Thornton W. Burgess


Thornton Waldo Burgess (January 14, 1874 – June 5, 1965). Born in Sandwich, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, he was a conservationist and author of children's stories. Thornton Waldo Burgess loved the beauty of nature and its living creatures so much that he wrote about them for 50 years. By the time he retired, he had written more than 170 books and 15,000 stories for daily columns in newspapers.

Thornton Waldo Burgess – born on January 14, 1874, in Sandwich, Massachusetts –was the son of Caroline F. Haywood and Thornton W. Burgess Sr., a direct descendant of Thomas Burgess, one of the first settlers of Sandwich, Massachusetts, in 1637. Thornton W. Burgess, Sr., died the same year his son was born, and the young Thornton Burgess was brought up by his mother in Sandwich. They both lived in humble circumstances with relatives or paying rent. As a youth he worked year round in order to earn money. Some of his jobs included tending cows, picking trailing arbutus or berries, shipping water lilies from local ponds, selling candy and trapping muskrats. William C. Chipman, one of his employers, lived on Discovery Hill Road, a wildlife habitat of woodland and wetland. This habitat became the setting of many of Thornton's stories in which he refers to Smiling Pool and the Old Briar Patch.

Graduating from Sandwich High School in 1891, Burgess briefly attended a business college in Boston from 1892 to 1893, living in Somerville, Massachusetts at that time. But he disliked studying business and wanted to write. He moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he took a job as an editorial assistant at the Phelps Publishing Company. His first stories were written under the pen name "W.B. Thornton." (Francis X. Scully, "Sage of Sandwich Wrote Over 15,000 Animal Stories, Books," Bradford (PA) Era, 24 February 1977, p. 16).

Burgess married a young woman named Nina Osborne in 1905, but his wife died only a year later, leaving him to raise their son alone. It is said that he began writing bedtime stories to entertain his young son, Thornton III ("Peter Cottontail Creator, Thornton Burgess, Dies," Washington Post, 7 June 1965, p. B4). Burgess remarried in 1911; his wife Fannie had two children by a previous marriage. The Burgesses later bought a home in Hampden, Massachusetts, in 1925. This became Thornton W. Burgess's permanent residence in 1957 (his second wife died in August 1950). But Burgess returned frequently to Sandwich, which he always claimed as his birthplace and spiritual home. Many of his childhood experiences and the people he knew there influenced his interest, and were the impetus for his concern for wildlife.

His outdoor observations in nature were used as plots for his stories. In his first book, Old Mother West Wind, published in 1910, the reader meets many of the characters found in later books and stories. These characters include Peter Cottontail, Jimmy Skunk, Sammy Jay, Bobby Raccoon, Little Joe Otter, Grandfather Frog, Billy Mink, Jerry Muskrat, Spotty the Turtle and of course, Old Mother West Wind and her Merry Little Breezes.

For the next fifty years, Burgess steadily wrote books that were published around the world in many languages, including Swedish, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Gaelic. Collaborating with him was his illustrator and friend Harrison Cady of New York and Rockport, Massachusetts. Cady based the character Peter Cottontail on Peter Rabbit from British author and illustrator Beatrix Potter.

In the mid-1920s, Burgess also wrote a syndicated newspaper column, as part of his radio program, the Radio Nature League. This program began at WBZ, then located in Springfield, in early January 1925. Burgess broadcast the program from the studio at the Hotel Kimball on Wednesday evening at 7:30 pm ("WBZ Starts Radio Nature Association," Christian Science Monitor, 18 February 1925, p. 9). The program was praised by educators and parents, and at its height, had listeners and members in more than thirty states. Burgess's Radio Nature League disbanded in August 1930, but he continued to give radio talks for WBZ about subjects related to humane treatment of animals and conservation ("Complete Abolition of Steel Trap Urged by Burgess in Radio Address," Christian Science Monitor, 3 November 1930, p. 4).

In 1960, Burgess published his last book, Now I Remember, Autobiography of an Amateur Naturalist, depicting memories of his early life in Sandwich, as well as his career highlights. That same year, Burgess, at the age of 86, had published his 15,000th story. From 1912 to 1960, without interruption, Burgess wrote a syndicated daily newspaper column titled "Bedtime Stories". He died on June 5, 1965, at the age of 91. His son had died suddenly the year before. After his death the Massachusetts Audubon Society purchased his Hampden home and established the Laughing Brook Nature Center at that location.