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The current state of Laughing Brook is no laughing matter

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

My wife and I did something different this past weekend we actually took some time off.

We took a trip to the Cape and had an absolutely wonderful time. We had no schedule or agenda. We just drove around and stopped at places that looked interesting.

Well, I did have one place I wanted to visit and that was the Thornton W. Burgess museum in Sandwich. Long-time readers might remember that the influential children's author played a big role in my life as a kid. Not only were his books among the first I read, but I had the opportunity to meet him at his studio overlooking Laughing Brook in Hampden.

He was very cordial to a first-grader and an autographed book I have is one of my prized possessions.

Because Burgess's work has fallen into the public domain, his books are more difficult to find these days and that's a shame. His stories are instructive and charming.

As luck would have it, the Burgess museum was closed, but we found the Green Briar Nature Center that is also operated by the Thornton W. Burgess Society in Sandwich (

This non-profit grass roots group is now in a $1.5 capital campaign to expand its facility to carry on the Burgess legacy. Currently they have a naturalist library, an animal room, and an incredible jelly kitchen a chief fund-raising effort and nature trails. We happened to come on the day when they were conducting their annual plant sale.

Both my wife and I were impressed by the group's dedication to keep the author's name alive and to teach people about the environment.

The last time I wrote anything about Burgess was almost three years ago when I was hopeful that Mary Shanley-Koeber, the then new director of Connecticut River Sanctuaries of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, would actually try to improve the Laughing Brook Sanctuary.

Laughing Brook, which at one time contained a beautiful visitor's center, a refuge for wild animals, and programs centering on the Burgess homestead, has fallen on very hard times. The visitor's center was closed down and then was destroyed in a fire. The animals were removed several years before that and the connection to Burgess has been obscured.

I went there last week and was saddened to see how little Massachusetts Audubon has done to maintain any connection to the man whose property they pledged to steward.

Back in June of 2003, Shanley-Koeber said, "Thornton Burgess would not be unhappy if he could see what's going on here now."

Would you care to make a wager? Would Burgess be pleased at how his second studio by the brook was destroyed and made into a workshop? Or that his first studio on the hill above his house is falling apart and the trail to reach it is now unsafe?

Would he be happy that the educational mission that Laughing Brook once had has long been over? That the only feature at the place is nature trails?

At its peak, Laughing Brook was supported by an active friends group a group that was alienated by decisions made by Massachusetts Audubon. Shanley-Koeber hoped three years ago that she would be able to "heal old wounds and welcome people back."

Perhaps Massachusetts Audubon needs to be honest with itself and seek outside help to utilize the Burgess legacy to the fullest. Perhaps the organization is not capable of caring for the property and should look to another group to take it over.

Granted that with the town of Hampden closing down the Senior Center and the town library, it does not have the resources to buy and run the property itself.

But Burgess touched many people for generations through his work and the support should come from around the country.

The first step may be to speak with the folks at the Burgess Society and see how they are able to do what Massachusetts Audubon can not.

These are my thoughts alone. Comments can be directed to or to 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, MA 01028.