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Polly Brinkhoff: The woman behind Whale Rock

If Hugh Everett was right, and I have parallel selves who fork every time I make a decision–somewhere, I hope one of me lives like Polly Brinkhoff.

I imagine a life with more sun, music, sweat, and trees than money. I imagine a life of self-reliance, feral family, and urgent inspiration. A difficult life, but one that never lets you forget you’re alive.

Polly was a mountain woman living in Skin Gulch, between Rist and Poudre Canyons. Without electricity or indoor plumbing from 1953 until her death in April 1999, she raised 4 kids, carved gun stocks, repaired the roof with cast off license plates, raced donkeys, chilled her food in a cave, harvested pine boughs to sell in town at Christmas, and played harmonica and guitar.

She also liked to paint, and for her everything was canvas.

“One day, she asked me to leave my door unlocked,” says Norm Cook, one of her neighbors. “When I came home, there was a landscape on the piano.”

You might have seen her work up Rist Canyon, beside a curve in the highway. There, she saw a sea creature where anyone else would have seen a cracked boulder:

Whale Rock

Whale Rock

The whale became a landmark, so that the bend in the highway and a nearby spur road are named for it. 

 Skin Gulch wasn’t far from the rock if you count miles like a mountain person. And that’s how Polly thought of herself, swearing that a remote life was the only way she could stand to live. 

from the Fort Collins Museum Archives

Brinkhoff house from the Fort Collins Museum Archives

Initially, she and her husband, Rattlesnake Jack, a WWI vet with a reputation in town, settled in the gulch as a mining claim. He died in 1970, and Polly stopped maintaining the claim. But it didn’t matter; the US Forest Service agreed not to notice, and Polly agreed  to return the land to its natural state when she moved on.

Brinkhoff painting on piano

Brinkhoff painting on piano

The Fort Collins History Archives can give you her particulars. But Norm can tell you stories and show you pictures.

Like about the time a cow broke into the house and ate dessert.

Or about her television, something she acquired late in life. It ran off a car battery, using a coat hanger for an antenna, and received one channel out of Cheyenne.

Or about how Polly died when her truck went off the edge of the Poudre Canyon, almost exactly 10 years ago. She ran off a road she must have driven for nearly 50 years.

Friends thought she was transporting a chicken that day. “But nobody ever found it,” Norm says. 

Still, it led to a hunch, and a relative checked her truck more closely the day after. He went to the impound, pulled the seat forward, and found a small shivering dog.

As for her house in Skin Gulch, to fulfill her obligation to the Forest Service, her children burned it to the ground and barricaded the access road with rocks and earth.

Polly Brinkhoff

Polly Brinkhoff carving gun stock

32 comments to Polly Brinkhoff: The woman behind Whale Rock

  • Dad used to tell us stories about Rattlesnake Jack, and I was always thrilled to see the “Skin Gulch” sign (“Pizen”) when we drove up that way.

    One channel, and it was KFBC! Eegah! They made channel 2 look good, though they had the benefit of two networks to choose from. When I was four or five, I was on the Sammy Skimmer show with Mom and her Brownie troop. The set was just plywood or fiberboard, but I didn’t care, because I was going to see Felix the Cat! In person! Then when it was time for the cartoon, they rolled out a black and white TV set. I’d like to say I learned something that day, but I continued to be a gullible sap for years afterwards.

  • Thanks so much for sharing this! I had no idea that rock had such history. I remember my friend Gary showing it to me when we drove back down the Poudre Canyon almost 20 years ago, and I figured it must’ve been college kids who had done that.

    By the way, we were at the Fort Collins Museum on the weekend, visiting the old houses there. A group of (I assumed) college students were looking around in there, and one of them commented about FC being a place where people used to grow cherries, though he wasn’t sure. I told them to check out Lost Fort Collins and see what you know about that. :)

  • lol! i’d love to see the cow’s face after snitching dessert. wonder what it was she ate. perhaps chocolate, in hopes of making chocolate milk?

  • I remember starting up the trail to Skin Gulch in the early 1980’s. There was a sign that indicated that the owner wasn’t welcoming guests. I turned back but I always had a question about who lived there. The topographic maps show there is a mine there.

