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The Curious Tale of Peter Rabbit

Thornton Burgess

Thornton Burgess possessed a deep love for animals throughout his life.

Indeed, Burgess spent most of his boyhood experiencing these natural wonders. Whether fishing on Sandwich’s grist mill pond, traversing the salt marshes by Town Neck, scouring the cranberry bogs to trap muskrats, or searching an old wood for trailing arbutus blossoms, Burgess was unknowingly laying the groundwork for his Peter Rabbit’s woodland adventures. When Burgess’ Peter seeks safety in the Dear Old Briar Patch, or hops “lipperty lip” beside the Smiling Pool, it is in real-life Sandwich locales that he cavorts. These settings are now preserved by the town as part of the 57-acre Briar Patch Conservation Area under the stewardship of the Green Briar Nature Center/Thornton W. Burgess Society.

“You should see the faces of young Burgess readers when they visit the Dear Old Briar Patch,” says Mary Beers, former education specialist at the Thornton W. Burgess Society. “This is a special place, and they feel it.”

Burgess’ eccentric aunt, Arabella, further contributed to his wilderness education by her propensity to commune with fish, birds and small animals, welcoming them into her 1756 Sandwich home (until recently housing the Thornton W. Burgess Museum).

And so it was that nine years after Potter had debuted her Peter Rabbit, Burgess—by then a widower and single father living in Springfield—bonded with his young son, who was away with his grandmother, by mailing him nursery tales about a mischievous rabbit named Peter and Peter’s run-ins with Farmer Brown. When Good Housekeeping ran a few of the stories, Little, Brown and Co. asked Burgess to submit 14 more for a new children’s book. In the fall of 1910, “Old Mother West Wind” was published and the American Peter Rabbit made his debut in several of its chapters.

Both Peters became childhood icons. Potter’s tale reached the 40-million copy mark several years ago, while the adventures of Burgess’ Peter and his woodland pals appeared daily in newspaper syndication for 36 years, aired on national radio for 10, and starred in 170 books and 15,000 stories. Both characters—Potter’s Peter gobbling up Farmer McGregor’s carrots, and Burgess’ Peter munching on Farmer Brown’s peaches—still bring joy to nurseries today, albeit not as universally as a century ago.

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