Thornton Waldo Burgess (January 14, 1874 – June 5, 1965) was a conservationist and author of children's stories. Burgess loved the beauty of nature and its living creatures so much that he wrote about them for 50 years in books and his newspaper column, Bedtime Stories. He was sometimes known as the Bedtime Story-Man. By the time he retired, he had written over 170 books and 15,000 stories for the daily newspaper column.
Born in Sandwich, Massachusetts, Burgess was the son of Caroline F. Haywood and Thornton W. Burgess, Sr., a direct descendant of Thomas Burgess, one of the first Sandwich settlers in 1637. Thornton, Sr., died the same year his son was born, and the young Thornton, Jr. 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 stories in which Burgess 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.
Burgess married Nina Osborne in 1905, but she 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. Burgess remarried in 1911; his wife Fannie had two children by a previous marriage. The couple later bought a home in Hampden, Massachusetts in 1925, that became Burgess' permanent residence in 1957. His second wife died in August 1950. 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.
Old Mother West Wind
Burgess used his outdoor observations in nature as plots for his stories. In Burgess' first book, Old Mother West Wind (1910), the reader meets many of the characters found in later books and stories. The characters in the Old Mother West Wind series include Peter Rabbit (briefly known as Peter Cottontail), Jimmy Skunk, Sammy Jay, Bobby Raccoon, Little Joe Otter, Grandfather Frog, Billy Mink, Jerry Muskrat, Spotty the Turtle, Old Mother West Wind, and her Merry Little Breezes.
For the next 50 years, Burgess steadily wrote books that were published around the world in many languages, including French, Gaelic, German, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish. Collaborating with him was his illustrator and friend Harrison Cady of New York and Rockport, Massachusetts. Peter Rabbit was created by British author and illustrator Beatrix Potter, prompting Burgess to note, "I like to think that Miss Potter gave Peter a name known the world over, while I with Mr. Cady's help perhaps made him a character."
From 1912 to 1960, without interruption, Burgess wrote his syndicated daily newspaper column, Bedtime Stories.
From 1912 to 1960, Burgess also was heard often on radio. His Radio Nature League radio series began at WBZ (AM), 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. Praised by educators and parents, the program had listeners and members in more than 30 states at its peak. Burgess' Radio Nature League disbanded in August 1930, but he continued to give radio talks for WBZ on conservation and the humane treatment of animals.
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.
He died on June 5, 1965, at the age of 91. His son had died suddenly the year before.
In the early 1970s, an anime television adaptation of some of Burgess' works was produced by a Japanese animation studio and was later distributed worldwide. The English language translation was entitled Fables of the Green Forest.
A middle school in Hampden is named after Burgess in honor of his work for conservation.