by Nancy Christofferson
CUCHARA- In this little series of stories about the old Cuchara Camps, aka Cuchara since 1957, the subject of the late great Chuck Wagon has come up several times. The Chuck Wagon restaurant was, in the 1950s, the center of Cuchara life.
The Chuck Wagon replaced the old hotel dining room as the only eating place in Cuchara Camps. The hotel restaurant had been in use from 1908 to 1948, and had seen better days.
When John and Rae Albright purchased Cuchara Camps store, hotel, pavilion and real estate from the Albert Jameson family in 1945, big changes were on the way. The old commissary gave way to a semi-modern store, the pavilion became an inn with “modern” rooms, real estate holdings were enlarged with several land additions but decreased by many sales for new homes, and the hotel was razed.
Construction on the Chuck Wagon evidently began in the fall of 1948. It was a modest frame building with log siding, to contain a dining room and small lunch counter. The décor and furnishings were rustic, with knotty pine paneling, a huge river rock fireplace and large picture windows. Mostly, the windows afforded views of the tires of cars passing just above on Highway 111, now known as Highway 12, and the dust they raised. The tables and chairs were wooden and frankly uncomfortable. Lighting was supplied from chandeliers fashioned from old wagon wheels. Even the entrance to the café featured wagon wheels, but somehow the owners refrained from naming it the Wagon Wheel.
The new establishment was opened over the Memorial Day holiday in 1949. The services of a La Veta couple, Chuck and Laura Fouch, were secured as managers and a Mrs. Black of Liberal, Kansas, was the cook. It took absolutely no time at all for a new Camps tradition to take hold, for residents to go to church services in the brand new nondenominational chapel, then flock to the Chuck Wagon for Sunday dinner. It didn’t take too much longer for the Chambers of Commerce of La Veta and Walsenburg to schedule at least one dinner a summer there, and the local Rotary Clubs soon followed suit, as did the Walsenburg Lions Club and Huerfano County Shriners. The two Chambers ganged up on the Chuck Wagon by having a joint meeting, their first in Cuchara Camps (except for picnics), in August 1950. The next year the Rotarians and their wives of La Veta and Walsenburg did the overwhelming of Chuck Wagon staff when about 90 of them had a dinner meeting there in July which featured a program by Cuchara artist Clayton Henri Staples. For events such as these, the restaurant was closed to Camps families for casual dining.
In fact, even back in the days when the entire Camps, at the height of the summer season, could boast no more than 500 seasonal residents and visitors, the Chuck Wagon could demand a waiting line for the Sunday specialties of crispy fried chicken or chicken fried steak, followed by homemade pie ala mode.
In the summer of 1953 the proprietors tried a new gimmick – an all you can eat smorgasbord with fried chicken and Spanish meatloaf – $1.85.
The Chuck Wagon not only packed in the diners, it hosted many celebrations and activities. The old juke box played for impromptu teen gatherings, while the beloved bingo games were played there for a decade. When Lawrence Welk made one of his visits, the entire community packed into the restaurant to see and hear him, and, occasionally, let their children perform for him. Even pot luck dinners were held here.
The 1950s saw the excellent cooking of several La Vetans, Lee and Sammy Hopson, who also operated the café at the Park Lane Hotel in La Veta, and the Falk family, Elsie Wagner and Josephine Falk, often “assisted” by their husbands. Elsie’s daughter and daughter-in-law, Mary Lou Nauerth and Patty Wagner, were the popular young waitresses. Unbeknownst to most Cucharans, the lucky local school children often had Elsie as their head cook for nine months.
In the 1960s the restaurant was alternately run by Dorothy McCart, who owned the hotel across the street, and Dianne Baldwin, co-owner of the café and store. These women hired a series of solid cooks, such as Rita Galvan of La Veta, to continue the tradition of good food. In 1965, Nick Morelli of Walsenburg, owner and operator of the Little Pig Inn, took the helm. By this time the Cuchara Recreation Center had been completed so community activities had been moved there and the Chuck Wagon had some lonely evenings.
The restaurant had been enlarged, as well, with a second dining room built onto the back, or north, and a coffee shop on the east replacing the former lunch counter. It became the place for teenagers to go for an afternoon snack of French fries and a milk shake while they listened to the same 1950s tunes on the same old juke box.
The Baldwins reigned over the Chuck Wagon in the 70’s, expanding the menu to include more than just fried chicken and chicken fried steak, and, eventually, to serve wine and cocktails with one’s supper.
For the summer of 1979, the Chuck Wagon was leased out. On the morning of Monday, September 24, the place was discovered to be on fire, and before long, was just a memory as high winds and low water pressure allowed the flames to burn the building to the ground. It was the end of an era, the end of a Cuchara tradition.
The following year, The Timbers was built on the same site.