Famous children’s author Thornton Burgess wrote hundreds of his stories in his “studio on the hill” (pictured above)—now off limits to the public. So are the three other original Thornton Burgess buildings, including his home, which was built in 1742. These and other facilities at the Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Hampden at one time hosted tens of thousands of visitors a year. Laughing Brook was once the epicenter for nature education in western Massachusetts. Now it’s nearly deserted, even on weekends. What happened to this former jewel of a Massachusetts Audubon Society reservation?
A letter to the editor in the April 1 edition of the Wilbraham-Hampden Times newspaper threw down the gauntlet to the Massachusetts Audubon Society, chiding the organization for not spending “one dime” to fix the crumbling Burgess hilltop writing studio. He also railed against “Audubon’s gross mismanagement of Laughing Brook.”
Wow. After reading that, I just had to take a little hike at Laughing Brook and snap some pictures. I had been there so many times when I was a kid—when the place was thriving with live animal exhibits, a great gift shop, a lending library, a film series, and a plethora of education programs.
I also knew, from taking my four-year-old son there a couple of times, and from another visit to Burgess’ studio on the hill last year, that the place was a shadow of its former self—a ghost sanctuary, really—but the trails are still open, and it was a good day for a walk. But this particular hike would be taken WITHOUT my boy this time, because it involved trudging on the eroded hill and sneaking around in a closed area of the sanctuary.
When I was a wee lad I was enthralled with Thornton Burgess’ stories, and to say that he was a major contributor to the conservation movement would be a major understatement. I believe that I owe much of my love of nature to his books and from my early visits to Laughing Brook. For example, if you read some of my blog entries on Wilbraham's Rice Nature Preserve, McDonald Nature Preserve, and White Ceder Swamp, you know where I stand on the importance of sustaining our natural world.
The rise and fall of Laughing Brook is an interesting story. It is one of “an old man’s dream” that became a reality, only to be dashed by flood, fire, and the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s diminished support—and mishandling—of the sanctuary, according to the Friends of Laughing Brook volunteer group. To be sure, Mass. Audubon’s cutbacks in funding to the sanctuary in the 1990s resulted in a bitter battle between two organizations over the direction of Laughing Brook, which has gone downright downhill in the last 15 years.
The story of Laughing Brook begins with Burgess, who gave the stream and the land its legendary name. After his first wife, a Springfield woman named Nina Osborne, died in childbirth in 1906, he doted on his son. Indeed, Burgess’ elaborate animal tales originally began as bedtime stories for Thornton III. Then, when the boy was three, he visited his grandparents in Chicago and he asked for his dad’s stories to be sent by mail. Burgess wrote them down, and the tales eventually drew the attention of Little, Brown, and Company, which encouraged him to publish them. These 14 stories made up his first book, Old Mother West Wind, published in 1910 when he was 36.
Over the next 50 years he cranked out 70 books that featured such characters as Reddy Fox, Peter Rabbit, Jerry Muskrat, and Jimmy Skunk. Burgess was particularly fond of skunks and kept several as pets.
His aim was to entertain children with his books, but he was also an environmentalist and thought it was important to teach them about nature.
Burgess’ home became a bit of an unofficial tourist attraction in his old age, as fans came from near and far—sometimes from across the country and Canada—to make impromptu visits with, or to even simply to get a glimpse of the writer. In “An Old Man’s Dream,” a 1965 letter to Harrison Cady, the illustrator for his books, Burgess wrote that it was his wish for his 18-acre property “Laughing Brook” to be maintained as a “mecca for children.” And that’s exactly what it evolved into.
Laughing Brook was preserved as a sanctuary in 1966, a year after Burgess’ death, and Mass. Audubon eventually purchased the property from the town of Hampden. Over the years it swelled to 354 acres and a large Education Center was built in 1980. The place thrived for decades: if you grew up in the Springfield area, chances are you visited Laughing Brook. Indeed, through a city program, all third-graders in the Springfield Public School system visited the Laughing Brook Nature Center on field trips in the late 1980s. It’s really just a stone’s throw from Sixteen Acres, and it seemed as if everyone in my neighborhood made the pilgrimage there at least once a year.