    About the cherries: There were cherry orchards all around the area just to the east of Terry Lake. I think there’s an old building on Gregory road that housed a cherry canning operation. It’s now used as someone’s home. Loveland was more widely known for cherry orchards. The “Orchards Shopping Center” at 29th and Garfield was built on the site of a cherry orchard. I think the students from CSU (A&M) often picked cherries in the orchards during summers. It was not easy work, I chopped wood instead.

  • deacon bottle

    I remember driving up Skin Gulch and seeing a sign proclaiming “Beware-Mean People” Nothing could have been further from the truth. The Brinkhoffs were kind, generous people with great natural intelligence and a sense of humor that could not be matched. Their “roadsigns” had you laughing out loud by the time you reached their gate. I remember one round rock about the size of a basketball with a face painted on it and a sign that said merely “Stop-A Head”. I have cherished memories of these neat people!

  • The old cannery by Terry Lake was home to Lyman Snyder for a while. My folks knew him, but never said much about him. For a while (like 1960-3 or so), we had his grand piano in our living room at 512 Laporte, though I’ve never really known why. Being a mere tot then, I remember the living room as big enough for it, but I expect if I saw it now, I’d wonder how they got it in.

  • deacon bottle

    I remember the Old Cherry factory when it was being converted into a dwelling (approx 1966-67) It was owned by a retired army man, Carl Judson and his family. It was such an immense structure on the inside that each load of building material I delivered from a local lumber yard seemed to be swallowed up immediately. For heat, at the time, they used an old boiler so large you could stand up inside it. It had obviously been part of the Cherry factory equipment.

  • Susan

    I had never heard of Polly Brinkhoff, and I’m delighted with your story. Whale Rock, of course, is one of those landmarks we always love to see, so I’m happy to learn who painted it. Now, I’m going to have to figure out where Skin Gulch is.

  • catfc

    Kip, I love this Felix story. I’m trying to figure out a way to use comments and some off-line letters from readers to make sure nobody misses some of this priceless stuff. Like the time you got locked in the vault ….

  • katy

    HI —

    My son (4th grade) is doing a research project on Rattlesnake Jack Brinkhoff. The only problem is, we can’t find any of those great stories about him. Do you know of a source where we can find some of those stories or would you be willing to share any that you know? Thanks!

  • catfc

    I’ll tell you everything I know. But I want to see that report when he’s done, okay?


    He got his name in a bar. Everyone was tossing peanuts and trying to catch them with their mouths. Jack reached in his pocket and pulled out rattlesnake rattles and tossed and ate those.

    He played piano and fiddle. He went to France during WWI.

    He lived free up Skin Gulch by making the property a mining claim. He was required to dig 15 feet a year to maintain the claim. He would have an annual party where everybody would help dig it out.

    There’s a picture of him on my About page. And that’s him behind Polly carving gun stocks.

    My source, Norm was close to the family. I can get you in contact with him if you like.

    I seem to recall that Jack took a tooth, maybe the last one in his head, and carved it into a gun stock for Norm.

  • catfc

    Oh, and Jack is on the list of people who will have streets named after them.

    And on that piano Polly painted? There’s a little bug in the lower right hand corner that Jack added. Jack said “That’s the bug that crawled out from under a rock when you started playing piano.”

  • katy

    Thanks so much! This is turning out to be kind of fun. It would be great to be able to contact Norm.

  • john f. harmelink

    I was suprised to find this on the internet. Funny what u find when your bored. Polly was my grandma and is sadly missed.That is part of my life I prize the most. Tell Norm hello.

  • catfc

    Norm tells me you are the baby in the picture here: http://lostfortcollins.com/2009/04/11/uncle-norm/

    Nice to meet you.

  • Kati Brinkhoff Alvoprd

    also my grandparents, and I love norm!

  • Bob Nauta

    I have my own memories of Polly that I will never forget. Almost all good, but one bad. I’ll never forget making outhouses at her cabin, that’s for sure! I wish I still had one or two.

    Kate, it’s interesting, how things happen and then you go searching for info….. and I find you here!

  • tyson

    loved the story, she was my great grandma and a terrific artist, she was the most amazing woman i have ever met sweet as can be, but dont you dare rile her up, she loved her bingo, i also have two pictures i keep very safe of two of her pets, a cougar and a bear, she is actually kissing the bear

  • catfc

    I’m delighted to be hearing from Polly’s kin, and I’m glad you guys aren’t saying I misrepresented her. Would LOVE to publish Polly Kissing the Bear if you ever want to send a scan …

  • Kathy W.

