"There are many women leading a butterfly's existence who would be glad to go into something worthwhile." – Adele von Ohl Parker, Los Angeles, California. Summer, 1916.
As World War I raged across battlefields in Europe, Adele von Ohl Parker, nationally known daredevil rider, waged a campaign in the United States for the creation of a mounted Red Cross to be composed entirely of upper-class horsewomen. Conscious of the limitations that society placed upon women like herself in the early twentieth century, she believed that women would rally around her campaign. She wasn't wrong, but before such a mounted Red Cross could be successfully organized here, World War I came to an end.
Adele Ohl was born on December 13, 1885, into an upper-class family in Plainfield, New Jersey. Her maternal Scottish ancestors had operated horse farms there since the early eighteenth century, and were said to have supplied horses to George Washington during the American Revolution. Adele grew up around horses and learned to ride them expertly at a riding academy in Plainfield that was owned by her grandmother and managed by her mother. When she was still a teenager, she began doing daredevil tricks with her horse Delmar. In 1905, after adding back onto her last name the "von" that her paternal German ancestors had dropped when they came to America, nineteen year old Adele von Ohl appeared at the Hippodrome Theater in New York City. There, riding Delmar, she performed an act in which they plunged off a high platform into a tank of water below. The act caught the attention of the East Coast media, who were quick to label her one of America's most daring woman riders, also noting that Adele did not ride a horse sidesaddle like most women then did, but instead rode astride her horse as men did.
Adele von Ohl's act also caught the attention of William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, who hired her in 1907 to perform tricks on horseback for his Wild West extravaganza. She toured the country with Buffalo Bill's troupe from 1907 to 1909. In that latter year, she married James Letcher Parker, a bronco rider also performing with Cody's show. They both left Cody's Wild West for the Vaudeville circuit, appearing over the course of the next two decades in acts with "Wild West" themes, like "Cheyenne Days," "Texas Round-up," and "Rodeo Days." During this period, Adele Parker also appeared with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and worked for several years as a stunt woman in Hollywood, appearing in early movies with cowboy star Tom Mix. In the fall of 1928, Parker traveled to Cleveland, where she was scheduled to appear at Keith's Palace Theater. Her show, however, was canceled and, as she later said, "I was stranded in Cleveland with two horses and seven cents." Perhaps she recognized that Vaudeville was coming to an end, and perhaps she also recognized that, at age 42, her daredevil riding days were coming to an end too. Whatever the reason, she approached A. Z. Baker, President of the Union Stockyards in Cleveland, where her horses were being stabled, and asked him if she could perform an exhibition of daredevil riding at the livestock show that was being held that Fall in downtown Cleveland at Public Hall. She then used the exhibition to generate interest in a new riding school – the Von Ohl School of Horsemanship – that she decided she would open in Cleveland, a city she believed held promise to become an important equestrian center in the Midwest. And thus the stage was set for the beginning of the second act of her equestrian career.
During the years 1928 and 1929, Parker sited her new riding school at various places in the Cleveland area, including the new Equestrium built by the Union Stockyards at 6800 Denison Avenue in Cleveland, and the Armory of Troop A, 107th Cavalry of the Ohio National Guard located in Shaker Heights. Neither place turned out to be a good fit, and, in the fall of 1929, she moved her school to North Olmsted, Ohio, where she rented six acres of land on the Henry Giesel farm. (A decade later, she would purchase the land from the Giesel family.) Located on Mastick Road, just west of Clague Road, it had bridle paths that led down into Cleveland Metroparks Rocky River Reservation, making it an ideal location for a riding school.
It is not clear exactly when or why the Von Ohl School of Horsemanship became Parker's Ranch, but the "when" was certainly no later than by May 23, 1930, when a short article about a YWCA horse riding event there appeared in the Plain Dealer. The "why" for the name change may have been a nod to her husband who helped her start the ranch in North Olmsted, but then soon thereafter departed. The two were divorced several years later. Following his departure, Adele's brother Percy, a dog trainer, and her sister Winnonah ("Nona"), an animal trainer and talented horseback rider in her own right, moved onto Parker's Ranch to assist their sister in its operation. Over time the ranch grew to have some 34 buildings, including four barns which stabled from 60-70 horses, half of whom were owned by the ranch. The ranch also became home to an assortment of other animals, including cows, donkeys, goats, chickens, rabbits and pomeranian dogs. According to the 1940 census, the ranch also came to employ a staff of at least ten persons, ranging from secretaries to cooks to handymen to stablemen. The Plain Dealer, in an article that appeared on June 22, 1930, called it a "dude ranch in industrial Ohio."
While Parker's Ranch was founded as a riding school, it soon became much more than that as Adele Parker initiated programs and events at the ranch that focused on children, including disabled children. Shortly after opening Parker's Ranch, Adele started a day camp for children. Day camp was inspired by a program she had developed for kids in Los Angeles a decade earlier called "Junior Rough Riders." Held every summer for many years, day camp at Parker's Ranch was four days each week for an eight-week session. At day camp, children were not only taught how to ride horses, but also to love horses and how to care for them. Along the way, they were also taught a lot of life lessons from Parker and her staff. She also instituted a number of annual events on the ranch, which gave children opportunities to perform on horseback in front of friends, families and neighbors. One of those events was the annual Mother's Day Show. Another was the Annual Horse Show. And, starting in 1959, the fiftieth anniversary of her last year with Buffalo Bill Cody, Parker began a Wild West show of her own, modeling it after Cody's. Proceeds from the annual Wild West shows, as well as from other events on the ranch, went to the Society for Crippled Children, today known as Easter Seals.
In addition to the programs, events and other activities at Parker's Ranch, Adele Parker also found time to pursue other passions. She was a talented sketch artist and oil painter. She also was, in 1961, one of the founding trustees of the Olmsted Historical Society. Parker continued to appear at Cleveland area events on horseback well into her seventies, performing at her fifth annual Wild West Show in 1963 when she was 77 years old. When Parker died at her ranch on January 21, 1966 from heart failure, the papers reported that she had no surviving family. And yet they also noted that more than 300 area children had attended her funeral. These children were part of the estimated 10,000 children in Cuyahoga, Medina and Summit Counties that she taught to ride at Parker's Ranch during the Second Act of her equestrian career. In a real sense, they were her surviving family as well as her legacy in northeast Ohio.