Thorton Burgess

Grave of Thorton Burgess, Springfield, Massachusetts

Driving through the city of Springfield, Massachusetts was a test of patience, a test I was definitely failing as I managed to stop at every traffic light as I drove towards my destination. I was definitely glad to see an entrance to the Springfield Cemetery. I entered through the Pine Street entrance, which I did not realize at the time was not the main entrance to the cemetery – the main entrance is located off of Maple Street, at the opposite side of the sacred piece of land. Turning left upon entering through the Pine Street entrance, on my immediate left were rows of ancient stones. I passed slowly by them, scanning the ornate carvings that topped many of the stones, elaborate carvings that many modern stones lack.

Arriving at the end of the roadway, I had my first view of the cemetery that spread out before me and was thankful I had the locations of the graves I wanted to visit. Covering more than forty acres, the cemetery maintains a rural feeling to it, despite being in the middle of the city. I was surprised as I made my stops within the cemetery, that noise of the modern, outside world of the city could barely be heard – only the noise of an occasional vehicle ruined the quietness of the garden of stone.

The land that is now Springfield Cemetery was once known to locals as Martha’s Dingle. The initial twenty acres were purchased from Alexander Bliss on May 28, 1841 and the first burial was in September of that year. In 1848, 2,404 bodies were removed from the Old Burying Ground, which was located on Elm Street, to their current resting place within the Springfield Cemetery. In 1858, the cemetery acquired burials from the Methodist Burying Ground that was located on Mulberry Street.

Notes: Martha’s Dingle was named after former owner Martha Ferre. A dingle is another word for a dell, or small wooded valley.

I’ve found in a couple places that mentions the Methodist Burial Ground being acquired by Springfield Cemetery, but I’m not one hundred percent sure where the cemetery was located. Many online sources give the impression that the cemetery was absorbed (my words not from any source I could locate) by the cemetery. Seeing Mulberry Street borders the present-day cemetery, I am inclined to believe that the Methodist Burial Grounds became a part of the Springfield Cemetery and unlike the Old Burying Grounds, no bodies were moved.

Following the directions I had, I journeyed along one of the roadways, descending through one of the wooded dells to the flats below,  before starting back up another of the forested hollows. The road continued to narrow and I hoped I did not encounter another vehicle coming towards me – if I did one of us had a ways to back-up to a place to safely pass.

As I drove carefully around a sharp bend in the road, my father called out that he saw the first on the list of graves I wanted to visit. The simple grave had the name “Burgess” in large letters at its base. At the top of the stone was the name “Thorton W,” with the dates “Jan 14 1874 June 5 1965” beneath it. Farther below are the names of his two wives and at the bottom, his mother. I walked over to the simple grave and stood humbly before the grave of an author and conservationist who made a huge impact on my life as a child and continues to make an impact.

Born January 14, 1874, in Sandwich, Massachusetts, Thorton Waldo Burgess was the son of Caroline and Thornton W. Burgess, Sr. The year that marked his arrival was marred by the death of his father. By the time he was a teenager, Thorton was working year round to help support the family by doing odd jobs around the neighborhood which included herding cows, picking berries, and trapping muskrats. After graduating from school in 1891, Burgess attended a business college in Boston but left it at the end of the year, moving to Springfield, Massachusetts to pursue his love – writing. He found a position editing for the Phelps Publishing Company and began writing under the pseudonym W. B. Thornton

In 1905, Burgess married Nina Osborne, who died in childbirth the following year. Burgess raised his son, Thorton III, alone for the next six years and it was during this time, he focused on telling stories to keep his son entertained. Burgess remarried in 1911, taking Fannie Philips Johnson as his second wife.

Burgess was heavily influenced by the experiences of his youth. His interest and concern for wildlife would become the focus of his stories. The years of work as a teenager had been filled with observations about those woods and wetlands and the animals that lived there. In 1910, Burgess would publish his first book, Old Mother West Wind, which introduced his readers to the characters that filled his later books, including: Old Mother West Wind and her Merry Little Breezes, Peter Rabbit, Grandfather Frog, Buster Bear, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, Whitefoot the Wood Mouse, and Bowser the Hound. Over the next fifty years, Burgess continually wrote about the adventures of these characters, resulting in 170 books that were published over during his writing career. In addition to writing his novels, starting in 1912, Burgess wrote a syndicated daily newspaper column called Bedtime Stories. This column would continue without interruption until 1960, resulting in more than 15,000 stories being told.

Burgess’ love of nature helped spur on conversation efforts. Burgess created The Green Meadow Club, which focused on land conservation, The Bedtime Stories Club, with a focus on wildlife protection and the Happy Jack Squirrel Saving Club, to promote War Savings Stamps and Bonds during World War One. In addition to these clubs, Burgess was instrumental in having state laws passed helping migrant wildlife.

Thorton’s efforts in the area of conservation did not go unnoticed. He received a special gold medal from the Boston Museum of Science for teaching children about the outdoors. He also received the Service Medal of the Permanent Wildlife Protection Fund for his conservation efforts.

Burgess published his last book in 1960. Now I Remember is an autobiography recalling his early life in Sandwich along with highlights of his career. Thorton died June 5, 1965. His legacy has not been forgotten. Located in his birth town of Sandwich, Massachusetts, is the Green Briar Nature Center on the lands that influenced Burgess as a youth. Note: Sadly, while the land has been preserved, it appears the museum for Burgess and his life has been closed.

I was introduced to Burgess’s writings as a young child. His books were favorites and before I could read I would be put to bed listening to my mother reading his books. His storytelling has been a major influence upon my own writing style over the years as I learned from his writings how to take the most complex observations and turn them into a story everyone can relate to and understand.

Numerous quotes from his stories have made their way into my journals and one of my favorites can be found in his book Whitefoot the Wood Mouse: “The things which are past are past, and that is all there is to it…As for things of the future, it will be time enough to think about them when they happen.”

With the thought of the present in mind, I left him resting peacefully in the hollow as I set out to make the best of the moment – I had a couple more graves to visit before leaving this sacred piece of land behind.

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