At the age of 21, when most young women were considering more traditional roles, Ada wanted to learn how to operate a camera. Her younger sister, Lora, was interested in becoming a teacher.
The McColl family had moved to Medicine Lodge in 1876 from Iowa. By 1884 the family became unhappy with their prairie farm and decided to move to Florida. After a short time, William and Polly McColl moved their family back to Kansas and homesteaded near Lakin City in Kearny County. Here, Ada helped her father with the chores of raising cattle and farming.
In answer to their daughters’ career choices, the McColls sent Lora to school and Ada to a photographer in Garden City, where she served as an apprentice.
H. L. Wolf, who operated a photography company in Garden City, served as Ada’s mentor. Wolf also recommended the camera – an 1890 model made by the Rochester Optical Company, which Ada received from her parents in 1892. Wolf advised Ada that she should be able to purchase a good camera “for not less than $15 to do good work.”
“I think the reason she got interested in photography was because they did not see their relatives in Iowa sometimes for years,” recalled Ada’s daughter, Erma Pryor, in a letter to the Historical Society. “They would have pictures taken and send them.”
Pryor inherited Ada’s camera and gained an appreciation for the technology. “It sat on a tripod and had to be level,” Pryor said. “She had to put the plates into the camera where no light could touch them. You just didn’t touch a button and there was your picture. You had to hold a pose for 6 to 8 minutes so that is why no one ever smiled in a picture.”
In 1893, when it came time to create the famous photograph, Ada’s mother Polly operated the camera so that Ada could pose. Three-year-old Burt sat nearby on the wooden camera box. In later years he would often be mistaken for a girl. A lesser-known image, with Polly as the subject, was created at the same time.
“I asked my mother why she had her mouth open in that picture of her and the wheelbarrow full of cow chips,” Pryor recalled, “and she said she was telling her mother how to take the picture.”
With her camera, Ada created family portraits and documented the Kansas prairie. Her images depict life on nearby Kearny County farms. In her account book, Ada kept careful records of photography expenses and numbered or named all of her photographs. Since Wolf processed the photographs, he may have received credit for some of Ada’s work.
During 1893, Ada took a trip to visit relatives in Iowa. There she met her future husband, Henry J. Thiles. The couple was married in Iowa in 1895, where they raised their family.
In a letter dated March 30, 1895, Wolf told Ada that he would continue to store her photograph collection. “I have your negatives and they are not in my way. Should you want them any time will send them to you,” Wolf wrote. Apparently, Ada never claimed this collection.
“I distinctly heard Mr. Wolf tell my mother that when he sold out in Garden City and moved he had left her plates in the studio,” Pryor said, “and the man that bought him out got them.”
In the 1890s numerous copies of the cow chip image were printed and H. L. Wolf was identified as the photographer. As the mystery grew, attempts were made to identify those involved.
In 1980 the Finney County Historical Society published the image in its newsletter, The Sequoyan, and asked for help in identifying the subjects. Finally in 1984, Ada’s granddaughter, Rochelle Danner, contacted the Kansas Historical Society and provided the missing details.
Entry: McColl, Ada
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: January 2010
Date Modified: July 2012
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.