The Wild West of Yester-Year

Our Coffee Was a Wonderful Help
By Rachel Kovaciny

Do you drink coffee? I do. I have a cup every morning with breakfast, and sometimes another in the afternoon. I drink it black in the morning, but with flavored creamer in the afternoon if I have some on hand. I make either drip or French press coffee, but I’ve had stove top percolated coffee too, and that’s fantastic. I love the jolt coffee’s caffeine gives me, but I also enjoy its aroma and flavor. It has a comforting heartiness to it that reassures me that yes, I can tackle the day’s tasks. Coffee is here to help.


Coffee was a huge deal back in the Old West. This is something cowboy movies present with historical authenticity, in fact. That ubiquitous scene of a bunch of cowhands squatting around a campfire at night, downing coffee before it is their turn to watch the herd is not pure Hollywood fiction. And it wasn’t just cowhands and ranchers who relied on coffee. Everyone drank it. The stronger, the better. Pioneer Juliet Wells Brier credited coffee with helping her fellow travelers survive crossing Death Valley in 1849 on their way to the California gold fields. She said, “Our coffee was a wonderful help and, had that given out, I know we should have died.”

Making coffee in the 1800s was a much different process than what I do today. I buy ground coffee in resealable bags, scoop some into my electric coffee maker’s filter, and let it brew while I get breakfast on the table for my kids. Sometimes I get all fancy and buy beans I have to grind myself, but I take for granted my coffee was expertly roasted before I bought it. That was not always the case, especially not for pioneers, cowboys, ranchers, and farmers in the early days of the Old West!

Until the 1860s, they sold coffee beans green. You roasted them yourself. You took a few handfuls of beans out of their bag and roasted them in a skillet on a stove or over a campfire. You constantly stirred or shook them so they would roast evenly and not burn. One burned bean could ruin the whole batch. You’d have to start all over again. Meanwhile, people would get crabby because their coffee wasn’t ready! After roasting your beans, you ground them. I’ve used an antique coffee grinder in my family since the late 1800s. It is not an easy thing to crank. You turn a handle around and around, like you’re stirring cake batter, using your muscles to smash up the beans inside the grinder. It took me ten minutes to fill the grinder’s little drawer, enough for one good-sized pot of coffee. You couldn’t roast up a week’s worth of beans all at once to save time because they would only taste good for a day after roasting. So you had to go through the whole roasting and grinding process every day. Today, I think it’s hard to get a load of laundry started before I’ve had my coffee... but they had to roast and grind their beans before they could even drink their first cup of the day! You earned your coffee back then!

Not only did you have to roast and grind it, but the green coffee beans weren’t always readily available on the frontier. For early pioneers, especially, real coffee could be a rare and precious treat. Pioneers tried to make substitutes, like “chicory coffee” brewed from the chopped, roasted roots of the chicory plant, or from parched corn or other grains. I guess fake coffee is better than no coffee, or so they figured. In the 1860s, several technological innovations made coffee much easier to acquire and brew. First, someone created lightweight, durable paper bags for selling things like peanuts in. Second, Jabez Burns of New York patented the Burns coffee roaster in 1864, which had a mechanism that stirred and turned the beans so they roasted evenly. This allowed him to roast large quantities of coffee beans in a reliable, consistent way.

Third, John Arbuckle bought a Burns roaster and began selling already roasted beans in paper bags at the grocery stores he co-owned. He invented and patented a way to keep the roasted beans flavorful for a long time by glazing them with a mixture of eggs and sugar. This gave them a long enough shelf life he could ship them far distances after roasting and they still tasted good. Suddenly, all you needed to have a good cup of coffee anytime you wanted was a coffee grinder and a pot to boil water in! Cloth and paper bags of Arbuckle’s coffee were sold all across the US and became so popular cowboys often called their morning brew “Arbuckle’s” instead of “coffee.” You could buy Arbuckle’s coffee in one-pound bags, which made nice dish towels or curtains when emptied. You could even buy 150-pound bags, big enough to turn into aprons, sew together to form light blankets, or use as a tablecloth.

By the end of the 1800s, other brands like Folger’s and Maxwell House were competing with Arbuckle’s to provide Americans with roasted coffee beans. But for a time, Arbuckle’s coffee so dominated the market it earned the nickname “The Coffee That Won the West.” I think we can all agree, however, that coffee in general, not just one brand, was the drink that kept pioneers and cowboys on their feet and helped them settle the West.