Museum of Northwest Colorado: Foodies and coffee that won the West
New convenience foods are everywhere in today’s supermarkets, and some are more enticing to the busy cook than others, such as pre-packaged microwavable meals and instant soups. But the need for convenience in food preparation was nothing new to the cooks of the old West, especially the bunkhouse or range cook.
Step back 150 years ago, and the big purchase for “foodies” of that day was the coffee bean. Unfortunately, all java connoisseurs were forced to roast their own beans, resulting in a variety of outcomes. Whether using a skillet or some other device, evenly roasting the imported green beans over a woodstove (much less a cowcamp’s open fire) was a dicey operation, and it took concentration and time to keep from burning even one bean (which then flavored and ruined the entire batch). If your “financials’ did not allow for waste, you drank the bad coffee or went without.
All that changed in 1865 when John Arbuckle, who ran a grocery outfit in Pittsburgh, devised a way to coat the coffee beans following the roasting process, ensuring that the flavor was locked in until the beans were ground. He niftily packaged his beans in one-pound paper bags, and after including a stick of peppermint to sweeten the deal, he sold the whole shebang for 20 cents. His innovation revolutionized the world for coffee drinkers (of which there were many), and rightfully laid claim to the advertising boast that his Arbuckle’s Ariosa Roast was the coffee that “Won the West.”
Arbuckle’s coffee soon caught on as avidly with the isolated chuck wagon cooks in the remote hills of the West as it did with the city dwellers of the nation. The little one-pound packs were shipped 100 pounds to a crate and traveled by railroad, pack train and wagons to every conceivable nook and cranny of the sage land. Range cooks were thrilled to be relieved of the tedious task of roasting coffee beans, and that little stick of peppermint was the only incentive needed to induce to a carb-starved cowboy to help out with grinding the coffee beans for the next meal.
Arbuckle’s coffee became so commonplace that on the range, the request for a cup of coffee was usually phrased “How about that Arbuckle?” Much as we use the trade name “Kleenex” interchangeably for tissues, so the word “Arbuckle” was synonymous with coffee through much of the late 1800s into the new century. The crates in which the coffee was shipped also became commonplace and were most always “re-purposed” after they were emptied out. Those Arbuckle crates, made of solid Maine pine, could be found serving as merchandising shelving, household storage and more.
The Museum of Northwest Colorado in downtown Craig recently came into possession of a lid from an Arbuckle crate, which is now on exhibit in the Cowboy & Gunfighter Room. Come in and take a look, and cogitate about the lowly (but highly prized) coffee bean and an enterprising young man whose product did indeed help “win the West.” The museum is open Monday through Saturday and is filled with an abundance of delightful little stories about our heritage and history. Whether it is the story of the circus lion-tamer turned homesteader on Black Mountain or the golden-haired advertising dandy turned Wyoming cowboy, the exhibits in the museum will entertain and inform. And like Arbuckle’s little peppermint stick that sweetened the deal, the museum offers a sweet deal in free admission to entice you further. See you soon, and meanwhile, “How about that Arbuckle?”