How much fire does it take to make coffee boil?
That was the question that a new spectacle at the Pendleton Round-Up was meant to answer in September of 1925. But boiling coffee was only part of the event.
Racers in fully loaded chuck wagons, pulled by four horses, had to follow a figure-eight course around the inside of the Round-Up Arena, driving around empty barrels placed at either end of the course without knocking them over. Twice around the figure-eight, the teams then raced one lap around the track. Finally, each team had to stop, build a fire, and boil coffee. The fastest time, of course, would win the day.
The judges pondered the best kind and size of fire for the coffee portion of the race, and decided to build several different sized fires to see which would boil the most coffee the fastest. Participants in the race were allowed to watch the judges’ trials to determine for themselves what kind of fire they would use.
But there was a catch, of course: The fire must be built using materials traditionally used by a chuck wagon. No canned heat, gasoline or coal oil were permitted, although the racers were allowed to use modern matches to start their blazes.
The event was held Friday, Sept. 18 and, though no details made the East Oregonian, Art Hoegee was named the winner, with a time of 1 minute and 43 seconds.
While the chuckwagon races are no longer part of the Pendleton Round-Up, chuckwagon racing is now a popular event in Canada, with its own professional association, and an annual part of the Calgary Stampede. In its current form, each team includes a chuckwagon with a driver pulled by four horses and two or four outriders. The outriders “break camp” by throwing two tent poles and a barrel representing a camp stove into the chuckwagon, which then takes off for the figure eight. The outriders must mount their horses and catch up to the wagon, with penalties for knocking over barrels, interfering with a wagon, camp equipment not being loaded or being lost during the race, or outriders crossing the finish line too far behind their wagon. Boiling coffee is no longer a part of the event.
Three or four teams race at the same time, which creates a lot of excitement but also ups the danger factor. Horses, drivers, outriders and even spectators have been killed during chuckwagon races. The Calgary Stampede works closely with local SPCA and humane society staff to ensure the horses are fit and able to race.