In Laughing Brook’s golden days, children were entertained by storytellers, musicians (above), and Pauline Philpott’s portrayal of Old Mother West Wind, in full costume, hoop skirt and all (pictured below).
How can I adequately describe my thrill, as a small child, of seeing some of the actual animal characters—albeit in cages—along with the brook itself? I remember long hikes with my family through the “Green Forest.” Viewing literary landscape of my bedtime stories firsthand was unforgettable. The Laughing Brook sanctuary, with its growing menagerie of critters, brought the tales to life.
I remember staring at the caged “Prickly Porky” and asking my father why porcupines had orange teeth. “Because they don’t brush their teeth, Bob,” he answered. “So don’t forget to brush your teeth three times a day.” Sounded good to me.
A couple of years later and much the wiser, I posed the same question again to my father at Laughing Brook, demanding a real answer. “I don’t know. Let’s go ask someone who works here,” he said. A naturalist told us that porcupines sometimes eat the bark and leaves of aspen and birch trees, which contain tannin, coloring their teeth. Yes, the educational component of Laughing Brook was something we foolishly took for granted.
Laughing Brook became so popular it had to turn away groups because of its limited facilities, so in 1989 it expanded its two-story education center to 13,000 square feet (see photo below) and provided bigger cages and a more natural environment for its animals—many of whom had been injured in the wild, rescued, and nursed back to health by the staff.
And then came the rain. Three weeks after Laughing Brook unveiled its renovations, a spring storm caused East Brook (its real name) to rise over its banks and wash out two bridges, trapping a fox, a coyote, three hawks, an owl, and other animals. The long-eared owl died because it had only one wing and couldn’t keep itself above the surging water. This wasn’t the first flood there. And it wouldn’t be the last.
Photo: A Laughing Brook volunteer videotapes flood waters that dislodged two bridges.
The sanctuary was unfortunately built on a flood plain. In fact, a major flood in 1955 created such erosion there that an aging Burgess couldn’t make it up the hill to his original writing studio any more, so his barn was converted into a studio.
After the 1989 flood, Audubon embarked upon a $1.2 million restoration project at Laughing Brook, renovating Burgess’ old house, carving out new trails to replace the washed out ones, building a visitors’ area—along with an exhibit area and a two-and-a-half-acre deer enclosure—and installing raised boardwalks, teaching stations, and observation platforms. The gift shop had the largest selection of natural history books in the Pioneer valley.
More than 700 people attended the grand re-opening in 1990, and during this era Laughing Brook attracted more than 30,000 visitors a year.
And then came the controversy. In 1992, Audubon announced that the caged animals would be removed and their four keepers laid off because Laughing Brook had become a financial drain on the 17 other Audubon sanctuaries in Massachusetts. Of course, there was an outcry, but Massachusetts Audubon Society President Gerard Bertrand explained that his organization’s annual investment in Laughing Brook had skyrocketed from $172,000 in 1980 to $437,000 in 1990, but income rose from $119,000 to only $142,000. He also mentioned competition from Springfield’s Forest Park Zoo, saying it was “quite irritating” that the Zoo beat out Laughing Brook for an $800,000 state grant.
Still, five staffers and some part-timers were kept at the Laughing Brook, and two years later, it seemed to be on the upswing. The sanctuary resumed taking in injured animals (albeit Mass. Audubon pretty much closed the Education Center building), and it was upgraded from a “level 2” to a “level 3” sanctuary (on a scale of one to four), even though attendance was only 8,000 in 1994.
But in June of 1996, Mass Audubon pulled the plug again, cutting its funding to Laughing Brook by 26 percent and saying that it wanted the sanctuary to focus more of its staff time to educational programs. Thus, the remaining caged animals would be relocated to zoos by November. “We don’t want to be in the zoo business anymore,” said Bertrand. The grassroots group Friends of Laughing Brook were outraged: a half-million dollars’ worth of outdoor cages that were paid for by donations would be torn down. The Friends’ director, Dalton Philpott, resigned in protest, mainly because the fundraising for the enclosures was done by his group.
