THE LATEST NEWS (AND IT’S GOOD, FOR A CHANGE): The Massachusetts Audubon Society has brought in a contractor to perform emergency repair work on the historic Thornton W. Burgess esker studio at the Laughing Brook nature sanctuary. The building, where the famed children’s author wrote hundreds of his classic stories, was shamefully rotting away and in danger of collapsing before a restoration builder stabilized the structure last fall.
The construction consisted of much more than just supports to hold up the porch roof (pictured above). The work included a temporary roof to cover a gaping hole (pictured last summer below), sparing the building from the ravages of one of the worst winters ever. The stabilization, according to according to Mary Shanley-Koeber, Connecticut River Valley sanctuary director of Mass Audubon, was the restoration builder’s “first task” in what many hope is a complete restoration of the cherished studio.
This is a major development at Laughing Brook. So why do some Hampden residents and Burgess enthusiasts seem ambivalent about Mass Audubon’s intentions?
The emergency work, in effect, saved the structure, because the abundant snowfall in the past few months had caved in roofs all over the northeast. But Hampden residents appear to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude regarding Mass Audubon’s commitment to this project. Their collective wariness is rooted in the assertion by Friends of Laughing Brook, a local volunteer group, that in the 1990s Mass Audubon all but abandoned the once-thriving sanctuary, leaving most of its buildings to languish over the years.
They watch the latest development with guarded optimism—their worst fear being that Mass Audubon merely wanted to stop the studio from falling down the hill (and possibly sparking an outcry), and that in the future the organization won’t spend another dime to refurbish the building.
This is the latest chapter in a long, tumultuous tale of a nature sanctuary that was once a “mecca for children,” which is what Burgess dreamed it becoming. But is now a far cry from the bustling nature education center it was during its 1970s and 1980s heydays. All that is left are the trails, closed buildings, and of course, the brook—always laughing but lately lonely for the clamor of kids it was accustomed to decades ago.
It’s a tale fraught with the kind of animosity that is rare between two conservation groups, especially when both are supposedly dedicated to the same cause.
But this next chapter, possibly a renovation of the esker studio, could mark a new era of cooperation between the people of Hampden and Mass Audubon—one that won’t necessarily bring tens of thousands of visitors to Laughing Brook, as it once did. Frankly, no one expects THAT to happen. Still, a revival of the writing studio could spark a small step in the right direction for the sanctuary. The thought of once again being able to step into the studio in which Burgess cranked out his stories seems almost too good to be true. Well, is it?
On February 21, 2111, I snowshoed over to the studio and, sure enough, the temporary roof was withstanding the weight of the snow (above) and the building permit was in the window (below).
There appear to be turnbuckles (right) anchored to the stronger wall attached to cables that stabilize the weaker opposite wall:
A temporary wooden stabilization structure was also built:
Work was done to secure the foundation and the lower walls that face the reservation:
This is what the same side of the building looked like in August (note the cinder blocks holding up the porch):
“I have some good news I want to share with you about the Thornton Burgess summer studio on the esker at Laughing Brook,” wrote Shanley-Koeber in a letter to the Hampden Board of Selectmen. “As some of you know, Mass Audubon had been unable to find a licensed, insured, willing contractor with the skills needed to do the work that is necessary to stabilize the building. A combination of storm damage, the steep slope and erosion made the contractors reluctant to bring their workers up to the site.”
Indeed, the photos below don’t even begin to do justice to just how steep the slope is— just a couple of feet from the foundation. Still, apparently, if there is a will—and the skill—there is a way for contractors work atop the hill. (Nice little poem, eh?) It just took Mass Audubon more than a decade to find the workers who could do the job.
Prior contractors, she asserted, had no solution for the crumbling building. “All have recommended demolition” (MY emphasis, not hers) “using machinery from below the slope, which was not an acceptable solution for our historic buildings. As a result, the building has become badly deteriorated, causing distress to the residents of Hampden and to Mass Audubon staff and members.”
