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A flash from the past: Thornton W. Burgess

Date: 4/27/2009

By Amanda Butcher

Special to Reminder Publications

I was asked by a reader to write about a favorite children's author who lived right next door in Hampden.

Born a "Cape Codder" in January 1874 with "salt in his hair, sand between his toes, and herring blood running through his veins," Thornton Waldo Burgess never expected to become a well known children's author.

One of nine students in his graduating class at the high school in Sandwich, Mass., Burgess' big dreams of college were unfortunately never to come true, for his mother's meager earnings from her job at the candy shop could not pay for his schooling. He began instead as a cashier, then as an assistant bookkeeper for a shoe store in Boston. In his words, "Those were lean days, lonesome days, to a considerable degree, dark days."

But during dark days, there is light, and that light was his poetry, written only for self-entertainment.

He was a misfit in the business world, so perhaps it was a blessing in disguise when he lost his job. Luckily, an advertising paper fell into his hands, and Burgess found a job writing for it.

He said, "From that time on, I knew that I must somehow make my living with my pen."

Burgess' career took flight in 1910 when he wrote a story every night about Peter Rabbit for his son. His first book was a compilation of sixteen Peter Rabbit stories, and it was called "Old Mother West Wind."

"That book was mine, my very own, every line of it. It was the child of my brain. I was an author, accepted as such," he said.

Once his job as an author was officially off the ground, a steady stream of animals (literally!) would be coming in and out of his Hampden home. Now, I'm sure Mr. Burgess' family got used to the animals (and my sister would be in heaven), but if I came home from school, walked into my house, and tripped over a skunk, I would probably scream.

"It seemed to us children that everyone knew him," wrote his granddaughter, Frances Meigs. People would ask him to take care of wounded animals, and even birds from bird hospitals came to him, the doctors wanting broken wings to be set. He got letters from all over the country addressed to "Peter Rabbit, Somewhere in the United States," or "Laughing Brook, USA."

He was asked to host a radio show which would be called "The Radio Nature League," the purpose of which was to conserve America's scenic wonders and its wildlife. One program on air was a safety education program during which Burgess brought in a live rattlesnake so that listeners would know what a rattler sounds like. The announcer of the program was terrified of the snake, but listeners were relieved that they knew what it sounded like.

A person who helped very much in Mr. Burgess' research was Aunt Sally of Sandwich, Mass., who ran the Woodhouse Night Club. Every night, customers from near and far would be entertained by Aunt Sally.

Who were those customers? Raccoons and skunks that climbed through the cat door to sit on Sally's lap to drink milk from the saucer in her hand. Burgess would videotape these scenes for use during his lectures. Aunt Sally even allowed him and his family to feed the animals on occasion.

Burgess' creation, Peter Rabbit, was a well-known character loved by all. In addition to the Peter Rabbit series, Peter was also featured in a best-selling children's bird book.

I had once wondered what the ingredients for a good children's book were to use for my own writing. According to Burgess, they are as follows:

"A liberal amount of imagination with truth, a moral lesson, plenty of good action, adventure or lively dialogue.and a reasonable amount of simple English."

Peter Rabbit always said, "With open mind, go on your way/And add to knowledge every day."

And that is precisely what Thornton Burgess' nature books did.

If you would like to learn more, the East Longmeadow Public Library has several books written by or about Burgess, including the book "My Grandfather, Thornton W. Burgess, An Intimate Portrait" by his granddaughter Frances B. Meigs.