After Bertrand rejected a proposal for the Friends of Laughing Brook to take over management of the injured animals, the Friends filed for an emergency restraining order and injunction against the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which had already had removed several hawks, owls, and wild turkeys. Charging breach of contract and fraud, the Friends claimed Mass. Audubon violated a memorandum of understanding that was signed when the town of Hampden sold the land to the Society. The memorandum stated that Mass. Audubon and the Friends “will act as partners by consulting together concerning all matters involving the sanctuary…” It also stated that the Mass. Audubon board of directors will consult with the Friends, and will conduct a vote, before disposing of facilities. But there was no vote, even though Mass. Audubon planned to dismantle the cages.
The fraud claim was based on the belief that Mass. Audubon “induced the friends of Laughing Brook to do fundraising for the [animal] enclosures when they had no intention of keeping them,” said the Friends’ volunteer lawyer Rhonda Parish.
However, a judge denied the injunction, opining in a two-page decision that that the Friends were unlikely to win a later court case against Mass. Audubon, and that the harm to the Society—the cost of feeding, housing, and providing medical care to the animals—was not justified. The Friends, to no avail, had pointed out that removing the animals would significantly reduce sanctuary visitors and, as a result, the hamper the sanctuary’s ability to get new volunteers and donations.
So the remaining animals, including a fox with a respiratory disease, five deer, a hand-raised coyote, and an epileptic bobcat (pictured below) were shipped out.
And just when everyone thought that the reservation couldn’t take much more of a beating, torrential spring rains lashed Laughing Brook again in 1997, prompting Audubon to use its emergency capital funding program to provide a new foundation for Burgess’ old barn studio. The other two Burgess outbuildings had been deteriorating for years, and a renovation estimate came to $126,000 When Audubon asked its membership to make pledges as a symbol of their interest in the project, the Society received just two pledges totaling $260.
In 2003, attendance was down to 2,000, and Laughing Brook Director Mary Shanley Koeber acknowledged that bad feelings between over the removal of the animals seven years earlier led to a decline in community support for the sanctuary. The previous summer a day camp program was canceled, and the 13,000-square-foot education center—needing a $30,000 new roof—was largely unused and available for lease.
The education center, which was leased to Holyoke Community College the next year, and then left vacant again, wouldn’t get its new roof, thanks to an arsonist, who burned the uninsured building down in the early morning hours of September 1, 2004. The town, fearing that the charred walls would fall on curious onlookers, demolished it.
A 22-year-old volunteer firefighter and part-time police officer in Hampden confessed to starting the blaze. Derek Anti, who said he was excited by the sight of fire, was placed on five years’ probation and ordered to receive intensive therapy and pay $60,000 in restitution to Mass. Audubon. His lawyer said that he had a troubled family history, a depressive disorder and an impulse control disorder, and had only intended to set a bush aflame—even though gasoline was used. He said his plan was to respond to the fire and play hero.
Then, in October of 2005 Laughing Brook was flooded again—and not with visitors and donations. It was a deluge of rain that left whole areas of Hampden under water, damaged three bridges at Laughing Brook beyond repair, and forced the closing of the sanctuary for more than two years. It opened again in the spring of 2008 with rebuilt trails.
Jubilant that it was reopened, I had to take my son there last fall and this past spring, even though the sanctuary’s heydays were long gone. Hell, I was just happy the hit the trails again.
My last hike there, however, was my mission with a camera—one that wouldn’t involve my boy, because my disregarding “no entry” signs and stepping over branch blockades and an orange barricade fence wouldn’t be setting a good example, would it? Plus, these neglected buildings are a little spooky.
It’s a little strange not seeing the huge Education Center (pictured in an old aerial photo at the top right) when you pull into the parking lot.
A sign, equipped with trail maps and an interpretive guide booklet, greets visitors, and so does a one-eared Peter Rabbit. (It’s a good thing Laughing Brook still takes in injured animals. Just kidding.)
This looks like an abandoned teaching or observation station (below). It’s hard to tell, and I wasn’t about to take chances on bushwhacking through the long grass to find out. I didn’t want to meet one of Thornton Burgess’ lesser-known characters: Lymie the Tick.
In the middle of the path is another Burgess character: Miner the Mole. He seems quite sleepy. I stomp my feet but he’s not waking up (Insert joke about Laughing Brook taking in injured animals here.)
