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January 12, 2024

Who Was Thornton Burgess?


During a blizzard that stopped all trains from the Cape to Boston, one of Cape Cod’s most famous native sons, Thornton Waldo Burgess, was born on January 14, 1874, in a large, two-story house in the village of Sandwich. In less than a year, his father died of tuberculosis, leaving the child and his mother Caroline, 22, with no means of support except the generosity of the many family members in the community.

Caroline and Thornton moved a street away to the home of her uncle, C.C.P. Waterman, who had taken her in once before, after both her parents were killed in an accident. In all, Thornton lived in nine different houses and an inn during his childhood and worked as a boy to help support his mother, selling milk and eggs, herding cows on Town Neck, picking cranberries, and roaming nearby woods and fields to find blueberries, blackberries, and mayflowers to sell. In truth, childhood hardship prepared him exceptionally well to be a nature writer and storyteller for children.

Burgess left Cape Cod after high school, moving first to Boston to work as a bookkeeper, which he hated, then to Springfield to work as an office boy, then a reporter with the Phelps Publishing Company, which he loved, then to Hampden, in his later years. However, he always returned to Cape Cod and old friends for solace and rejuvenation.

Thornton Burgess was a successful journalist; he never expected to be a children’s author. However, in 1911, six years after the death of his first wife in childbirth, he remarried and within two months was laid off from a job he’d held for 15 years. Suddenly, he was unemployed with six people to support. His children’s book, “Old Mother West Wind” had been published the year before, more as a lark than any serious literary effort. In financial desperation, he wrote daily newspaper columns and children’s books, 25 within five years, including a Boy Scouts of America series.

His readership skyrocketed. When membership was offered to a Thornton Burgess “Bedtime Story Club” as an add-on feature for The Kansas City Star, 50,000 children enrolled within three weeks. The New York Globe brought in 198,000 children with its own Bedtime Story Club. At the height of his career, his books were as popular in Canada as they were in the US. Twenty titles were translated into Japanese; some appeared in French, Swedish, Norwegian, Chinese and Braille.

Among the millions of readers that Burgess’s animal stories touched was Bradford Washburn, mountain climber, explorer and revered director of the Boston Museum of Science. He credited Thornton Burgess with being “the first person who did more than anyone else to give me an early love of nature.” Sierra Club president David Brower also credits Thornton Burgess with giving him a foundation in understanding the relationship between people and nature.

Thornton Burgess’s “Radio Nature League” launched in 1924, possibly the first children’s nature program on American radio, reached tens of thousands of children and adults with natural science information and prestigious Smithsonian scientists as guest speakers. His books and stories were used to support World War I bond sale drives, the landmark 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, gun control and anti-hunting legislation.

In fact, Burgess’s call to “Be a Friend to Wildlife” may be even more critical today than when he held his author’s copy of “Old Mother West Wind” and eventually perceived the course of his life’s work. The connection to wildlife, to Nature itself, that Thornton Burgess understood and conveyed so well to generations of children and adults is his most lasting legacy, and the one he would be most proud of.

Christie Palmer Lowrance is the author of “Nature’s Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess.”