Mass Audubon recently engaged a second historic architect to assist Shanley-Koeber “and he has found a skillful restoration builder with an impressive resume of projects. This contractor has successfully managed projects similar to ours on more difficult and dangerous sites. He is willing to accept this challenge. His first task is to stabilize, secure, and make weather-tight the structure to enable us to get through the upcoming winter.”
Well, the writing studio made it through the notorious winter of 2010-11 without falling down the hill. What’s next? Will it be refurbished to the splendor that it enjoyed when Burgess used the building to make Laughing Brook a household name and was pictured in a 1944 Life magazine spread (below)?
The studio was renovated at least once, in 1972. Is it in any shape to be renovated again? Some people fear it might be too late, thanks to Mass. Audubon’s neglect.
David Cesan, whose mother, Ernestine Johnson (pictured below), was Burgess’ secretary, recently talked with me at his Hampden home and recalled the days when school buses were lined up outside the sanctuary every day for field trips and education programs. The reservation attracted more than 30,000 visitors a year and included an Education Center building. Moreover, Burgess’ house, the only house in town on the National Historic Register, was open to the public.
In fact, according to the 1966 Mass Audubon fundraising brochure below, “we are planning Laughing Brook as the nation’s outstanding education center,” wrote Mass Audubon Executive Vice President Allen Morgan. “Burgess’ charming 1742 colonial home, furnished with his antiques…will be open to visitors.”
The old man’s dream did become a reality—once upon a time. But in 1996, Audubon announced that caged animals that made up the small menagerie of New England wildlife—and which attracted hordes of families—would be removed and their four keepers laid off because Laughing Brook was constantly running up substantial deficits. Many of the animals had been injured in the wild and were nursed back to health by the staff. “We don’t want to be in the zoo business anymore,” said Mass Audubon President Jerry Bertrand.
The Friends of Laughing Brook filed a legal injunction against Mass Audubon, claiming a breach of faith with donors who contributed $300,000 to build the animal enclosures just two years earlier, as well as a breach of CONTRACT, saying that Bertrand was neither consulting with the Mass Audubon Board of directors nor the Friends in making his decision. They believed that a 1978 memo of understanding between the two groups required that removing facilities from the sanctuary—in this case the cages—needed to be approved by a three-fourths vote of the 35-plus-member Mass Audubon board.
But it never went before a board vote, and a Hampden Superior Court judge denied the injunction. Incredibly, in an interview with the Springfield Union News, board Chairman Lee Spelke said the board had the opportunity to discuss the controversy at its monthly meeting, but no one chose to. If there had been a discussion, according the Spelke, he believed that the board WOULD HAVE ACCEPTED the Friends’ proposal to take over management of the sanctuary’s injured animals. Bertrand had earlier stated that Mass Audubon wouldn’t consider the plan.
“We leave these program decisions to Jerry (Bertrand) and the staff,” said Spelke. When pressed about his personal views on the subject, Spelke said that he had “followed this process for at least nine to 12 months. I have been aware of, in general, what was going to occur. I give Jerry my 100 percent backing.”
Let me get this straight: the board probably would have accepted the proposal, but it never got the opportunity to vote on it. The two veterinarians in town had offered to continue to care for the animals, and the Friends of Laughing Brook offered to raise $20,000 annually in donations—independent of Mass Audubon. No dice.
Mass Audubon pulled the plug on what it saw was a financial drain, even though the move would surely reduce the number of sanctuary visitors significantly, and as a result, the ability to get new volunteers and donations. “Mass Audubon was blind to this,” said Cesan, shaking his head. We sat at his kitchen table and pored through Thornton Burgess memorabilia. “They also seemed blind to his literary legacy,” he added.