A railed deck provides a view of Smiling Pool, a man-made body of water that, when viewed on a satellite photo, is a semi-circle that could be construed as a smile—or a frown, depending on how you look the sanctuary’s fate.
The stream itself was more of a Snickering Brook with this summer’s drought. But, as we know, when it’s fed with excessive rain, it has the capacity to roar.
This mini-blockade lets you know that Mass. Audubon doesn’t want visitors on the uphill path to the old Burgess writing studio, but it’s not exactly the Berlin Wall, is it?
At the top of the glacial esker is the old studio. Here is a photo I took last year. You can see a plaque to the left of the door:
In “An Old Man’s Dream,” Burgess visualized his studio becoming a gift shop, but evidently this building served as a nature study workshop, and it was renovated in 1972.
An updated photo reveals that the studio is much more off-limits a year later. But, of course, that isn’t going to stop me. Notice that the plaque had been torn off the building between my visits:
On my walk around to the front, I could see that the porch was in terrible shape. It was propped up by cinder blocks, and I was taking a chance walking on the damn thing to look in the door, but I had to!
The porch was really shaky under my feet. I felt like a daring Peter Rabbit setting out on a naughty escapade. I could hear Little Miss Peter Rabbit behind me, chiding:
“Oh, Peter Peter Rabbit, Why will you be so heedless? Why will you take such dreadful risks, So foolish and so needless?Short answer: I’m doing it for the sake of the blog, bitch! Oh yeah, for the sake of the studio, too—that is, if I don’t destroy the porch with my weight in order to save it.
—Thornton W. Burgess, The Adventures of Prickly Porky
I remember being on the same porch in the early 1970s but for the life of me I can’t recall exactly what was studied here:
The latest nature study being conducted in this building seems to be a calculation of how long it can withstand the elements with a large hole in the roof. Kidding aside, this photo is interesting because the camera lens, close to the window, captured the reflection of the daylight and trees behind me, making it appear as if the wall on the right is almost completely gone. The wall is still there, but will it be still standing in a few years?
What’s that rustling noise? Is that the sound of the Merry Little Breezes of Old Mother West Wind blowing through the hole in the roof and scattering the leaves on the floor? Or is it the sound of Thornton Burgess turning in his grave, all the way from Springfield Cemetery?
I’d say this place needs some work. Wouldn’t you?
Looks like the studio, along with a repaired roof, could also use a coat of paint. Okay, I was getting a little artsy-fartsy with my photography of the peeling paint. It was time to soldier on. Below is a view of the other outbuildings from atop the hill...
...and here is a shot of the hill studio (in the background) and another building from below. All of these buildings have been closed for some time:
At the bottom of the hill is another building:
Please DO enter? Okay. Whatever you say! Well, maybe not in the near future. The door’s locked, and the broken window below is too high for illegal entry for everyone except by Blacky the Crow. Apparently, these two outbuildings are being used as storage by Mass. Audubon. I hope there’s nothing of value near the “old fashioned air conditioner” on the second floor.
The building complex is certainly a far cry from the thriving Laughing Brook of the Seventies. You can barely see the hilltop studio behind the overgrowth in the photo below.
Below is a photo of the area when Burgess lived there. The studio is atop the hill, and his residence is to the left.
The Burgess house (below) is now the residence of the sanctuary’s caretaker.
Yes, I had to tiptoe around the caretaker’s yard to avoid detection in order to continue taking photos of the ruins of Laughing Brook. Marching on, I stepped over another “barrier,” a tree cut down to “block” an old, overgrown trail…
…to view the foundation of a bridge that was swept away by flood waters.
Here is the observation deck, built in 1989 to overlook the large animal enclosure.
The view isn’t bad, and the deck is remarkably solid, and you can’t help but be reminded of the sanctuary’s glory days when you stand in this structure.
Here is a foundation of one of the old animal cages. If my memory serves me well, it housed the porcupines:
It’s hard to tell if this erection is the remains of the fence of the large animal enclosure or an anti-erosion structure—or maybe both.
