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Who was Thornton W. Burgess?

Thornton Waldo Burgess (born January 14, 1874 - died June 5, 1965), naturalist and conservationist, loved the beauty of nature and its living creatures so much that he wrote about them for 50 years. By the time he retired, he had written more than 170 books and 15,000 stories for daily columns in newspapers.

Thornton Waldo Burgess was the son of Caroline F. Haywood and Thornton W. Burgess Sr. a direct descendent of Thomas Burgess, one of the first settlers of Sandwich in 1637. 

Burgess was raised by his mother in Sandwich after his father died in the year of his birth. As a youth he worked year-round in order to earn money. Some of his jobs included tending cows, picking 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 so many of his stories in which he refers to Smiling Pool and the Old Briar Patch. 

Graduating from Sandwich High School in 1891, Burgess attended a Business College in Boston from 1892-93. At the age of 17 Burgess briefly
lived in Boston and then moved to Springfield, Massachusetts.

He bought a place in Hampden, Massachusetts in 1925 and made it his permanent home in 1957. Returning frequently to Sandwich, Burgess claimed that to be his birthplace and spiritual home. Many of his childhood experiences and the people he knew influenced his interest and concern for wildlife.

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. These characters include Peter Rabbit , Grandfather Frog,  Reddy Fox, Jimmy Skunk, along with Sammy Jay, Bobby Raccoon, Joe Otter, Billy Mink, Jerry Muskrat, Spotty the Turtle and of course, Old Mother West Wind and her Merry Little Breezes.
For the next fifty 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. Cady gave us the familiar form of Peter Rabbit and other animal characters that we recognize today.

Burgess was also actively involved with conservation efforts. Some of his projects over his lifetime included:

  • "The Green Meadow Club" for land conservation programs
  • Help 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 Springfield, MA.

For his efforts, an Honorary Literary Degree was bestowed upon Burgess in 1938 from Northeastern University. The Boston Museum of Science 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.

In 1960, Burgess published his last book, Now I Remember, an autobiography depicting memories of his early life in Sandwich, as well as his career highlights. That same year, Burgess at the age of 83, had published his 15,000th story. From 1912 to 1960, without interruption, Burgess wrote a syndicated daily newspaper column titled Bedtime Stories.