The mesmerized onlookers lining the streets in Denver, Colorado, in 1913 were treated to a grand wild west show entourage. The crowd cheered as showman Buffalo Bill Cody proudly led his cast and crew down the thoroughfare toward the parade field where they would be performing. The lengthy caravan consisted of 181 horses, eighteen buffalo elk, donkeys, the Deadwood stagecoach, high-riding cowboys, brave Indian warriors, and a select group of women known as Cody’s American Amazons.
The ladies who made up the American Amazon act possessed a variety of talents, all of which were guaranteed to “thrill and entertain” audiences. Among the popular Amazons was the charming Goldie Griffith. Griffith was a gifted horsewoman with a flamboyant reputation. She was a steer wrestler as well as a rider. Often called a “heller in skirts,” she fascinated the public with her bronc-riding stunts. In a display of independence, Griffith boldly rode her favorite pony up the steps of Grant’s Tomb during a wild west show parade in New York. A delighted crowd wildly applauded her audacious act. Lillian Ward was another daring bronco rider with the Amazons. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Lillian learned to ride after relocating to Texas while she was in her twenties. Her equestrian skills were discovered by Cody himself. After watching her ride a particular disagreeable horse that most men refused to sit, Cody recruited her for his show.
The most famous of the Amazons was a scrappy cowgirl from the east coast named Adele Von Ohl Parker. In promotion material for his show Cody noted that Adele was a “mixture of feminine delicacy and masculine will.” Born on December 13, 1885, in Plainfield, New Jersey, she was determined to entertain audiences with her exceptional equestrian talents. Her father was a rider with the New York Dragoons, a cavalry regiment with the Union Army. Her mother and grandmother operated a riding school and trained horses. Adele and her sister and brother were among the pupils who attended the respected academy.
One of the first occasions Adele was written about in newspapers involved an encounter with a horse. She was attempting to ride a small bay bronco belonging to her brother down Park Avenue in New Jersey on Saturday evening July 18, 1903, when the animal became agitated and attempted to run away. The horse stumbled and fell and then became entangled in the harness. Passersby helped Adele free the animal from the knotted harness. The horse bucked and plunged a bit, but in the end, Adele got control and the rider and broncho headed home.
Simply saddling and riding her prized horse, Delmar from one point to another would never do for Adele. She enjoyed riding fast and performing tricks on the back of her horse in the process. Adele would jump out of the saddle and back in again while riding at high speeds. She could even stand in the saddle and hold the position when the animal was cantering. She demonstrated her trick riding skills at several horse shows at Madison Square Garden.
Adele was a favorite of horse show fans, both as an exhibitor and as a rider. Reporters referred to her as “a most charming example of the athletic girl” and followed her career religiously. “Her recent entry [in the Madison Square Garden Show] is Daisy, a white pony,” the November 15, 1904, edition of the Courier-News noted. “It is a handsome little equine, raised on the Von Ohl place. It’s gifted and lovely owner is Miss Von Ohl Parker. It stands every chance of winning a blue ribbon.
“Tomorrow Miss Von Ohl will ride a prize-winner in the combination class, for another exhibitor. She is a perfect horsewoman, and none of the horse’s good points will suffer by reason of her riding.
“While an enthusiastic believer in the doctrine of outdoors, and a steady follower of her belief, she is exceedingly prepossessing and graceful and as engaging in manner, as the most babyish of the old fashion “clinging” type of girl.
“Not only does she excel as an equestrian, but she is an expert shot with the rifle, shotgun, and revolver and during the hunting season spends much of her time, booted and short-skirted, out after game. While she has not done much trapshooting, she is interested in the sport, and may take part in the tournament of the Gun Club Saturday afternoon. The committee in charge of the shoot are exceedingly anxious to have Miss Von Ohl add to the general interest in the shoot by an appearance at the traps and have offered to put a special exhibition event on the program for a display of her skill. Miss Van Ohl, however, is not seeking notoriety and for that reason she hesitates to promise the Gun Club that she will appear in a shoot where all the other participants are men. Should she take part there is no doubt that she will make some of the crack shots in trousers work hard to equal her scores.”
