Thomas Hornsby Ferril died 15 years ago Oct. 28th, 1988 at age 92. Thomas who? Ferril was the greatest poet Colorado ever produced and one of the most significant in the nation's history. Every time you pass through the first floor rotunda of the state capitol building, his poetry surrounds you.
Tom Ferril's bones contained the history of this country down to the marrow. Robert Richards, an English professor who died an early, tragic death, wrote that history forty-five years ago in the Colorado Quarterly:
"Jonathan Ferril, Tom Ferril's great great great grandfather, emigrated from the Greenbriar region of Virginia to Kentucky during the Revolutionary War, and was killed by Shawnees at "Baughman's Defeat" near Crab Orchard in 1779. His wife and his sixteen-year-old son, John, escaped through the forest and later John fought in the Indian Wars of the "Dark and Bloody Ground."
"John Ferril's son, William, served as a chaplain with the Missouri militia and preached at Independence to the early trappers and plainsmen, who blazed the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails.
"William's son, Thomas Johnson Ferril, ran "Hornsby's and Ferril" a log-cabin furnishing store west of Lawrence, and during and after the civil war, served as chaplain of the Sixteenth Kansas Cavalry under the command of General Greenville M. Dodge.
"During the Indian Wars of 1865-66, Thomas administered to the troops and helped the wounded on a wide frontier that included Wyoming, western Kansas and Colorado.
"Thomas Ferril's son, Will Ferril, was born on the Lawrence homestead in 1855. In 1863, Quantrill and a band of about four hundred and fifty guerillas pillaged Lawrence, and Will was sent to hide and guard the horses.
"Will Ferril became curator of the Colorado Historical and Natural History Society, one-time soldier with the Colorado National Guard at Silver Cliff, and publisher of a small weekly paper, the Rocky Mountain Herald." The Will Ferril work diaries, including sketches, are in the state archives.
Tom Ferril was born Feb. 25, 1896 and lived at 2123 Downing street from 1900 until his death in 1988. The home is a Landmark for Preservation site containing Ferril's life work.
Legislators often walk unseeing through the rotunda. After all, how many times have you walked by a neighbor's house without really seeing it? But tourists visiting the state capitol building often stop to read Ferril's poetry under the murals that decorate the walls, which poem ends with "Beyond the sundown is tomorrow's wisdom. Today is going to be long, long ago."
Long, long ago was 1940 when the murals by Allen F. True, and the lettering by Pascal Quackenbush were completed. Gene Amole in a Rocky Mountain News column once wrote that the first sketches of the murals were made by Ferril in 1935 on the back of a greasy paper sack that had held hamburgers eaten at a party at Allen True's studio. True saved the sack and painted the murals. Ferril wrote the poem in one sitting.
When government money ran out, the Boettcher family provided a four figure donation. Following the last panel, there is a recognition to Charles Boettcher. The Boettcher name once dominated in Colorado business circles. Today, there is a Boettcher Foundation, Concert Hall, and Mansion in the phone book, but no claim to immortality can be greater than to be part of the rotunda.
Ferril attended East Denver Latin School, Colorado College, and served in World War 1 as a second lieutenant. After the war he became a police reporter and drama critic for two Denver papers, the last being the Rocky Mountain News.
Poets don't often make a living writing poetry and Ferril was no exception. He did full time "press agent" (his words) work for forty-two years for Great Western Sugar Company, making films and editing journals. He wrote his poetry when not at Western Sugar, publishing only five or six poems a year (often to national acclaim) plus writing weekly columns in the Herald, the paper inherited from his father, and the opening column for Harper's Magazine.
His first published book was High Passage in 1926 and his sixth and last, Anvil of Roses, came in 1983. In 1996, Fulcrum Publishing of Golden, Colo., republished a number of Ferril poems and columns in "Thomas Hornsby Ferril and the American West."
In his 1944 book "Trial by Time" Tom Ferril wrote a poem entitled "This Lake Is Mine" which begins:
This lake is mine: this popcorn gravel edge
Of water holding brass band overtures
And willow roots and carp and lilac roots,
And rumbling lightning thunderheads behind
The music-nudging rowboats and the swans;
And black behind the arc lights are the beasts.
The wolves, the stagnant bears, the city panthers,
But never a sound comes from the nodding bison
Dragging the gold-braid music through their beards."
Tom didn't know how much a prophet he was. In 1996 the lake in City Park was renamed Lake Ferril.
(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House. His friendship with Tom and Helen Ferril began in 1952.)
Copyright 2015 Jerry Kopel & David Kopel