By David R. Cobb
I was born in Temecula, where my father and my uncle were in partnership and had leased the Pauba Ranch. They stocked the ranch principally with cattle, and a few hundred head of hogs. The Pauba Ranch under title was 45,000 acres, but it commanded probably 100,000 acres of fringe areas. They tried to operate the ranch to capacity, and found the best amount to carry there was from 3,500 to 4,500 head of stock. They marketed their cattle mostly in Los Angeles, shipping them by train from Temecula.
My dad and uncle used to bring in lots of cattle, especially from Texas. Occasionally they would get a train-load down in Mexico. Once in a while they would pick up a train of feeders in Utah, one and two years old. They had plenty of grazing country, so they could keep them here in the mountains for a couple of years before marketing them.
After they had brought them up to where they were almost fat cattle, often they would drive them to Calexico. I believe they would cover the ground at about fifteen miles a day; a herd of four or five hundred fat steers is not the fastest thing you’ll meet on the road. That meant eleven days and nights on the trip. Of course, the first end of the journey was through good country, until you came to the San Felipe. After that we followed the Butterfield Stage Route. We had one dry camp after leaving San Felipe, at Galleta Flat; I believe it’s now known as Bear Valley.
The next day we would stop at Jim Mason’s in Mason Valley. He had plenty of water and it was a good place to hold the cattle over night. Then we would drop down into the Carrizo Creek Valley, and the raw desert. The only good water from that point was at Vallecitos; the rest of it was bad. Between Vallecitos and Carrizo Creek was a little spring called Palm Springs, which was not adequate for a herd of stock, but sufficient for a chuck-wagon and a few riders and their horses.
Carrizo Creek was the last water we had-such as it was. The water was very brackish, and not safe to let cattle or horses drink if they were too dry. We always held the cattle over night eight miles east of Carrizo Creek, in a dry camp. What water they got they would work off on this next eight miles. That way we had no sick stock. However, in those days from Carrizo to Cameron Lake (which does not exist any more) was forty-five miles.
The vaquero in charge of the stock would start from the dry camp before sundown in the evening, drive all night, all the next day, and, with good luck, we would come into Cameron Lake the following morning at nine or ten o’clock. From Cameron Lake it was just a short stretch to Calexico where there was plenty of water and food.
As a boy I had much the same opinion of the chuck-wagon cook as anybody else, but in later years I’ve gained a profound respect for him. Often he’s reputed to be a disagreeable, ornery, contemptuous individual, but his responsibilities were many. He had a team to take care of, from four to six horses, de ending on the country he had to go through. If he had only two horses it would be easy enough, but on this trip it took six. No horses were needed to get down some of the mountains he had to travel; it took all six to get back up.
The chuck-wagon cook had to harness and unharness that team. He fed and watered them. These duties were not seen by anyone else. He had to have food for the men, and for their horses, and a barrel or two of water in dry areas. He carried the bed rolls and did the cooking. His cooking was not done at any particular time. It was done when a couple of stragglers would come in wanting something to eat. The quality of food was good for the conditions under which it was prepared. However, if you didn’t like it and wanted to complain about it, he was willing to take off the barley sack he used for an apron and give you the job. I never saw a taker.
On long trips often there were no stores, so an outfit like ours was outfitted at the ranch they started from. The cook would have a half sack of pink beans, called the Mexican pink bean. Those beans were cooked in advance very slowly, in water only with no salt, until they swelled up. They weren’t cooked right if the skins all burst open. The bean had to remain intact, because as soon as they were brought to this stage they were taken out of the vat and spread out in the sun to dry. When they were thoroughly dry they were put back in sacks.
Half a sack of beans would be enough for seven or eight men for fifteen or twenty days. These beans, half-cooked, may not sound very palatable, but they were mighty good to hungry men.
After the cook had chosen a place, unharnessed his team, straightened everything out, rustled some wood, and built a fire, he would put a batch of beans into a deep frying pan or a Dutch oven, pour water on them and keep them stirred up. He would flavor them with bacon and bacon grease, and salt and pepper. This second cooking would break them up. Another Dutch oven would have some bread in it, just water, flour, and baking powder. It was good, too.
Generally two-thirds of the men were left with the cattle while one-third came in to eat. Since they ate in shifts the cook was the last one to break camp. He had to harness up, load up, pack up, wash his dishes, or, if there wasn’t much water, wipe them out with sand. When he overtook the cattle the vaquero boss would tell him where he was going to camp the next night.
I knew a couple of excellent stock men who turned into chuckwagon cooks. Accidents happen and some of those boys were hurt to the point where they couldn’t ride any more, so they took cooks’ jobs. The cook was the king of the group. Everybody addressed him kindly, and only talked about him when his back was turned, because his job was a tough one, and he was always willing to let anyone take it over. Just because you came in to get a feed at nine or ten o’clock at night and the bread happened to be hard because it had been left in the Dutch oven too long, or the beans were dried out, was no reason for complaint. The cook didn’t hold himself responsible for your particular delicate taste.