The sanctuary is scarred with evidence of past floods, including erosion beyond the banks that made these trees on steep hills topple right over the brook:
So, flood and fire aside, here’s the important question: what of Mass. Audubon’s stewardship of Laughing Brook and the terrible condition of the Thornton W. Burgess’ first writing studio on the hill?
In 2003 Sanctuary Director Mary Shanley-Koeber admitted that Audubon made some mistakes in handling the exodus of the caged animals, and she was right. Back in 1996, the Friends of Laughing Brook predicted that bad feelings in the community over this controversy would slow down fundraising, and this became a self-fulfilling prophecy that would see the sanctuary left with nothing but its trails and closed buildings.
“Be sure before you drop a friend that you’ve done nothing to offend.”Still, no matter how Mass. Audubon handled the sanctuary’s ascent and downfall, it did add a significant amount of acreage to Laughing Brook. As for the former animal attractions, “We can purchase an acre of land that is going to be protected forever for the amount it would take to keep one wild animal in a cage and give it protection, safety, and health it should have for one year,” said Shanley-Koeber 14 years ago.
—Thornton W. Burgess, The Adventures of Prickly Porky
Last May, a month after David Cesan’s blistering letter to the Wilbraham-Hampden Times on the deterioration of Burgess’ writing studio, a Mass. Audubon volunteer wrote a letter to the newspaper to defend the Society. She insisted that it “has not deserted Laughing Brook.” Ann T. Groth, a former volunteer at Laughing Brook, and now a volunteer at the Audubon sanctuary in Easthampton, MA, pointed out that “money and resources are slim, and every sanctuary has needs that cannot be met.” She added that if the town of Hampden and surrounding communities feel strongly about the restoration of the Burgess studio, “perhaps town support in the form of fundraising, sweat equity, etc. might help. It was the synergism between sanctuary and community that made Laughing Brook the vital organization that it was in the past. Perhaps it can happen again.”
Even if there were a grassroots movement to restore the studio, would Mass. Audubon even support it? I’m skeptical, and not because I consider the organization some evil entity bent on destroying an old man’s dream. It’s just that any effort to save the studio would depend on making the “forgotten area” of the sanctuary—the three Burgess outbuildings—a destination point, and I don’t see that happening. A massive amount of work would have to be done to even make the hillside walkway safe. For all I know, the studio might not even be salvageable. And Mass. Audubon decided a long time ago to focus on the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, which houses the headquarters for the Society’s Connecticut Valley sanctuaries.
The downfall of Laughing Brook wasn’t inevitable, but it wasn’t exactly unbelievable either. In the early 1990s, when the first wave of Mass. Audubon cuts hit Laughing Brook, the sanctuary lacked an endowment of its own, which, during the 1992 recession, doomed the place to a vicious circle of cutbacks that ultimately resulted in Laughing Brook’s present condition.
Personally, I think Mass. Audubon should have allowed the Friends of Laughing Brook to take over the management of the caged animals in 1996. It might have resulted in a turnaround for the sanctuary. But the Society didn’t even consider the proposal, and after that donations and visitors gradually slowed to a trickle.
Regarding the ill-fated Education Center, there was talk at a 2003 Hampden selectmen's meeting about asking the Audubon to consider "gifting" the deteriorating building to the Friends of Laughing Brook, but it's unclear what ever came of the idea. That was a year before the structure was torched. Not to get into an arsonist's thought process, but if the building had been even partially in use, it might not have been a target. Why, only 24 years after the Education Center was built (and 15 years after it was renovated), was it in such horrible condition when it burned? Why was it uninsured?
Anyway, there are still family programs at Laughing Brook, but they’re few and far between. Last November my son and I attended “Turkey Talk,” in which a volunteer, armed with such props as turkey calls, photos, and feathers, delivered, well, a turkey talk. It was informative. It was fun. It reminded me of what Laughing Brook used to be like EVERY DAY.
“Where’s the turkey guy?” asked my son on a visit to Laughing Brook last spring. “Oh, he’s not here this today,” I answered. “That was a SPECIAL day.” His question got me thinking how convenient it was to have a PERMANENT nature education program there when I was growing up.
