The wind and the dust and the worry were relentless during the Dust Bowl years on Collins Ranch.
Polly Johnson was barely a schoolgirl, but she still recalls the fear of losing the family cattle ranch on the Eastern Plains of Colorado. In 1907, her grandfather, Charles Collins, a former trail rider, had bought the ranch out of foreclosure after seeing and dreaming about the land while driving longhorns north from Mexico to Montana. The size of the place, and their banker in Kansas City, helped the family hang on during those dismal years in the 1930s: They could sell off cattle and maintain a core herd because forage, though meager, was spread over far-reaching acres.
That Collins Ranch has stayed in her family for 112 years, through drought, economic depression, and other challenges, fills Johnson with pride. At 85 years old, she is matriarch of a family whose sixth generation – her great-grandchildren – is now living on Collins Ranch. And Johnson still lives on the home place off a country highway between Wild Horse and Kit Carson.
Through the years, the clan graduated from running longhorn steers on open range to raising a cow-calf and stocker herd of Hereford and Angus crossbred cattle. The original ranch has morphed into three distinct parts owned and managed by Johnson’s children; put together, these family operations run thousands of cattle in eastern Colorado, crossing into Kansas and Nebraska.
Here, the arid prairie gets just 15 inches of moisture in an average year. That says everything about the regularity of hardship – and the business acumen, land stewardship, determination, and good luck required to thrive.
“We’ve just been able to continue rather than selling out, which you’re inclined to do when things are bad and you’re wondering where you’re going to find pasture. It takes good management and hard work, which sounds corny,” Johnson said. “We’re very grateful for the work of previous generations, who allowed us to enjoy this ranch life, and I’m very proud of my family’s interest in continuing the ranch.”
That was never a question for her. Johnson grew up on Collins Ranch, the only child of Blanche and Don Collins, and she worked alongside the cowboys – riding, fencing, feeding, calving, branding – until enrolling at Colorado A&M to study animal husbandry. She was the first woman on the school’s Livestock Judging Team and learned evaluation skills that served her well as a rancher.
Johnson earned her animal science degree at Colorado A&M in 1955. Her maternal grandmother and mother had graduated in earlier decades; two of her four children and two of 13 grandchildren have since attended Colorado State University, making hers a singular five-generation alumni family.
For her contributions, Johnson was honored as 2008 Livestock Leader, a high-profile award conferred by the CSU Department of Animal Sciences during the National Western Stock Show in Denver. The award citation said, in part: “The Collins Ranch has been a pillar of the local community and the Colorado ranching industry as a whole. Polly is a pivotal part of this legacy. She is a pioneer for her generation, a leader of her time, and an honorable recipient.”
After college graduation, Johnson began work for the Arizona National Livestock Show in Phoenix, a well-known regional livestock event. There, she met Rogers Johnson, a young businessman from New England who worked for General Electric, then moved into the real estate division of Arizona Land and Cattle Co., the nation’s largest land owner at the time. The couple married on Collins Ranch in 1959. They returned to Phoenix, had three sons and a daughter, and in 1970 moved to Colorado to assume ownership and management of Collins Ranch.
“We grew up on the Plains, and everyone in our family really appreciates our history and wants to add to it,” Scott Johnson, the matriarch’s eldest son, said. He and his wife, Jean, are also ranchers and committed CSU alumni: He served for eight years on the Board of Governors of the Colorado State University System, and she is a member of the Ag Industry Leadership Council for the College of Agricultural Sciences.
Scott and Jean Johnson own Flying Diamond Ranch, which they formed on a large portion of the original Collins Ranch and have since expanded with a philosophy of land conservation. Polly Johnson’s daughter, Jody Buck, and her husband, Rex, own and run Wray Cattle Co., another extension of the original Collins Ranch in the northeast corner of the state. Youngest son, Toby, and his wife, Amy, now own and run the home ranch, based near Kit Carson.
Work on the Plains runs in the family’s blood. As the story goes, Polly Johnson was nicknamed the “prairie princess” for that ethic, but she calls it a myth.
“One person must have said that, and someone else repeated it. But in my opinion, I think of a princess as dainty and beautiful. I’m not that,” she said, laughing. “I just turned up to do whatever the ranch cowboys were doing. I have a love of the ranch and the area. It was fun for me. That’s what I felt growing up, and still do.”
In 1993, Johnson’s husband died of lymphoma. Health concerns now prevent her from doing physical work, yet Johnson still lives in her ranch house near Big Sandy Creek. When possible, she gets out in the pickup to see the newest calf crop on land steeped in family history.
“I love seeing cattle in the pastures,” Johnson said. “I’ll always love ranching.”