A century ago, the Model T, the Wright brothers’ success at Kitty Hawk, and Marconi’s transatlantic transmissions all marked the arrival of an era enamored with technology and invention. But the nation’s youngest generation was hearing a different sort of message—one delivered during its bedtime stories. A fledgling Cape Cod naturalist was imparting gentle lessons on the beauty of the outdoors and respect for its creatures through his first children’s volume, Old Mother West Wind.
A century before the term “going green” came into fashion, author Thornton Waldo Burgess awakened a respect for the natural world with light-hearted tales derived from his youth in his native Sandwich. Even on the 100th anniversary of the publication of his first book, his words continue to resonate. “Burgess’ storybook animals interacted in their habitat naturally,” says Nancy Titcomb, a founding member of the Thornton Burgess Society. “Those realistic messages about wildlife stay with you. To this day, every blue jay I see is Sammy Jay.”
Burgess, who lived from 1874 to 1965, first became a professional storyteller to keep in touch with his young son. A widower and single father who freelanced advertising slogans and news tidbits, he mailed his young son original nursery stories while away with his grandmother. When a struggling magazine (named Good Housekeeping!) printed several of the endearing tales, publishing house Little, Brown and Co. asked Burgess to collect them into a book. “I sent them the stories—fourteen of them,” said Burgess in his autobiography. “Within a week the unbelievable had happened—I [was] a bona fide author.” Burgess pocketed $210 and his woodland characters made their 1910 debut in Old Mother West Wind. There was Jimmy Skunk, wearing a permanent white stripe of shame for stealing grouse eggs; Spotty Turtle, winning a race by secretly hitching a ride on Reddy Fox’s tail; Johnny Chuck, hiding in his underground house from gun-toting Farmer Brown; and children’s favorite mischief-maker, Peter Rabbit. (Burgess’ son already knew Beatrix Potter’s British Peter Rabbit, so “there was no changing the name.”) A typical tale in the book unfolded like this:
“I’ve just come across the Green Meadows,” said Old Mother West Wind, “and there I saw the Best Thing in the World.”
“The Best Thing in the World,” said Peter Rabbit. “Why, that must be great piles of carrots and cabbage! I’ll go and find it.”
Other animals voice similar sentiments, rushing to be the first to find “the best thing.” Finally Johnny Chuck speaks up: “The Best Thing in the World,” said Johnny Chuck. “Why, I don’t know of anything better than my own little home and the warm sunshine and the beautiful blue sky.”
The success of the book led to two sequels as well as a variety of writerly endeavors that came to define Burgess’s legacy: a daily “Bedtime Stories” column for the New York Herald Tribune Syndicate that lasted for 36 years; a weekly Neighbor Burgess radio show airing nationally from 1924-1934; and an astonishing output of 170 books and 15,000 stories. Even Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt followed Peter Rabbit’s adventures devotedly.
As a decorated conservationist, Burgess rallied thousands across the nation through his Radio Nature League and Green Meadow Club to rescue trees from tent-caterpillar infestation, preserve millions of acres as bird sanctuaries, and nurture programs to protect endangered wildlife. While holding in his hand the final known member of the heath-hen species on Martha’s Vineyard, he allowed a glimpse into his naturalist’s heart: “It was sheer, stark tragedy watching that lone bird displaying all his charms, calling for a mate … while I knew that nowhere in the world was there one for him… Man the destroyer had once again overcome Nature the creator,” Burgess wrote in his autobiograpy.
The gentle ecologist’s profound love for all things wild can be traced to his bucolic native town of Sandwich, where he was descended from one of the original settlers. He and his mother lived in 10 different houses throughout the town, and in 1891 he was part of a nine-person graduating class at Sandwich High School. After moving off-Cape some years later, he returned often, craving “the flash of sun on distant dunes and the whistling of shore birds … a blessed relief from the turmoil of the outer world.” It is a jarring fact that as a boy Burgess liked to hunt and trap, collecting the town’s irresistible 25-cent bounty for muskrat “tails and noses.” But his eccentric aunt, Arabella Eldred Burgess, offered a counter influence. She lived in the 1756 Deacon Eldred house by Shawme Pond and communed regularly with the woodland animals, often welcoming them into her home. Arabella was reputed to summon fish by patting the water and calling to them. When Burgess, by his own description, “put away the gun for camera and typewriter,” Arabella’s creatures figured large, as did locales in Sandwich that inspired his Old Briar Patch and Smiling Pool, which have now been preserved as conservation land.
It is only fitting that following the environmentalist’s death, Aunt Arabella’s cozy dwelling came to house the Thornton W. Burgess Museum. “The town owned the vacant house and was about to demolish it for a parking lot!” says Titcomb. “The Sandwich Women’s Club worked to refurbish it and facilitate its rental to the newly founded Thornton Burgess Society.”
Today, the sun-dappled parlor of the museum still evokes a 19th-century mood as it displays early editions of Burgess volumes, drawings by his illustrator Harrison Cady, and animal toys depicting his characters. The Burgess Society, which also operates the Green Briar Nature Center and Jam Kitchen, is commemorating the centennial of Old Mother West Wind with a smorgasbord of activities honoring Burgess’ legacy (see sidebar). “He still inspires children to learn and care,” says Education Director Mary Beers. “Peter Cottontail is by far the most popular character. We always have a real live Peter here. Children are in awe when they meet the current one.”
Although newer storybook animals have emerged to help put little ones to sleep at twilight, Burgess’s “friendly neighbors in fur and feathers”—as he affectionately called them—have held their ground. Beers says she has received questions about Burgess from teachers in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Canada. “His writings are not relegated to the stuff of great-grandparent memories, but read by young readers today just as enthusiastically as they were 100 years ago.”
Celebrating Old Mother West Wind at 100 The Thornton W. Burgess Society marks the 100th anniversary of Old Mother West Wind with a full schedule of activities. “In his day, Burgess was one of the most popular people in the country,” says Burgess Society Executive Director Gene Schott. “This year we celebrate the book that launched his career with a wonderful variety of centennial activities:” Visit www.thorntonburgess.org for additional information. Through October: Exhibit on the Life and Times of Thornton Burgess
10-4 (closed Sun.)Thornton Burgess Museum,
4 Water St. (Rte. 130), Sandwich. $2. August-October: The Many Faces of Peter Cottontail (Exhibit)
10-4 (1-4 Sun.); Green Briar Nature Center,
6 Discovery Hill Rd., E. Sandwich
Portraits of Peter by Burgess’ illustrators. $2. Aug. 11: Peter Rabbit’s Animal Day
10 to 2; Thornton Burgess Museum
Live animals, story times, hands-on activities,
and a costumed Peter. Free. Aug. 28: Centennial Gala
Call for details: 508-888-6870 Sept. 11, 12: Bird Carvers Show/Sale
10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Green Briar Nature Center
Demonstrations and sale by 18 local carvers. $5. Oct. 10: My Life As a Crow
6 p.m.; Green Briar Nature Center
With Cape crow expert, June Auger. Aug.-Dec., Last Friday of Every Month:
Burgess’s Book Club for Children
4-5:30 p.m.; Green Briar Nature Center —the new Putnam Education building
Meet the animal featured in the day’s story. Ages 6-12. $2 per month (for snack). Burgess Museum “Cup Plates” Display: Burgess characters appear on these colorful collectibles, patterned after small glass plates used as saucers in colonial times. Crafted by Pairpoint Glassworks, Sagamore. Sold in museum shop at current valuations: $15-$175.