Monday, May 16, 2016

The Buffalo Chip Lady by Linda Hubalek

Ada McColl gathtering buffalo chipsI love looking at old photos collected on historical  internet sites like 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 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...

Thanks for stopping by to enjoy today's Sweethearts of the West Blog.

Linda Hubalek


  1. Interesting post, Linda. I've often wondered what buffalo chips smelled like when burning, or cow patties for that matter. Can't imagine. We don't realize how good we've got it in the modern world.

  2. I think it's interesting how inventive people can be about keeping the home fires burning. In Ireland, people used peat for heat and cooking. Like buffalo chips, it's just recycled vegetable matter. I wonder if this kind of fire stinks.
    Interesting post, Linda, and I like the disclaimer and backstory on the picture, too.

  3. We raised bison for a dozen years, and their manure was a sweet smell due to the fresh or dried grass they ate. Cattle will have a more strong sour smelling manure, especially if they are eating grains. Either way, there's a difference between the smell of fresh versus dried manure, so I don't think the campfires with buffalo chips would smell bad.

  4. I've seen that photo before but never knew the story behind it. We had to gather cow chips in Girl Scouts and we thought we were so mistreated. ☺ Thanks for the story behind the photo.

  5. Great post, Linda. Like others, I've wondered what fragrance chips would introduce into the house. Probably, too, after a while the smell wouldn't be noticed. Thanks for the info!

  6. Very interesting, Linda. Since I, too, wrote about using the buffalo chips for fuel in one of my books, glad to know they didn't smell too bad! Have admired the photographers who captured the historic West in their pictures, especially since they had to use heavy equipment, various chemicals and time-consuming processing. I had a dark room for many years and loved the craft, but thank goodness for digital photography now!

  7. I had heard something about the "buffalo chip lady" picture being staged, but I didn't know the whole story. Thanks for sharing that, Linda. :-)

    You're right: That picture is worth more than a thousand words. I don't know about anyone else, but I can see, smell, and taste the desolation of the Kansas prairie in 1893. It's a phenomenal image, whatever its backstory.

  8. I've seen this photo but knew nothing about it. Wow. This is a bit startling, but still, it does show us something real about living on the plains. For one thing...there's nothing out there. So, settlers did have to forage and do the best they could...and often become resourceful and make use of something out of nothing.
    Excellent, Linda. I appreciate this post.


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