In a short time, Adele’s talent grew beyond what could be included in horse shows and the trick rider and bronc buster was hired to perform at the Hippodrome in New York. Adele was billed as the “fair maid from Texas” because producers for the western show Adele was to star believed patrons would prefer seeing a girl from Texas rather than New Jersey. The April 25, 1905, edition of the Buffalo Courier described the girl equestrian in glowing terms. “She is a cowgirl with a complexion of peaches and cream, pretty as you like, with dancing black eyes…. Adele’s long suit is doing things with horses – the meaner the better. She did things in yesterday’s show that made people sit up and wonder what sort of girl this young person could be. She lariated a kicking stallion from her little pony, clapped a saddle on him before he knew what happened, and was riding him around the ring, clinging like glue, while he raved and racked and tied himself up into knots. Then she shied her sombrero into the ring, hung from the saddle with one foot in the stirrup, and caught up with the hat as easy as a cowboy.”
The riding and roping demonstration Adele offered at the Hippodrome was incorporated into the part the entertainer was playing at the theatre. She took on a comedic role in the show about an unsophisticated country girl who stays with her rich, proper relatives in the city. Laughter ensued when Adele’s character tried to teach one of her cultured cousins how to ride a horse. Adele had to pretend the horse was spooked at some point during the performance and had to ride the animal until she brought it under control. In late October 1905, that scene was to be filmed in a park near the Hippodrome. The finished product was to be shown at Nickelodeon theaters from coast to coast.
The production did not go as planned, however, and Adele nearly lost her life. The make-believe rescue of the horse became an episode fraught with danger when Adele’s skirt got caught on the pommel of the saddle and she fell sideways, her foot still in the harness. She was unable to lift herself out of the saddle and stop the horse from running. The animal was truly frightened by what was happening and had gone wild. A mounted police officer managed to overtake the horse and, leaning down, grabbed Adele, and swung her up in front of him on his own horse.
The camera captured the harrowing incident from start to finish and it was featured at Nickelodeon theatres everywhere. Patrons had no idea the drama was real. Aa a result, Adele was a horseback riding sensation long before screen stars Tom Mix or William S. Hart made their first film.
In addition to the tricks, she performed in the saddle in various comedies, Adele appeared with her horse in a handful of tragedies as well. At the conclusion of a Civil War drama, she and her ride would dive off a high platform into a pool below. Audiences erupted in applause at the daring feat. The perfect execution of the death-defying stunt earned Adele the title of “America’s Most Daring Woman Rider.”
Adele aspired to be an accomplished actress. At seventeen she was performing dramatic sketches at posh venues like the Hotel Netherwood in Plainfield. She wanted to excel on stage acting as much as she did in the saddle riding. Toward that end she attended acting classes and received voice training from reputable New York voice coaches. Just where her career would take her, she didn’t know, but she wanted to be prepared.
When Buffalo Bill Cody, arguably the most famous wild west show producer in the history of such programs, heard about Adele he hurried to hire her to work for him. Adele officially joined Buffalo Bill’s cast in the spring of 1907. The show was touring the east coast and those in the region familiar with the daring rider’s routine flocked to see her. Cody’s cast of thrill-seeking women captivated audiences. Young girls admired cowgirls like Adele – women who broke away from society’s traditional roles, jumped aboard a horse, and held their own in a predominately male profession. Adele was aware of the impact she had on those young female fans and took every opportunity to prove to them there was nothing a woman couldn’t do.
