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Cowboy Coffee – The Pony Espresso

by Bennett Owen

The West wasn’t won by tea drinkers.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

It was the winter of 1863-4, one of the most brutal ever recorded in what is now Montana. In the gold rush town of Bannack, about one thousand miners, many with significant “pokes” were snowed in, running short of supplies. William A. Clark, who would later become one of America’s richest Robber Barons, seized an opportunity that was truly golden. He braved road agents, Indians and the elements, making his way to Salt Lake City, 400 miles to the south. And several weeks later he returned with a wagon stocked full of …food? Grain? Victuals? Surely you jest! A shrewd judge of his customers, Clark’s wagon was laden with booze, tobacco and…coffee (merchandise one naturally associates with Salt Lake).

"Bannack, Montana. A gold miner, one of few remaining residents of Bannack when it was the capitol of the state." Photograph by John Vachon. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Our resident expert, Cowgirl on Coffee, notes that cowhands used to drink coffee fresher than we enjoy today, since the chuck wagon cooks used green coffee beans roasted in a frying pan over a campfire. 

But in 1865, Pittsburgh grocer John Arbuckle and his brother came up with a process of glazing roasted beans so they’d keep their flavor…and soon cowboys at campfires across the west wouldn’t mount up until after they’d had their cup of  “Arbuckles.”  

Image courtesy of

The precious commodity was shipped in big wooden crates. Each package of Arbuckles contained a peppermint stick so whenever the cook needed the coffee beans ground, they’d call out, “who wants the candy?” and some cowboy with a sweet tooth would come a runnin’.

As for taste, the final product was considered strong enough if you could float a horseshoe on it. Stage Coach stations were notorious for selling “clear coffee” … an indicator that the grounds had been used one time too many.

Arbuckles is still in business and, yes, each package still contains a stick of peppermint.

Cowboy Coffee is not rocket science but there ARE several intriguing variations on the theme that we’ll introduce next week, and we will attempt to answer once and for all that vexing question of the ages…WHAT ARE THE DAMNED EGGSHELLS FOR?

Image courtesy of

In the meantime, here’s a version of Winchester 73, with just the coffee scenes spliced together. It’s nearly 12 minutes long!  Starring James Stewart and…in a supporting role…Rock Hudson, playing “Young Bull.” 

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