Chef of the Plains

Charlie Ferguson cooks for the biggest ranches in the West.
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Charlie Ferguson cooks for the biggest ranches in the West.
photo by Peter Robbins

It’s not a career you’ll find in any guidance counselor’s handbook, and Charlie Ferguson never intended to become a wagon cook. As a youngster growing up in Texas, he worked for many of the big ranches—even before graduating from high school.

“My whole life I enjoyed cowboying, cowboys, and chuckwagons,” Ferguson says. “I worked on ranches from California to Florida but mostly in Texas, Arizona, and Oklahoma. I saw a need for wagon cooks. There weren’t very many, so I thought I would learn the trade. I watched the wagon cooks and picked up quite a few things. I bought some Dutch ovens and started playing with it and then just kind of got into it gradually. Before long, people got to calling me to cook and not so much to cowboy. I thought, Well, I guess if God gives you a talent, you shouldn’t waste it.”

He picked up some tricks of the trade from Jimbo Humphreys on the Pitchfork Ranch in Guthrie, Texas, but was mostly self-taught.

“I go to help Haythorns, and Buster Welch, J&J Cattle Company, Spades and Tongue River,” he says, clicking of a who’s who among the big ranch outfits that still use a wagon for spring and fall works.

Ferguson has had some corporate gigs, as well, with Certified Angus Beef, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and Pace Picante Sauce. Mostly, though, he makes his living at the wagon for two weeks at a time, cooking three meals a day over a mesquite fire for 20 men and sleeping in a bedroll. A few of the outfits still use a team of horses, but most have converted to a hybrid system where the wagon is pulled by a truck; or a chuck box, and the boot and oxbows are retrofitted to an existing vehicle.

“I usually get up around 3 a.m. and the first thing you want to do is get the coffee started,” Ferguson says. “People don’t see what I do. They wake up, eat and leave to brand, come back, eat and leave again to brand more calves. When you live in camp, and if you’re moving camp every day, you have to be thinking ahead all the time. You don’t want people standing around waiting on you.

“After supper when everybody is relaxing and it’s been a good day, that’s its own reward. There’s the stereotype of a grumpy old cook and greasy food. I never get grumpy and I try to have good food. There’s a lot of planning, but when the food is good, the crew is happy and everybody is getting along good, it makes you feel like you did a good job.”