Alice Hale Hill (1840–1908) was a Denver philanthropist who helped lead institutions such as the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Denver Free Kindergarten Association. Wife of Nathaniel P. Hill, a smelting entrepreneur and US senator, she created the first free kindergarten system in the state, helping to improve early education for all children regardless of family circumstances. She also helped lead the women’s suffrage movement that resulted in female enfranchisement in 1893 in Colorado.
Alice Hale was born on January 19, 1840, in Providence, Rhode Island, the oldest of Isaac Hale and Harriet Johnson Hale’s seven children. Little is known about her early life, but her family was locally prominent as descendants of Nathan Hale, a Revolutionary War hero. Her father, Isaac, was a watchmaker and jeweler by trade, and both parents were influential forces in the community and in the Baptist Church. Politically progressive, they actively supported female preachers and were outspoken abolitionists. Harriet Hale served as recording secretary for the Providence Female Anti-Slavery Society in the 1840s.
On July 26, 1860, Alice Hale married Nathaniel P. Hill, a young chemistry professor at Brown University. They probably met at a church or social event in Providence. In 1862 they had a son, Crawford, and in 1864 a daughter, Isabel, before moving west to Colorado Territory in 1867. There, Nathaniel Hill established the territory’s first successful smelter in the mining town of Black Hawk, where the couple’s third child, Gertrude, was born in 1869. Two years later, Hill was elected mayor, and Alice Hill served as first lady of Black Hawk, becoming well known in Gilpin County for her kindness and hospitality.
In 1879 Nathaniel Hill relocated his business and family from Black Hawk to Denver, where he and Alice quickly became arbiters of Denver’s elite social scene. At Fourteenth and Welton Streets, in the city’s first upper-crust neighborhood, the Hills built a mansion in the style of a French chateau, with three stories and twenty rooms. Their wealthy neighbors included the families of former governor John Evans, Rocky Mountain News publisher William Byers, and cattle king John Wesley Iliff. When Nathaniel served in the US Senate from 1879 to 1885, Alice maintained homes in Washington and Colorado, making both centers of hospitality and entertainment.
In the 1880s, Alice Hill became involved with the woman’s club movement and various philanthropic organizations in Denver. Around 1880 she became an active member of the Ladies’ Relief Society, the state’s oldest charitable institution, which focused on providing care, shelter, and food for the needy. Hill eventually served as the group’s vice-president.
In 1889 Hill began serving as the vice-regent of Colorado for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, a group devoted to preserving George Washington’s Virginia plantation. She held the position until her death.
Hill also helped establish the Denver Free Kindergarten Association, whose first meeting was held at her home on October 23, 1889. The organization provided free education to children ages 2.5 to 6 from working-class families who could not afford childcare or private instruction. Hill served as the organization’s president for nine years before it was absorbed into the Colorado public school system.
In 1893, with women’s suffrage on the ballot in Colorado, Hill set her sights on propelling female enfranchisement. She helped circulate petitions throughout the state and was one of 100 women who established the City League of Denver, an organization that worked with the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association of Colorado to garner support at the local level. She served as treasurer for the equal suffrage association’s Arapahoe branch and became a charter member of the Woman’s Club of Denver, which hosted suffrage events. Hill also passed her passion for female enfranchisement to her children; her daughter, Isabel, helped found the Young Women’s League in support of suffrage. The efforts of Hill and others like her resulted in success, as Colorado women’s suffrage was passed by popular referendum in November.
In 1899 Hill was appointed to the State Board of Charities by Governor Alva Adams. Around that time, she also served for eight years as president of the Denver YWCA, an organization that started as the Woman’s Home Club in 1887. During her tenure as the YWCA’s leader, Hill raised or donated most of the funds needed to build and furnish a headquarters and clubhouse.
Alice Hale Hill passed away on July 19, 1908. Her obituary in The Denver Post named her one of Denver’s most philanthropic women. Thanks to Hill’s efforts, Denver’s free kindergarten was adopted into the statewide public school system. Her passion for female enfranchisement contributed to the passage of women’s suffrage in Colorado. Her enhanced social position and elevated platform allowed her to push forward her progressive views to enrich the lives of all Coloradans for generations to come.