Polly Johnson was 5 years old during a community celebration in Summer 1939, when she rode alongside her grandfather, Charles Collins, founder of Collins Ranch near Kit Carson, Colo. "I was annoyed he was holding my horse by a lead rope instead of letting me ride by myself," she recalls. After graduating from Kit Carson School, Johnson attended Colorado A&M to study animal husbandry.
The following story was first published in the summer of 2016 in our very first magazine entitled True West. It is based on a lengthy interview conducted with Polly Collins Johnson, matron of the Collins Ranch. The author is Priscilla Waggoner, former editor of the Kiowa County Independent.
People who visit the Collins Ranch frequently describe it as an oasis, and the description is highly fitting. Located west of Kit Carson off of Highway 40, the ranch is most often identified by the trees lining the road that leads to the house. But what lines the road pales in comparison to what waits at the end of the road: a striking collection of several houses and outbuildings, some 100 years old and some new additions, that integrate past and present in a symphony of color, design, style and function.
The main house, which is adobe and more than 100 years old, has a distinctly Mexican flair. Beautiful gardens, a red tiled roof, shaded courtyard and stunning flashes of color create a dramatic but warm and welcoming environment. It has recently become the house of Toby, Polly Collins Johnson’s son, his wife, Amy, and their children. Several years ago, Toby and his brother, Scott, who also lives with his family on the ranch just a few miles away, took over operation of the ranch.
Just on the other side of the original bunkhouse, which is still intact, is the house of Polly Collins Johnson, the matriarch of the ranch. Upon entering, the first sight is of an old photo on the wall, brown and fading with age, but still clear. “That was my grandfather’s first herd,” Polly says, leading the way to the rest of the house. While the house is indeed a beautiful mixture of adobe, tile and stone, it’s more than just architecturally appealing. This is a house that celebrates family and tradition and history. Bookshelves are crowded with photos that capture people going from youngsters to adults with youngsters of their own. Original paintings of cattle, horses and cowboys—the work of a great-uncle who was an artist for the Denver Post in the 40s—hang from the walls. An old rawhide hangs by the door; on the skin is a drawing of horses tied up outside the bunk house, made by a ranch hand using just an old fire poker. But the most telling feature of the house and the woman who lives there are its windows. They all face out toward the ranch, displaying an extraordinary living mural of grasses and trees and windmills and old barns and horses. And all of the windows are open.
Upon first coming to the ranch, it’s only natural to wonder who is responsible for the beauty of the place, but after spending just a few minutes with the woman who has lived on the ranch most of her life, the answer becomes obvious. The personality of the ranch is reflected in—and a reflection of—the personality of the woman who is its owner.
At 82, Polly Collins Johnson displays those timeless characteristics so frequently found in successful women. She is impeccable in both appearance and manner, articulate, gracious. But there is also something about her that is reminiscent of a different age and an earlier time, when the strength of a woman was most often found in her quiet but strong, sober resilience and frank determination to do what was needed. It’s no stretch to say Polly Collins Johnson is the quintessential Western woman.
In a way, Polly personifies the centuries old debate of nature versus nurture. As the only child of Don and Blanche Collins, she spent her childhood on horseback at the side of her father, learning the intricacies of running a ranch, managing 40,000 acres of grassland and raising cattle. Even when she entered Kit Carson High School and other girls were taking Home Economics and curling their hair, Polly, much to her mother’s chagrin, was out working the herd and checking fences. Of course, it would be that way; the family business was ranching, and ranching is blind to gender when it comes to work. But Polly also carries within her the blood of her grandfather, Charles Collins, who started the Collins Ranch. And Charles Collins was not your average man.
In today’s terms, Charles Collins—or “Charlie”, as he was called—would probably be described as “a man’s man”. Born in 1869 and originally from Baxter Springs, Kansas, he left home at the age of 14 to hire on to drive cattle from Mexico up through Texas to Abilene and on to Montana for pasture. Charlie went on cattle drives until his early 30s, becoming not only very familiar with working cattle but with the country through which he traveled.
In the late 1890s, Charlie was on cattle drives that brought him through this area, and he was especially drawn to the country he saw. He was no romantic. “Whenever they trailed through here, they watered their cattle on Rush Creek and up in this area,” Polly says. “So he was well aware of the water situation.” But something in the land caught his eye and kept his attention no matter where he went.
