Chugwater Chili Spices Up Town

Hometown Heroes, Iconic Communities, On the Road, People
on February 4, 2001

Five families who wanted to create jobs to keep younger residents from leaving this farming and ranching community ended up giving Chugwater, Wyo., a new cash crop—chili.

“We had several ideas, a flour mill or a bakery,’’ Terry Baker, one of the owners of Chugwater Chili Corp. recalls. Then a state Agriculture Department official suggested buying a recipe from Dave Cameron, a two-time state chili cooking champion, and selling chili.

The Chugwater Chili Corp. opened in 1986 in the town of 200, where residents had seen cattle and wheat prices drop and grocery and filling stations close as Interstate 25 routed traffic around the town.

The Browns, the Kaufmans, the Bakers, the Wilkersons, and the Voights kicked in about $2,000 each to start the enterprise.

“Our first day of business was in June when we sponsored the Chugwater Chili Cookoff,” says Baker, now a full-time employee at the mail-order company. “We did this to get name recognition and to promote ourselves.”

The company still sponsors the cookoff on the Saturday of Father’s Day weekend. Proceeds benefit nonprofit groups in town, the new community center, and the fire and ambulance service.

Jan Wilkerson, another chili company owner, says the same town meetings that produced plans for Chugwater Chili also generated support for a new community center.

“We never had one before, no place to meet, no place for the kids to go,” Wilkerson says.

Near the community center, the old Catholic church became the town’s new library. The church itself was a schoolhouse in the early 1900s that was moved from the outskirts of town in 1926. It and the old Grant Hotel, rebuilt in 1917 after it was destroyed in the 1916 Chugwater fire, are applying for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Three working cattle ranches are already on the register. The Chugwater Soda Fountain, one of the oldest soda fountains in Wyoming, still uses a counter hauled in by horse and wagon.

Chugwater Chili isn’t responsible for all this activity and historic flavor, but it is doing its part. Sales have continued to grow slowly and may top $200,000 this year, Baker says.

“Our main goal in starting the company was to create jobs for the town,” Baker says, but the product has also helped boost local pride by having the town’s name on a product shipped all across the country.

Marcelyn Brown says packaging the chili for shipment—it’s blended in Denver—provides part-time work to about 15 women.

“Everything is done by hand and this helps create the jobs,” Brown says.

The company’s main product is the Chugwater Chili blend of 12 ingredients that you add to meat, tomato sauce, and pinto beans for a rich tasting homemade pot of chili. Other products include red pepper jelly and a cookbook with recipes using company products.

Products are sold in grocery stores, specialty gourmet shops, and by mail, phone, or the Internet.

While Baker says chili hasn’t saved the town, she does see signs of new life in Chugwater.

“Some families are moving in and commuting to other towns to work,’’ Baker says, citing a new market and branch bank. Meanwhile, chili sales have grown every year, and Baker hopes and expects growth will continue.

“My dream was it would be like Hershey Chocolate, with tours and everything,’’ Baker says. While that day might be a long way off, chili has definitely helped keep the post office going.

“We almost had our post office reduce its hours due to lack of activity, but because of our huge mailing business, we were able to have the post office stay open during regular business hours,” says Viola Voight, another Chugwater Chili owner.