On April 13, 1908, she took to the streets of Broadway on her horse to promote the ladies in the wild west show who had saddled up and followed their dreams. Adele rode her horse down the busiest thoroughfare in New York City on her way to join her fellow female cast members waiting to perform in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
When Adele wasn’t on the road with Cody’s show, she was home performing on stage in various plays. In late spring 1908, she starred in a farce comedy entitled A Box of Monkeys. Not only did she offer a humorous monologue, but she entertained the audience singing a couple of popular songs.
New Jersey residents anxious for their star to return to Plainfield to stay for a while were thrilled to learn Adele would be heading East from Memphis at the close of her engagement with Cody’s program. Members of the press were waiting to interview her when she stepped off the Atlantic Coast Line steamer in New York on December 3, 1908.
“Traveling over 22,000 miles in thirty weeks, Miss Adele Von Ohl, retuned home yesterday, enthusiastic about her wonderful experience as a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show,” the December 4, 1908, edition of the Central New Jersey Home News reported. “After exhibiting for three weeks last May at Madison Square Garden, the show traveled through Pennsylvania, and then jumped to the Eastern States going as far north as Maine, then onto the Middle States as far as St. Louis….
“Miss Von Ohl appeared at every performance on her celebrated pony Aristocrat, who executes many wonderful stunts, including the cake walk, that of jumping three feet in the air from a standing position and many other tricks which the owner describes as of the high school variety. Everywhere both rider and animal received a great ovation.”
Among the cast members Adele met touring with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show was a bronc riding performer named James Letcher Parker. Born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on October 26, 1886, Parker was a lawyer prior to working in rodeos. The pair bonded over their mutual love of horses and travel. They married on July 29, 1909, in Kankakee County, Illinois. The Parkers remained with Cody’s show through the first year of their marriage.
In early 1911, the couple decided to join the vaudeville circuit and performed with Arizona Joe and Company in a series of wild west shows entitled A Glimpse of Prairie Life and Cheyenne Days. Replete with thrilling acts that illustrated life on the plains, Adele was billed as the “Noted Wyoming Horse Woman” and performed with her high school broncos Ditmar and Diablo. The show and the star riders were well received and critically praised from Tacoma, Washington, to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“All the audience needs to do to imagine themselves looking out of the ranch window and watching the cowboys and cowgirls in the evening frolicking with their horses, is to pay no attention to the walls and the lights, etc. of the theater,” the April 29, 1912, edition of the New York Times boasted about the wild west show.
“Those who haven’t seen the great act by Adele Von Ohl should make every effort to do so,” an article in the January 8, 1912, edition of the Press Sun-Bulletin announced.
In the summer of 1913, Adele, her husband, and the rest of the cast of Arizona Joe and Company, traveled overseas to perform for audiences in some of the most notable theatres in Europe. Not all of Adele’s time would be spent working on stage. She had a legal matter to attend to in England and if all went as planned, the Parkers expected to return to America millionaires.
Sir Benjamin Laing Stites of Dundee, a distant relative of the Von Ohl’s’, left an eight-million-dollar estate to be divided among his relatives. Adele made arrangements to meet with Sir Stites’ solicitors and lay claim to her portion of the fortune. The cowgirl actress hoped to use some of the money to produce her own wild west show.
Adele and her husband returned to New Jersey on December 27, 1913. The wild west programs had been successful and well attended. Adele not only celebrated the positive response she received from European audiences for her work, but the small fortune she inherited as well.
Between 1914 and 1916, Adele lent her talent to several shows. Now billed as the “Champion Lady Bronco Buster of the World,” she appeared at the Strand Theater on Broadway, the Bowdoin Square Theater in Boston, and the Pantages Theaters in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Theatergoers marveled at the way she handled a horse. She credited her parents for her ability to break wild horses. They taught her how to train horses and the prowess became a passion.
When the United States was contemplating entering World War I in 1916, Adele made a suggestion to government officials to put Red Cross nurses working in the field on horseback. She offered to do the training for the mission. The radical idea made the front page of newspaper across the country.
