When John Saporito of Newport News rolled his vintage Weber wagon off its trailer and onto the Parade Ground at Fort Monroe National Monument, he was deliberately highlighting the familiar old adage that “an army marches on its stomach.”
An army’s success depends on logistics – soldiers, guns, and beans. The almost inevitable success of the Union army during the Civil War was largely achieved with superior logistics and the efficient distribution of supplies.
“We’re trying to market the wagon as a working kitchen for anybody who would be interested in requesting our services,” said John Saporito, proprietor of the Proud Hound Commissary.
Saporito envisions his vintage wagon as both a platform and a backdrop for a variety of events – wedding shoots, western shoots, or church and company picnics.
“I also cook for re-enacting units as well,” said Saporito. “If they don’t have a cook or they’re looking for someone to cook for them that weekend, I’ll provide that service as well.”
Fort Monroe National Monument recently hosted Garrison Life at Fort Monroe: A Gathering of Steel for the Peninsula Campaign, a living history event that commemorated the start of General George McClellan’s “On to Richmond” effort in the spring of 1862.
“It’s a magnificent location. When you’re here in uniform, you can just feel the ghosts,” said Saporito. “Many years ago, when Hampton or the Army was discussing base realignment, I was really anticipating that NPS would open this up for us,” he said. “And here we are with the Weber wagon. It’s a magnificent venue.”
Saporito has no doubt that his antique wagon was produced by the Weber Wagon Company in Chicago, Illinois. He’s not positive regarding the date – year – of manufacture, but he estimates that it was built in the 1870’s.
“It was produced in Chicago, Illinois, between 1840 and 1920. A wagon’s a wagon,” said Saporito. “The only thing that might be different here is that this is a post-war configuration in terms of the cabinet,” he noted. “The army had various cabinets in the backs of their wagons.”
Following the Civil War, Charles Goodnight, a rancher from Texas bought a few of the surplus wagons that the Army was selling for the purpose of establishing ranches out in Texas. Goodnight – of Goodnight-Loving Trail fame - was a Texas Ranger and served as a Confederate soldier. The Army wagons were not equipped with springs. Goodnight installed springs on the wagons he purchased.
“This is an original piece. Wagons used out on the western plains were, indeed, former Army wagons, but they just had springs installed on them,” said Saporito. “This particular piece I purchased in Texas – South Texas – about two hours from the border,” he said. “A cowboy had owned it before me, and he had used it for 15 years for cooking for his church.”
Saporito has photos of the Chicago factory where his wagon was produced. This Weber wagon found its way from the factory in Chicago to a ranch in South Texas where it eventually found its way into Saporito’s hands. The Proud Hound Commissary sign proclaims the nature of John Saporito’s elaborate exhibit.
“The wagon still has a story to tell. It’s the first time it has been out of South Texas since about 1870,” said Saporito. “I’ve had it in Pennsylvania and Tennessee.”
The cowboy that Saporito purchased the wagon from took very good care of it. He greased the axles and oiled the outside of the wagon to preserve it. He didn’t want to repaint it. It still has the original paint and the Weber logo. Saporito is content with maintaining the standard of care that the cowboy kept.
“The undercarriage is actually military. The wagon is former military. These wheels are artillery wheels,” said Saporito. “The wagon itself – the wheels and everything - are in remarkable condition. They haven’t been replaced since about 1870,” he said. “They are still rolling up and down my trailer wherever I’m going.”
Saporito’s goal this year is to showcase his Weber wagon publicly – to make it more visible. He believes a lot of folks on the East Coast have never been in contact with a chuck wagon or even heard of one. Saporito wanted to bring a Texas wagon east to tell the story of the war and the post-war soldiers who left the army and headed west.
He wants to tell the saga of the wagon’s creation and evolution and how it went from transportation logistics in the quartermaster department commissary to a wagon that served drovers and ranchers on the plains.
Proud Hound Commissary with its Weber wagon authentically illustrates the commissary side of the narrative. It makes the history tangible. Saporito adds to the visitor’s – or client’s - experience with his discussion of army logistics, transportation, and the needs of the army in terms of ammunition, beans, and bullets.
While Saporito cooks for re-enactors, at this point, he can’t cook for general public consumption, but the wagon is available for a variety of venues.
“It could be a wedding shoot or a church function or used as a backdrop for a western-themed event,” said Saporito. “It’s really going to be a traveling history exhibit. For these purposes – on request – I can go to various locations,” said Saporito. “Of course, I have a roll-out fee.”