Maybe, against all odds, there is some glimmer of hope for Laughing Brook—or at least the Burgess studio. In the early 1990s it was reported that some benefactors said they would leave large amounts of money in planned gifts to Laughing Brook after their deaths. That was almost 20 years ago: did this ever come to pass? Were the gifts earmarked to Laughing Brook, or were they left to Mass. Audubon? Surely the restoration of the Burgess studio is a project that would merit funding from such a donation.
I’m not sure of the state of the Friends of Laughing Brook in 2010. I’m assuming that the controversies of the 1990s—and the stripped down version of the sanctuary that was left in the aftermath of the cutbacks—took the heart right out of the group. But, as Ann Groth wrote, perhaps saving the studio could provide a rallying point for the community to get re-engaged in Laughing Brook, and to prevent the building from imploding or falling right down the hill.
Is there still a Friends of Laughing Brook group out there? If so, could it possibly partner with Mass. Audubon to save the Burgess studio? Could both organizations look at their 1990s troubles as laughing water under the bridge?
“The friendship that is truest, best
Is that which meets the trouble test.”
—Thornton W. Burgess, The Adventures of Prickly Porky
I’d like to end this blog entry with a technique I’ll borrow (steal) from Francis Ford Coppala. Remember the final scene of The Godfather, Part II? It was a flashback to an earlier dinner table scene of the Corleone family in its prime, long before the family was decimated by treachery, vendettas (both personal and business), greed, and a few, ahem, “contracts”—badda bing!
Here’s a Burgess blast from the past: below is a description of the author in his writing studio during the days when he was cranking out his stories and books from his “house on the hill.” The passage was written by Frances B. Meigs for her 1998 book, My Grandfather, Thornton W. Burgess: An Intimate Portrait. Luckily, we still have the photo of Burgess at work in the building, along with this vivid recollection:
“On still, warm summer days when the windows were open wide in the house on the hill where Grandpa worked, Laughing Brook murmured a soft accompaniment to the clicking of his typewriter. We were always welcome in his house on the hill, where on his desk he kept jars of different-colored hard candy, especially his favorite, sugared ginger. Although tempted to barge in often, we knew that he was working, and Nanna wouldn't let us run up there constantly. Every time we did, though, he would smile and say, ‘Oh, come in, come in, my dears. Help yourselves to a piece of candy.’ I never once felt that we were an intrusion.—From My Grandfather, Thornton W. Burgess: An Intimate Portrait by Frances B. Meigs
“The door to this building opened into one large room, where windows on every side overlooked the brook, the green meadows, the forest, and the purple hills of the Berkshires in the distance. The windowsills held many small-feathered, ceramic, carved, and cast-iron birds and animals. Hanging from the studs on the brown, knotted, unlined walls were several paintings by Harrison Cady. Stacks of books (including a large, dog-eared Bible) were placed on various tables, one of which was large and round and covered with a fringed, multicolored hand-woven shawl. Two filing cabinets, a bookcase, and boxes filled with papers stood against a wall, and small oriental rugs were scattered about the floor. Near the wall opposite the door was a black pot-bellied stove, a coal bucket containing kindling, a poker, a shovel, and a small stack of wood. Next to it a door led onto a porch. Logs were stacked against an outer wall, and a wicker rocking chair invited one to sit there and admire the view.
“When we youngsters had climbed the hill and reached the house, we would carefully peek through the open door to see our grandfather sitting at his mahogany desk. Using only his two index fingers, he would be tapping out a story or letter on his ancient Remington manual typewriter.
“In unabashed delight we would run in, knocking each other about to be the first to give him a hug. We inspected the whole room, examining this and that, and even looking high in the rafters to see how many spiders were spinning their silken webs. We asked questions about Peter Rabbit, Jimmy Skunk, Grandfather Frog, Paddy the Beaver, Jerry Muskrat, Johnny Chuck, Reddy Fox, Danny Meadow Mouse, Billy Mink, Little Joe Otter, Sammy Jay, and Blacky the Crow, and Grandpa happily laughed at our enthusiasm, saying, ‘Come over here where you can sit close, and I will tell you about Billy Mink's swimming party, because I know on this warm day you will be down in the brook as soon as Nanna will let you.’ ”
Read The Ruins of Laughing Brook, Part 2.