During this time, Charlie married a young woman from his hometown named Blanche. They had three children: Georgia, Pauline and Don. Don, Polly’s father, was actually named Don Carlos.
“Charlie had named him Spanish for Mr. Charles,” Polly says, with a smile. “He liked the flavor of things from Mexico.”
When Don was about a week old, Blanche got sick and died shortly thereafter from urethra poisoning, leaving Charlie with three young children. “Charlie had become a cattle buyer of sorts,” Polly explains. “It required him to travel, and he couldn’t do that with three young children. So he left them with their grandmother in Baxter Springs.” This was their life for roughly the next four years.
One day, Charlie got word that one of the ranches in the area was in foreclosure by a bank in Kansas City and might be available. He immediately knew the ranch they were talking about. He remembered it distinctly. So, he went to Kansas City, talked to the bank and took out a loan. The place would need work; it wasn’t in the best of shape, and what buildings there were needed a great deal of work. But Charlie was a man of vision, and he had a vision for this land. He bought the ranch in 1905.
He began building his own herd and soon had plans for a house. Using as a model the adobe houses he’d seen and loved in Mexico, he hired men from Mexico to start construction. The clay around the ranch worked perfectly for making the adobe bricks, and, each time Charlie came home, he paced off 16 paces for each room. Slowly, the house began to take shape, 16 paces at a time.
When Polly’s father, Don, was about 4 years old, Charlie remarried a woman from Eureka, Kansas who worked in a bank. She’d never been married before. “So, he brought her—“, Polly stops and laughs. “—Or sent her, I guess, out here on the train through Eads, and it stopped in Galatea. It was a hot day in July. And the wind was blowing. Not a tree in sight and everything was brown. And she’d come from that wonderful southeast Kansas where it’s all green and full of vegetation. Can you imagine…?” She smiles and shakes her head before continuing on. “So, my grandfather had sent some cowboys from the ranch to get her which was, I guess, about twenty or twenty five miles. Just pasture all the way. No roads or anything.” Again, she chuckles at the thought of it.
“There she is, a new bride with these three little kids. Just a few furnishings and so forth. And here they come with their buckboards. Across the plains. So, they loaded her up and started back, and I guess that itself was kind of an adventure.” She pauses for just a brief moment. As she tells the story, she looks out the window. “They came up down that bank over there on the Big Sandy, and that was her first sight of the ranch. My grandpa had at least planted a few trees and had started building the house. They hadn’t gotten very far...but he’d put up a tent. A large tent, right over there under that tree. Of course, it was summer, which can be either good or bad…” She chuckles again, a true chuckle that sees the humor but is also kind. “I guess they built enough that they could move in in the fall.”
She looks away from the window, her eyes alive with the memories. It’s a good bet that Polly would not have minded one single bit staying in a tent on a young ranch on the prairie in the summer. “She fell in love with it out here. She really loved the prairie. And she was a good stepmother. She really got involved…she knew everything that was going on with the ranch, like any rancher’s wife. And my grandpa would come home for a few days and then he’d head back out. He’d come in on the train that stopped right up there at Sorrento. And so, they ended up living here, all those years.”
During these years, the Collins Ranch gained the reputation for being one of the most notable in the region. Charlie ran steers from Texas, Arizona and Mexico, no doubt somehow related to Charlie’s earlier life. At the height of its operation then, as many as 8,000 steers could be seen thundering across the prairie, a ranch as big as the dreams of the man who started it.
History will repeat itself, and so it did with Polly’s mother and father. As Polly tells it, her mother attended Colorado State University and got a degree in Home Economics. (She laughs somewhat when she says that, implying some things are most definitely not genetic.) Then, in 1928, Polly’s mother and two other teachers came to Kit Carson to teach.
“It was another terribly hot day in August,” Polly begins. “Everything was that gray, that colorless gray that it can be sometimes. No flowers. The wind was blowing. And, of course, not a single tree to be seen anywhere. And she came from Fort Collins that has beautiful trees.” A smile comes to Polly’s lips. This story seems to be close to her heart. “So, my dad and a few other bachelors came down to meet the train and see the new teachers who’d come to town. I think Mother dated someone else before she dated him. But they eventually dated and then married at Christmas.” She laughs again. “But, just like with grandpa and his wife, my mother looked around and thought, ‘I’m just going to get on the next train out of here. This place is awful.’ And, of course, she fell in love with it and lived here with Dad for a long time.”