    My family lived outside of LaPorte for about 40 years and Polly gave my mother a picture she had painted of an elk. I still have it. She would paint on just about anything, but this one is done on a wood background. I was probably 10 years old the first time I saw Rattlesnake Jack. It was at a livestock auction. I believe the auction barn was just north of Ft. Collins, but it has been gone a long time. He was like someone out of the western novels my mother read to we children.

    Polly was also unforgettable in look and manner. There wasn’t a person who knew her that would willingly cross her, as she had no ‘back-down’ in her.

    When I was in school at CSU I heard one of the students telling of meeting Rattlesnake Jack when his car broke down up Poudre Canyon. Jack was kind enough to stop and give him a ride. The young man found him to be very entertaining and it wasn’t until the ride was almost over that he turned to look in the back seat and found it occupied by a young cougar. I never knew whether he was just exaggerating, but, I wouldn’t say it was impossible. When it came to “table talk” in our house, the Brinkhoffs figured fairly prominently in our conversations.

  • catfc

    Kathy, Love your descriptions/memories of Polly. My guess is that the Cougar in the back seat was entirely true. If you can photograph it, I’d love to see the painting she made your mother.

  • Jane

    The cougar, was actually a mountain lion, and it’s name was poo-poo

  • catfc

    Thanks for that, Jane. I think comments like yours are exactly why I blog.

    Named Poo poo. Of course. :)

  • William

    I was on Sammy Skimmer show too. But what was the real name of him?

    How about Timmy O’Toole?

  • nisperos

    OTOH, maybe I should be asking Kip and William to tell us about the Sammy Skinner show… Was that radio or TV?KFBC Cheyenne?

    Did William perhaps mean that Sammy Skinner’s real name was Timmy O’Toole?

  • nisperos

    Now I’m blushing, because I found a whole book on Google books called “Hi there, boys and girls!: America’s local children’s TV shows” By Tim Hollis

    Sammy SkiMMer (well those letters are right next to each other on the keyboard).

    Wasn’t Timmy O’Toole its own show? And what was Captain 5?

  • catfc

    Great find Nisperos. I’m going to go look for my childhood afternoon TV host, Johnny Downs. Funny how you never forget your TV guy. I wonder if Mr. Spoons was on Sammy Skimmer too…

  • Samantha

    Polly Brinkhoff was a very very close friend of my grandparents Tom and Lynne. So much of a friend that my siblings, I, and my mom and aunt tacked a grandma to her name. I spent quite a few happy days at her cabin and remember very well her old blue pick-up. I remember the day we heard she passed… the entire family was devastated. My grandma Polly was a wonderful woman who cared deeply for the mountains she lived in. I am so happy that that this true mountain woman will be remembered not only by those who knew her, but by those who wish they had.

  • Dayna

    I’m so glad I decided to google Polly. I used to work with her and I just loved her so much. She was one of the most genuine and generous, and funniest, people I knew. My dad used to tell me stories about Jack in the bar,and Polly had some great stories about Jack and her kids. In spite of what I knew about her husband’s local fame, I was still surprised to find her story on the internet!

  • Rose Brinks

    When my oldest son Alan Dean was about 17, he worked for CSU one summer, potting plants. He met Polly then; I think she potted for several years. I had a “local Artists” store for a few months in 1977 in the America building on North College and Polly brought in art work to sell. I still have a winter scene pained on a stove lid and two red birds painted on the scapula of some animal. I visited her home many times and always felt at home.

  • John DiGiacomo

    Wow, a very interesting story and comments above. I have a painting by Polly Brinkhoff dated “84”. I googled her name and here I am. The painting is on an animal bone the shape of a whale. It is of a rustic cabin and outhouse. May have been her cabin pictured above. It has been a conversation piece displayed in my living room for years. I am so glad to finally know it’s origin and story. I wish I could have met Polly Brinkhoff.

  • Kevin Murray

    I got to know Polly, Travis, and Sally in passing. Lots of stories for the future…..One story though, that I was told a long time ago was by Jean Gaye. He lived down on Mountain Ave. with his wife Yvonne (still there). He told me they were the first to paint whale rock. He’d be the type, but it’s only heresay today…