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 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 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
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. 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 Swedish, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Gaelic. 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", and he also was heard often on radio. His Radio Nature League radio series 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", The Christian Science Monitor, 18 February 1925, p. 9). 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. ("Complete Abolition of Steel Trap Urged by Burgess in Radio Address", The 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. He died on June 5, 1965, at the age of 91. His son had died suddenly the year before.
Wildlife Sanctuary and Museum
After his death, the Massachusetts Audubon Society purchased his Hampden home and established the Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary at that location;the house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Thornton W. Burgess Museum in Sandwich closed to the public in October 2012.
Awards and accomplishments
Burgess was also actively involved with conservation efforts. Some of his projects over his lifetime included:
"The Green Meadow Club" for land conservation programs.
Helping to pass laws protecting migrant wildlife.
"The Bedtime Stories Club" for wildlife protection programs.
"Happy Jack Squirrel Saving Club" for War Savings Stamps & Bonds.
"The Radio Nature League" broadcast from WBZA in Boston and WBZ in Springfield, Massachusetts.
For his efforts, an Honorary Literary Degree was bestowed upon Burgess in 1938 by Northeastern University. The Museum of Science in Boston awarded him a special gold medal for "leading children down the path to the wide wonderful world of the outdoors". He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Medal of the Permanent Wildlife Protection Fund.
Legacy and influence
In the early 1970s, a 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 him in honor of his work for conservation.