundries. Corn for horses -- that's good. Water -- that's life. That's all. Let's go! -- There! I near forgot the axle-grease!"

-- Eugene Manlove Rhodes, via Tony Hillerman "The Best of the West"


rhys jones 5 years ago

They buy their supplies at a store kept in several cars near the end of the track; and this shop was a great curiosity to me. Here is a list of the food kept and sold there to the Chinese workmen: Dried oysters, dried cuttle-fish, dried fish, sweet rice crackers, dried bamboo shoots, salted cabbage, Chinese sugar (which tasted to me very much like sorghum sugar), four kinds of dried fruits, five kinds of dessicated vegetables, vermicelli, dried sea-weed, Chinese bacon cut up into salt cutlets, dried meat of the abalona shell, pea-nut oil, dried mushrooms, tea, and rice. They buy also pork of the butcher, and on holidays, they eat poultry.

Compare this bill of fare with the beef, beans, bread-and-butter, and potatoes of the white laborer, and you will see that John has a much greater variety of food.

-- Charles Nordhoff, "They Don't Drink, Fight, or Strike" from Hillerman collection cited above


rhys jones 5 years ago

My coffee is apparently better than Pat's, leading to the prior two submissions. Thanks, Tom!!


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