I love looking at old photos collected on historical internet sites like KansasMemory.org. 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 Memory.org 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 scenery 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 in the 1850-1870s. 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 aimed to portray in my books… not only visual sights for the reader, but for all their senses as well. But, I have to admit, this picture says a lot without words…
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