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Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Cow Chip Lady by Linda Hubalek

I love looking at old photos collected on historical internet sites like, and Pinterest. One of the most famous photos, that of a woman gathering cow chips, depicts the typical life of a pioneer woman in many people’s minds.
Here’s this woman, stuck out on the Western Kansas plains, with nothing but the flat prairie behind her—and she’s gathering dried buffalo manure to use as fuel to cook her family’s meals.
That was life for the women homesteading on the plains with no trees for fuel. Unless you lived on a river that had trees on its banks, you were pretty much out of luck. Prairie fires kept trees from foresting the Plains before towns and farms changed the landscape. So you gathered whatever you could find to burn, and people soon found out that dried manure gave a nice slow burning heat.
However, one of the interesting internet links with this photo on the Kansas site is the story behind the staging of this picture. Yes, a young woman that wanted to be a photographer set it up. In 1893 Ada McColl posed for her camera, and her mother Polly actually took the picture featuring Ada, and her little brother Burt, (mistaken for a girl because of his clothing). You can read the whole story of the Pioneer Photographer: The Story of the Cow Chip Lady in this link (then scroll down to page 10).
I always wonder about the people and sceneries in old photos, so it was neat to find the story behind this particular one. Even though Ada staged the shot, it was a common chore for many a woman on the Kansas prairie between the 1850's to 1870's. Ada would have used her family’s cow herd’s dried manure to fill her wheelbarrow because the buffalo herds were gone from the state twenty years before this picture was taken.
But Ada gave us more than a glimpse of how the first pioneers  scrounged for buffalo chips after a herd passed through the area. She showed the view of the endless prairie in the horizon, the taste and smell of the dirt blowing on her face from the constant wind, the dry gritty feel of the dried manure on her hands, and the weight of the wheel barrow.
That’s what I always aim to portray in my pioneer books… not only visual sights for the reader, but for all their senses as well. I have to admit, this picture says a lot without words…


  1. Fascinating story behind that very famous photo!! Never had any idea More than that, I share your love of OLD photos...I've collected them for years, and as a collector of local/regional history I collect vintage and old photos and postcards. So far I've scanned over 700! thanks for sharing! Enjoyed your post.

  2. Like you, I have wondered at the staging of some of the old photographs. The story behind this one is inspiring. To stage your own photo to showcase life as you knew it was, that to me is even more precious. Thank you for sharing this information. For me it is the mountain photos. Can't get enough of those. (Smile) Doris

  3. I can't help but wonder what buffalo chips smelled like. I guess they had to wait until the stuff was all dried out. Maybe by then it just smelled like hay. It probably wasn't too different than the Celts who burned peat.
    I like the idea of a woman photographer. Staging the photograph doesn't take away the historical importance of life on the plains. Good blog, Linda.

  4. Thanks, Gail. I have lots of family photos passed down from the 1800's but not the volume you have! I also have some postcards and fun to see my ancestors' handwriting.

  5. Hi Doris, I thought the staging of this photo was ingenious. Notice how flat and bare the background was in this picture. Totally different than your favored mountains. :)

  6. Actually, Sarah, I raised bison for over a decade and love the smell of buffalo manure. Besides grass, we had fresh alfalfa growing our pasture and it gave their fresh manure a grassy sweet smell. Much, much better than cattle, and especially pigs. It's the grains fermenting in these types of animals that makes their manure smell so bad.

  7. I love how this woman staged the photo herself! Thanks for an intriguing backstory, Linda.

  8. Replies
    1. Ada was a great aunt on my Father's side. She and Henry are at rest in Washington Township Cemetary just outside of Panama Iowa. Her gravestone has her famous photo on it.