“Here is the latest new project under the sun which is being wished upon Los Angeles by a woman who has been nurse, equestrienne, and society woman, by turn,” an article in the July 13, 1916, edition of the Los Angeles Record read. “And why haven’t we thought of the plan before, you’ll all say when you know the details. The idea originated in the clever brain of Adele Von Ohl, who appears in a riding act at the Pantages this week.
“‘I think there are always many women who are living a social butterfly existence,’ said Miss Von Ohl today, ‘who would dearly love to go in for something worthwhile. The present war has awakened the spirit of doing among a number of rich women who have gone to the front in the service of the Red Cross. I think a great many more could be interested in this wonderfully human peculiarly woman’s work, if it were promoted in times of peace and in countries at peace as well as at war.
“‘…I am in favor of the Red Cross mounted brigade being organized in every city in the country. I think the women who enter it might very well be women who are interested in doing something for others.
“‘They might not only become proficient as horsewomen, but they might be equally capable of handling a machine or driving a team…. I should like to see this organization of women make itself a first aid, not only in time of war to the soldier but in time of peace to the civilian, and it could answer emergency calls, such as in accidents, fires, or riots. Often on such occasions there is grave need of a woman’s hand and a woman’s care.
“‘Miss Von Ohl so firmly believes in her plan that she took the matter up with the Out West Riding club in Los Angeles and continues her propaganda everywhere she goes.’”
The years between 1917 to 1928 were filled with stage performances, dazzling crowds with fancy and trick riding exhibitions and bronc busting demonstrations. The expert horsewoman was renowned from the Atlantic to the Pacific. When motion pictures became the rage, she was sought after by film producers wanting her to be a stunt woman in a series of western films. She worked alongside some of the most popular film stars of the day including Hoot Gibson and Buck Jones.
No matter how busy Adele was with work and her family, by this time in her life she had two daughters, she always found time to participate in horse shows. At the California Stock Horse Classic in April 1923, she rode a buckskin gelding to victory on three consecutive nights. She won first place trophies and one second place award.
Adele joined the cast of wild west entertainers with the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Show in the spring of 1928. At the age of forty-three she was still performing bold stunts on the back of a horse. She brought audiences to their feet at Madison Square Garden with tricks known as the pickup and the death drag. The pickup involved leaning low, almost sideways in the saddle to retrieve a kerchief on the floor of the arena. The death drag was a stunt where the rider hangs upside down on the side of the horse as it gallops at full speed. Adele was among the first women to perform either stunt in a show.
Shortly after Adele’s mother died in May 1928, she decided to retire from working in vaudeville, circuses, and wild west shows and turned her attention to establishing a riding school in Cleveland, Ohio. The Van Ohl Equestrian School opened for business in the fall of 1928. Adele believed Northeast Ohio was the perfect location for her school of horsemanship because according to her the Rocky River Valley there “provided the grandest riding range in the United States.” She eventually moved the school to North Olmsted, Ohio, on a six-acre parcel of land and changed the name of the learning institution to Parker’s Ranch. In addition to teaching students how to ride and sit properly in a saddle she also taught them how to swim horses. Adele’s pupils were given a chance to demonstrate what they’d learned at the school by participating in the horse shows she produced at the ranch in which the public were invited to attend.
In an interview Adele did with the Great Falls, Montana newspaper, the Great Fall Tribune in April 1965, she admitted that if she could live anywhere other than Ohio she would live in Montana. At one time she and her husband had a ranch in Sheridan, Montana, and she fell in love with the state. She told the Great Falls Tribune reporter that Cleveland was home because “the services of a horsewoman are more in demand in a heavily populated part of the country.”
For more than thirty years Adele contented herself with running the equestrienne school and reliving her days touring the United States and Europe performing with her many students.
The avid horsewoman and equestrian instructor passed away on January 21, 1966, at the age of eighty. More than three hundred of her pupils attended the funeral. She was laid to rest at the Brook Avenue Presbyterian Cemetery in North Plainfield, New Jersey.