|Tom Ferril 2008
By Jerry Kopel
Feb. 14, 2008
Just about the time the State Capitol Building was fully occupied (but
still not completely finished) Thomas Hornsby Ferril was born.
Forty-four years later, the capitol rotunda was covered with his poetry.
His words over decades led poet Carl Sandburg to write of Ferril "You
have the great poet of the West in your midst. He is the poet of the
Rockies. And someday he will be recognized as one of the great poets of
Legislators often walk unseeing through the rotunda of the state
capitol. After all, how many times have you walked by a neighbor's house
without really seeing it? But tourists often stop to view the murals
surrounding the rotunda, the artistry and the poetry.
Ferril was born Feb. 25th, 1896 and died Oct. 27, 1988, while a revival
of the play "Ferril, Etc" was being presented at the Germinal Stage
Denver from Oct. 9 through Nov. 27th by a quintet of actors. They
recited Ferril's poetry in synchronized choral movements to a rave
review from the Denver Post drama critic, four stars out of four stars.
Tom lived his life from age four at 2123 Downing Street in Denver, which
house is a Landmark Preservation site containing Ferril's life work.
We can thank now-deceased Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole,
longtime friend of Ferril, for writing the story of how the murals and
poetry came about.
There was a party the evening of June 8, 1935 to celebrate the new
studio of artist Allen True. This was an all-night party with lots of
drinks, and knife throwing with finesse at the studio door by Ferril and
the other guests.
Along towards sunrise (said Ferril) we bogged down in a harangue about
art, everyone arguing and nobody listening."
Needing food, Allen True sent his son out for hamburgers. Ferril
"salvaged the greasy paper bag the hamburgers came in."
Ferril told the nearly somnolent group why "water was the great theme of
the West. Only True was listening..."
Then "Ferril began drawing pictures on the hamburger sack telling True
to make murals of them." True "saved the sack and painted eight
murals...in a greenhouse at City Park finishing by 1938".
Ferril had agreed to write the poetic texts, but that didn't happen
until the murals were ready. Ferril told Amole "I got up early one
morning and wrote all the poems at one sitting."
So True painted the murals, Ferril wrote the poetry, and Pascal
Quackenbush did the lettering.
Government money for the project ran out and the Claude Boettcher family
provided an additional $4,000 to $9,000. In return, the last panel is in
gratitude to Claude Boettcher, ensuring his immortality as long as the
murals last. "The job" wrote Amole "was completed in 1940".
The first panel is a 14 line introductory sonnet which begins "Here is a
land where life is written in water". This is followed by eight murals,
each above more Ferril poetry, ending with
"Beyond the sundown is tomorrow's wisdom,
Today is going to be long, long ago."
Tom Ferril's bones contained the history of the United States down to
Robert Richards, a University of Denver professor of English, and author
of the Dictionary of American Literature, traced Ferril's history back
to Jonathan Ferril, Tom's great, great, great grandfather.
Jonathan Ferril emigrated from Virginia to Kentucky during the
Revolutionary War and was killed by Shawnees in 1779. His wife and son
John , 16, escaped through a nearby forest.
Emigration, war, religion, writing, art, were all part of Tom's poetic
history. John's son William served as chaplain with the Missouri
Militia. William's son Thomas served as chaplain of the 16th Kansas
Cavalry during and after the Civil War.
Thomas' son Will became curator of the Colorado Historical Society, a
Colorado National Guard soldier, publisher of the Rocky Mountain Herald,
and city editor of the Rocky Mountain News (RMN). His work diaries,
including sketches, are in the state archives.
Will's son, Thomas, served as a second lieutenant in World War I, and
wrote six books of poetry beginning in 1926 through 1983.
My wife, Dolores, and I first met Tom and his wife, Hellie, at the Rocky
Mountain News in 1952 when all of us watched the Republican National
Convention in the RMN "TV Room". I was a copy editor and Tom had been a
police reporter and drama critic for the RMN before he went to work for
the Great Western Sugar Company for 42 years as their "press agent" a
term he liked better than "public relations director".
Often honored nationally (his essay "Football Fever According to Freud"
may still be required reading in collegiate English courses) Ferril
refused to play the literary political games necessary for national
Poets from Carl Sandburg to Robert Frost to John Ciardi, to many others,
recognized him as a great national poet.
My favorite Ferril poem was the first one I ever read, entitled
"Magenta", a conversation with a dressmaker's dummy in a Gilpin County
ghost town deep in the mountains. It is about the men who came to find
the gold and the women who came with them because they loved their
There is a passage that will always stay with me about how a miner would
bury his wife:
"A miner would dig a grave with a pick and
Often a little deeper than necessary,
And poising every shovelful of earth
An instant longer than if he were digging a grave,
And never complaining when he struck a rock;
Then he would finish, glad to have found no color."
Gilpin County? The State Planning Commission
1965 Yearbook stated: "Little Gilpin County led the world in gold
production for many years and was called 'the richest square mile on
It would be a mistake to write about Tom Ferril without mentioning Helen
Ray who became Helen Ferril in 1921. Their marriage lasted until her
death 57 years later in 1978. Tom's greatest works were, in my opinion,
certainly touched and strengthened by this marriage.
Helen Ferril, a talented satirical writer of a number of books, and
editor of the Herald and their daughter, Anne Ferril Folsom, noted
writer and illustrator, earned their own recognition.
Hopefully the genes of parents and daughter have extended to some of
their progeny, and that there will be other poets and artists in our
(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House and owns five of the
six poetry books written by Tom Ferril.)