by | Apr 17, 2023

by Savanna Kaiser  |

Largest chuck wagon gathering in the nation helps veterans

Every May, a parade of chuck wagons rolls down the streets of Lebanon pulled by teams of horses and mules as if they came right off the prairie. There, in the valley next to the Cowan Civic Center, nearly 30 wagons set up camp in a wide circle to cook authentic Western cuisine for thousands of hungry guests. Smoke from Dutch ovens clouds the air. The cooks love sharing a taste of the ranch life, but their ultimate goal is to serve the veterans who once served them.

“We started Wagons for Warriors 13 years ago,” says Steve Hull, a Laclede Electric Cooperative member. “It all began after my friend, Mitch Morgan, and I were invited to Fort Sam Houston in Texas to cook for the wounded warriors returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. What a humbling experience! So many of them were in bad shape. Many had lost limbs and suffered severe burns.”

The two friends, both veterans of the Vietnam War, wanted to do more to help. When they returned home to Lebanon, they decided to host an annual Memorial Day weekend cook-off to raise money for wounded warriors.

“The first year we had five wagons,” Steve says. “It didn’t take us long to realize we needed more food.” As word spread, the crowds quickly grew. Last year saw nearly 34 wagons and 3,000 people attend. Steve says it’s the largest chuck wagon gathering in the nation, and has hosted veterans from across the U.S. including Oregon, California, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Mark Day, whose family previously hosted the Starvy Creek Bluegrass Festival in Conway for many years, has been coming for more than a decade.

“I started cooking probably 15 years ago,” Mark says. “My interest in chuck wagons came out of my interest in Dutch oven cooking. It took me back to my growing up with TV shows like ‘Rawhide’ and ‘Gunsmoke’ and all the old Westerns where there was always old chuck wagons and I thought ‘Do people still do this stuff?’ ” he adds with a laugh.

His chuck wagon was originally made in Springfield in the early 20th century, and it took him a few years to fully restore it. On the day of the event, he and his wife, Kim, stir sizzling vegetables in a cast-iron skillet large enough to feed hundreds. A line of people forms in front of their wagon, eager to sample their succotash and homemade peach cobbler.

A few wagons down from them, another cowboy is cooking pot roast, potatoes, carrots and his highly-requested sourdough rolls. J.D. Baker, from Branson, travels all around the country with his chuck wagon. “I’ve cooked at The Shepherd of the Hills, living history events, weddings, cowboy churches, county fairs, you name it,” he says.

And he keeps coming back to Wagons for Warriors to cook for visitors and veterans alike. “It really is a great cause.”

“We owe veterans so much,” says Cowboy Kent Rollins, from Oklahoma. “People need to realize that we need to remember those folks who gave the ultimate sacrifice, but we also need to remember those that are still here with us. They did something we didn’t have to do. It’s a great honor to be here and fly that flag and make sure to get the point across that it’s not about us: it’s about them.”

Known for his famous cooking career, as well as his popular YouTube channel, Kent first met Steve and Mitch at a cook-off in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, years ago. “You just can’t help but love those guys,” Kent says with a smile. “They told me about this event, and I knew we had to be a part of it.”

Mitch recalls one of the wounded warriors he met years ago was a 19-year-old who had lost one arm and both legs. “He’d only been in the Army 18 months,” Mitch says. “That’s why we’re doing this.”

Since its inception in 2008, Wagons for Warriors has raised $83,000. The money has covered everything from helping veterans pay their utility bills to a $5,000 donation to the Fisher House in Columbia, which provides a temporary place to stay for families of veterans receiving medical care.

“We paid for a ramp at one veteran’s house so he could get in and out of his house,” Steve says. “We bought a service dog and paid for his training to give to a lady who was a combat medic. We were even able to contribute to the Honor Flight of the Ozarks, and we helped bring the Traveling Vietnam Memorial to town.”

The annual event is organized entirely by volunteers, with several each year coming from Fort Leonard Wood. Long before noon, people are waiting patiently to sample the fixings. If you have a ticket, you can go around to every wagon until they run out of food. Each wagon serves its own specialty. Chalkboard signs display the various menu items — everything from chicken-fried steak to biscuits and gravy to fajitas, not to mention a different dessert at every station. There’s truly something for everyone.

There’s no competition between wagons here, though, and the event is great for anyone interested in learning to cook the cowboy way.

“That’s what makes this really fun,” Steve says. “You can use a grill if you want. You don’t have to be period correct. Just come here to enjoy your friends, have a good time and help raise money for veterans in the process.”

Throughout the weekend, set for May 26-27 this year, visitors also enjoy a donation auction, Nanticoke Indian Tribe Pow Wow, chuck wagon parade and cowboy church at the wagons on Sunday. Everywhere you look there are veterans enjoying good food and conversation. You might even see a Purple Heart or Medal of Honor recipient. “It’s very cool just to breathe the same air they’re breathing, as far as I’m concerned,” Steve adds.

Even after all these years, the organizers are still amazed at the overwhelming response to Wagons for Warriors. “We can never do enough to support or pay back the debt we owe these military men and women,” Steve says, “There may not be as many wounded soldiers coming home now, thankfully, but there’s still lots of warriors in need. And that’s why we’re here.”

     To learn more about Wagons for Warriors, visit, find them on Facebook, or call Steve Hull at 417-588-5210 or Mitch Morgan at 417-288-9910.

  Kaiser is a freelance writer from Hartville.

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