When asked about the size of the ranch and if it changed over the generations, Polly answers that it’s difficult to know what the original size of the Collins Ranch actually was. At the time Charlie Collins bought the property, the entire area was open range. “They say it was open range pretty much from here to Pueblo,” Polly explains. “They’d just set their cattle loose and, in the fall, gather them up and sort them out.”
The fencing came later with the arrival of settlers; she’s thinking around 1915 or ’16. “There were quite a number of settlers around here,” she explains. “But water was always a problem. Always. Of course, we couldn’t do anything to help with crops, but for domestic water, my grandfather always let them come here. And they’d come with their wagons and buckets or tanks or something that they’d fill up and take with them.” She thinks for a moment. “That’s why my grandpa wanted this land so much. Because of the Big Sandy. He knew, if nothing else, they’d at least have the trees.”
Polly says she has memories of there being water in the Big Sandy, at least every other year, once in the spring, when there would be a good rain. “Anytime it rained up in Limon or Hugo, the rain would come down and we’d see water. In some places, the river is so wide that it doesn’t really have any water standing. But when we’d get those big rains…yes, I sure remember those times. They really helped the trees survive.”
The subject of water inevitably brings up the subject of drought.
“This last drought was really tough. Of course, we had hardly any cattle left here. We’d sold off quite a lot of them. But we had to get pasture in the mountains. And then, in the winter, we took them to Paxton for corn stalks. They survived but it was hard. Of course, it was expensive. But it was also inconvenient. We had to check on them all the time. And we had to leave them there a lot, a good part of each year. And, of course, you worry about them…and about the storms.”
Polly is the third out of five generations to have graduated from Colorado State University (previously known as Colorado A&M). They are the only family to have that distinction, which is quite an honor, and she currently serves on the CSU Alumni Board.
However, “a dollar will get you ten”, as they say, that that is the only thing where Polly came in third in her life. In college, she was with the Livestock Club, Block and Bridle Club and the Delta Delta Delta Sorority. She was also the first woman to be a judge on the Livestock’s Judging Team. After she graduated, she was employed by the Arizona National Livestock Show in Phoenix, Arizona, a position rarely filled by a woman. That’s where she met Rogers Johnson, whom she married on the Collins Ranch in 1959. They then returned to Phoenix where they gave birth to their children Scott, Don, Jody and Toby.
In 1970, Polly got a phone call from her father. He had emphysema and was unable to continue running the ranch. As the only child, the question he had for Polly was clear. It must have been in his mind at least once or twice as the two of them rode side by side across the ranch when she was young. It might have occurred to her at some time, too; being the only heir casts a light on a number of different things. That day he called, who knows if he ever asked the question. Who knows if he even had to.
Before long, Polly, Rogers and their children returned to live on the ranch where she assumed the position of owner, manager and president of Collins Ranch. With Rogers’ assistance and support, she continued in that position for more than 40 years. Rogers passed away in 2012. Polly has only recently turned over operation to her sons.
A person cannot be in Polly’s presence for long before realizing that she is not a woman of pretense. Ask her about what it was like to be taught to run a ranch when few, if any, girls of her age were doing anything similar, and she’ll talk about the joy of horseback riding with her father. Talk to her about being the first female judge of the Livestock Judging Team, and she’ll talk about the confidence in knowing what she should know and proving herself capable, as any man would have to do. Ask her about the difficulty of bringing the ranch through years of drought or blizzards, times when beef prices were sinking, times when interest rates were soaring, times when it seemed economic times just weren’t getting better and you’ll get a direct, thoughtful answer that is void of feigned modesty or inflated position.
Sitting in her living room, listening to her stories as the history comes alive in her face and her words, I ask her the one question I truly don’t know how she will answer. Why and how is she so strong?
She thinks for a moment before answering. “I think it was my grandfather. They say he was tough—that he could do anything and withstand anything. I think I have his genes.”
That most certainly makes sense. She is of her grandfather’s blood. But watching her look out the window and the expectant, half smile she has on her face, I would also have to say, just as she is of his blood, she is also the grass, the water, the sky, the horses, the cattle, the Big Sandy.
Polly Collins Johnson is, in so many ways, of the Collins Ranch. And she probably always will be.