Portraits from the Big Bend: Glenn Moreland, champion of chuck wagons

Glenn Moreland, Fort Davis resident and chuck wagon restoration expert, in his home where 115-year-old doors that used to hang in his workshop are now installed. The blacksmith fabricated branding irons for clients all over the country and used the salvaged wooden doors to test them out. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

FORT DAVIS — Glenn Moreland of Fort Davis’ Texas Cowboy Outfitters first became fascinated with old chuck wagons while working as a cattle inspector in Fort Bend County near Houston. 

“They were all just junk,” Glenn said of the deteriorating wagons he often encountered on ranches.

Glenn began to make deals with landowners to haul off the iconic symbols of the American West, which had been languishing in various states of disrepair, and a collection started to form.

“He came home with all these wagons he paid like $45 for, $15 for, and all of a sudden I had a bunch of wagons … in his parents’ yard and then in my yard,” said his wife Patty, who runs the business side of Texas Cowboy Outfitters — a part blacksmith, part wagon shop and catering venture the couple established in the early 1990s. 

Glenn’s wagon shop, which was constructed using materials collected from an old barn in Fort Davis, is well-kempt and showcases a completely-restored chuck wagon as well as one undergoing repairs. The shop was once home to a set of 115-year-old salvaged wooden doors, now installed in the couple’s Fort Davis home. The doors showcase branding irons Glenn fabricated for clients all over the county — before shipment, he would test out the irons on the doors. Each brand tells a unique story, said Patty. 

Hailing from generations of blacksmiths, and with years of carpentry experience under his belt building houses, Glenn has found the practice of restoring antique wagons suited to his skillset, he said. The practice also involves materials he likes working with — wood and metal. Glenn still has the first chuck wagon he ever built, which the couple used for parades and showcasing art — Glenn makes wood carvings and plays music, and Patty, too, is an artist. 

The duo used to run the Fort Davis Drug Store in the early ‘70s. The idea to do a chuck wagon cooking and catering company evolved over time, said Glenn. 

“‘Course everything out here is sparse, so you have to do a lot of things to make a living sometimes,” said Glenn. 

A fully-restored Charter Oak wagon in Glenn Moreland’s shop. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

Since its inception, Texas Cowboy Outfitters has catered events all over the Southwest, serving up chicken fried steak and beans for hungry customers. Glenn began competing in chuck wagon cooking competitions in the late ‘80s to help promote the business. While the cuisine they cook for customers isn’t always historically accurate, the chuck wagon cooking competitions involve cooking with trail-drive-era dutch ovens, skillets, spices and ingredients. 

Glenn is a member of the American Chuck Wagon Association, a nonprofit organization which seeks to preserve the heritage of the chuck wagon and outlines suggested rules for keeping chuck wagon competitions authentic. Glenn has been the recipient of numerous awards for his chuck wagon cooking and restorations. 

A range of people are fascinated by chuck wagons, said Patty — they offer a sense of what life was like during cattle drives, which primarily took place in the American West from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s.

“They’re either interested in history or they’re fascinated by the old westerns, the western culture, and they just want to enjoy it and have an experience,” said Patty. 

In addition to providing chuck wagon cooking at tri-county events, including last month’s Lonestar Cowboy Poetry gathering in Alpine, Texas Cowboy Outfitters also cooks for round ups on area ranches and caters parties of all sorts. Glenn boasts a notable client list, having fabricated or repaired historically accurate wagons and carts for Disney World, actor Tommy Lee Jones, and Angel Stadium in California, as well as local entities Marfa and Presidio County Museum and Museum of the Big Bend. 

A wagon wheel hub in Glenn Moreland’s workshop. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

Glenn went through a lot of trial and error in learning how to restore and fabricate authentic chuck wagons, he said, utilizing a thick old book featuring articles and notes on blacksmithing and carriage building. The internet has also proved to be a useful resource, said Glenn, who watches Youtube videos to learn new tricks and searches for images of wagons to determine original paint schemes.

“They didn’t have a stencil, they would hand draw. You’d have artists sitting there doing all the scrollwork and stuff on the side of these wagons that were gorgeous, but it’s hard to do,” said Patty. 

Patty said the hours the couple has poured into researching chuck wagons helps inform decisions in the wagon and blacksmith shop, and there’s a real dedication to honoring how things were done in the past. When Glenn is unable to fabricate an item himself he often orders parts from Amish wagon builders, whom he has visited with numerous times in the past. 

“The Amish have always done it. Those craftsmen are still around,” said Patty.

Glenn said he is entering into his next phase as a chuck wagon connoisseur by no longer selling his projects after they are complete. Instead, he will build another barn on their property to house his collection.  

“It hurt me to build some and then sell them. [I’ve thought,] ‘I wish I could have kept that one,’” said Glenn.

Among his collection are a John Deere chuck wagon, Peter Shutler chuck wagon — “the Cadillac of the wagons back in the day” — and a Charter Oak wagon that was prominently displayed in his freshly swept-out shop. 

The Charter Oak wagon is primarily painted dark green with orange wheels and white accents. In addition to performing structural repairs and constructions, Glenn sees to every detail of a chuck wagon restoration project, he said, including making sure newly-painted wheels have the right aesthetic. 

“I painted it, then I sanded it down and made wear marks where it would have been naturally worn and then stained it sort of antiquey so that it doesn’t look like it was freshly painted,” said Glenn. 

Glenn Moreland’s Fort Davis wagon shop, where he restores old chuck wagons back to their former glory. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

Glenn said people who purchase his chuck wagons often use them on ranches for entertaining or in chuck wagon competitions, where everything down to the rivets and screws must be historically accurate. 

Most wagons that are still around today are from the early 1900s, Glenn said. Wagons from up north tend to be better maintained because they were stored away in the winter compared to wagons down south that were left outside year round, he said. 

Glenn is currently working on a project to repair a chuck wagon that belonged to a client’s grandfather — once it has been restored, the client intends to put the newly functional wagon to work by pulling it with a team of mules. Fully restored wagons can cost up to $14,000, a price that has gone up significantly since Glenn started the business, he said, due to wagons becoming more scarce and costs of materials increasing. 

Glenn’s wagon shop consists of heirloom tools and equipment passed down to him from his grandfather. He and Patty said some younger generations are taking interest in the craft of chuck wagons, including their 13-year-old grandson, who likes to cook on the wagon with Glenn and has vowed to take over his grandfather’s blacksmithing one day. But the future of Texas Cowboy Outfitters is ultimately up in the air, Glenn said, although he has no plans to give up the trade anytime soon.

“When I get too old to do this, I’m gonna be out there working on it. As long as I can crawl out there and do something, I’m gonna be working on it,” said Glenn. “I’ll let the kids decide whether to disperse the tools or use them, if they want to keep it and just want to pick it up later on. But I can’t picture myself selling anything.”