Pages Navigation Menu

Cocklebur Camp

Abilene and the Western Heritage Celebration!

Research for my book about chuck wagons took me to Abilene, Texas for the Western Heritage Celebration on a rainy, overcast Mother’s Day weekend. It was a huge event with vendors, roping and riding demonstrations, horse races, music, and lunch prepared by authentic chuck wagon crews. While there I had a chance to visit with the 2019 President of the American Chuck Wagon Association (ACWA) and Head Cook of Cocklebur Camp, Sam Howell, II.

The ACWA works to preserve the history of the art of cooking on open camp fires in Dutch ovens by sponsoring cook-offs, demonstrations, catering, charity events, school visits and youth cook-offs.  The wagons used are the real deal, right down to the pots, pans and utensils that would have been utilized during the late 1800s cattle drives. Sadly, their message has been restricted these days due to regulations at schools relating to food allergies and campus security. “We used to be able to visit schools and set-up for cooking demonstrations, which helped us spread the story about the wagons and their history,” said Sam.

ACWA members are dedicated to keeping the history alive.

Russell Kimble, a cook with the Cocklebur Camp, told me he enjoys the camaraderie and close knit community the ACWA brings to his weekends. “We all share and help each other out,” he said. “But it’s getting harder to find younger cooks who have the time to commit to these long weekend events.”

Sam agreed. “My daughter is an excellent chuck wagon cook, but she has a three year old.” Setting up camp, unpacking ingredients, cooking for a crowd, and packing everything back on the wagon takes long days of hard work and a huge time commitment. For the Abilene cook-off, each wagon had to prepare chicken fried steak lunches for 45. There were about 15 to 20 wagons and I believe it was a sell out crowd. The Cocklebur team WON a well-deserved third place win for their cobbler!

Sam dishes up a serving of cobbler for the judges.

“The hardest events are when we have to cook breakfast and at the same time, begin prepping for lunch,” said Russell. “It takes a much bigger cooking crew to pull that off.” Surprisingly, there are many chuck wagon outfits spread throughout the United States but many cater at smaller events, rather than participating in the regulated ACWA sponsored cook-offs.

The line formed early, around 11:30, at Cocklebur Camp and I asked the people standing next to me why they chose this wagon. “We’ve been here before,” one lady told me. “Sam has a reputation for cooking good food.”

“His steak is very tender. Always good,” another man said.

As we waited in line, we were rewarded with a funny poem about a chuck wagon cook. At straight up 12 noon, Sam introduced himself and led the prayer to bless the food.

Sam developed a love for camp cooking in the Boy Scouts. It was his father, S.W., who decided they should find a wagon and hit the road to participate in chuck wagon cook-offs sponsored by the ACWA. The wagon S.W. purchased is a “standard” made by Flint Wagon Works in Flint, Michigan. Flint Wagon Works was notable as one of the top three carriage manufacturers, before purchasing the Buick Motor Company in 1904.

Sam greets his lunch guests and serves the fried steak.

S.W. and his son Sam, formed the Cocklebur Camp Cooking Crew. Sam’s grandfather, H. B. Howell, worked his first cattle drive in 1899, trailing a herd from Alpine, Texas to the new rail-head in Sweetwater. H.B. was only 13 years old. Sam told me that he has held a fascination for Dutch oven cooking since the age of 12, and the history of the cattle drives his entire life. He regrets that he didn’t ask his grandfather more questions about the time he went up the trail.

Flat toss up over the cobbler or these lovelies, Sourdough biscuits from the Cocklebur Camp Chuck Wagon.

From the Cocklebur Camp Cookbook, here is Sam’s recipe for

PICO DE GALLO

1 onion

3 jalapenos

1 tablespoon vinegar

1 tablespoon cilantro

1 tablespoon sugar

2 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon chili powder

Chop all ingredients finely and combine. Best made a day or two in advance. Store in the refrigerator. Up to 1 1/2 tablespoon of cilantro may be use to increase flavor.

To learn more about Sam Howell II and to order his cookbook, click here. Thanks to Sam and the members of the Cocklebur Camp team for answering my questions and for that delicious lunch!

For more information about the Western Heritage Classic, click here. Put this one on your bucket list for 2020. Gate admission is only ten bucks.

The ACWA publishes a cookbook every few years, with money raised going towards scholarships. To learn more about the American Chuck Wagon Association, click here.

All photos by N. Bright

Natalie Bright is an author, blogger, speaker and aspiring photographer. Her stories and articles have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies, and she is the author of the TROUBLE IN TEXAS Series, adventure books for kids set in the Texas frontier, Ages 8-10. She also has a series of easy readers based on true stories about rescue horses. She is currently working on a book about the history of chuck wagons featuring archival photos and original chuck wagon recipes, scheduled for Fall 2020 publication.