Was Colorado the first state to have a poet laureate? It depends on who you ask. Alice Polk Hill, Colorado’s first poet laureate, was appointed by Governor Oliver Shoup on September 10, 1919. However, California’s Ina Donna Coolbrith had been appointed by her state’s governor four years earlier, in 1915. But the Library of Congress notes that California’s poet laureate was an unofficial position until 2001. So using this logic, it could be said that Colorado had the first official poet laureate.
This is the assertion that writer Ann Hafen made in her 1953 Colorado Magazine article about the history of Colorado’s poet laureates. She cites a national survey on poet laureates, to which, Hafen writes, “California reported a law for a poet laureate being considered, but not yet enacted.” Another source, the Colorado Encyclopedia, writes that Alice Polk Hill “was the prototype poet laureate for the rest of the nation as well as a newspaper reporter, music teacher, and the first female member of the Colorado Historical Society.”
Alice Polk Hill, born in Kentucky in 1854, had come to Colorado as a young bride in 1873. She developed an interest in writing, publishing the book Tales of the Colorado Pioneers in 1884. (It was later revised as Colorado Pioneers in Pictures and Story.) She was also one of the founders of the Denver Woman’s Press Club, and “was the only woman among twenty-one delegates sent to the convention to draft a Charter for the City and County of Denver, when the city was given Home Rule in 1904,” writes Hafen. In August 1919 Hill wrote to Governor Shoup suggesting the creation of a post of poet laureate, and she was appointed a month later. She only served two years, however; she died in August 1921.
The next poet laureate was Nellie Burget Miller, serving nearly thirty years, from 1923 until her death in 1952. You can read some of her poetry in the Colorado Magazine article referenced above. She was followed by Margaret Clyde Robertson of Boulder, who wrote many Colorado-themed poems including “Mistress of the Matchless Mine,” a poem about Baby Doe Tabor. Colorado’s next poet laureates were Milford E. Shields (1954-1975), Thomas Hornsby Ferril (1979-1988), Mary Crow (1996-2010), David Mason (2010-2014), and Joseph Hutchinson (2014-present).