I know I’m repeating myself ad nauseam when I reiterate the bad feelings—and ultimately the downfall of the sanctuary—caused by the removal of the animals (see part 1), but I’m going to beat this dead horse once more anyway. Because nobody beats a dead horse like I do. Nobody. Despite my love of animals, engendered by Burgess’ stories and childhood visits to Laughing Brook, I’ve been known to whip a dead horse so viciously that the glue factory refuses to take its battered remains. So I’m going to beat a dead horse here. Again.
I’ve been trying to keep this blog entry as positive as I can. However, I cannot emphasize enough that taking away the captive wildlife marked a turning point that sent Laughing Brook downstream on a course that it couldn’t recover from. And the way the dirty deed went down explains a lot of the resentment among townspeople that I’m hoping can be put in the past. Maybe I’m doing NOBODY a favor by reminding Hampden residents of this by bringing it up, but it’s a story that needs to be told. So here goes nothing:
The late Dalton Philpott, who founded the Friends of Laughing Brook, asserted that the budget should not have been the reason for the elimination of the animals, pointing to then-Laughing Brook official Ken Douglas (not his real name) as one of the main architects behind this controversial and irreversible decision. In 1996, Philpott quoted the unnamed executive secretary of a well-known and respected corporation, who wrote in a letter to the president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society:
“Actually, on more than one occasion I told [Ken Douglas] that my office had put together a very extensive list of names and addresses of company executives in the greater Springfield area and that the corporation manager had offered to write a letter to these executives (the letter to be signed by both the corporation manager and [Ken Douglas]) with a pledge card attached requesting company donations on behalf of the wildlife at Laughing Brook. Unfortunately, [Ken Douglas] never bothered to call me back to set up a date and time to come in and work on this project with me.”
And the WTFs were not heard throughout the land—because no one knew about the proposal at the time. “This corporation and its manager are well known for its charitable giving and accomplishments,” wrote Philpott. “The board of directors of Friends of Laughing Brook were never notified of this offer by the director. This offer could, and probably would have covered the wildlife deficit for several years.” WTF?
Ironically, Mr. Douglas owed his position in part to being the former animal caretaker at Laughing Brook. WTF?
I’m going to give Mr. Douglas a break and not mention his name—and not just because he’s an Acres guy. He’s also a lifelong naturalist and a good man who just happened to be between a rock and a hard place, and his job at the time was to follow through with Jerry Bertrand’s orders—right or wrong.
Philpott conceded that Mass Audubon had for years been overly generous in supplying annual operating budget. “Without this support Laughing Brook would not exist,” he wrote. “Has it been one-sided on the financial side? I think not. Massachusetts Audubon Society started this venture with a capital outlay of less than $200,000. Today it is worth several million.” The sanctuary’s land holdings went from 84 acres to 354 acres, much of it prime building land, which Hampden receives no tax revenue. “Of this 354 acres, 256 acres were donated by Hampden residents at no cost,” Philpott pointed out.
I included Philpott’s “Open Letter to the Citizens of Western Massachusetts and Northwest Connecticut” on this blog because it contains a useful history of Laughing Brook and his involvement with the sanctuary, which went back to his 10-year friendship with Burgess. Philpott was a member of the Hampden Lions Club in 1965 when Burgess died and the club voted to purchase an option to buy the Burgess property and search for a suitable organization to manage it in order to fulfill “an old man’s dream.” The club later found what it thought was an ideal steward: Mass Audubon.
Above this letter I placed Shanley-Koeber’s letter to the Hampden selectmen about the stabilization/repair work on the Burgess esker studio, because you should have an opportunity to read the document in its entirety and judge for yourself whether or not it intimates that the building will be restored. I think that it does.
If the restoration happens, it will go a long way in restoring something else: the harmonious relationship that Hampden and Mass Audubon had before the exodus of the animals.
To be sure, the glory days of Laughing Brook are long gone. Here is a glimpse:
Philpott checks out the details of an engraved bedwarmer in front of the fireplace the Thornton Burgess home in 1982, shortly before Mass Audubon’s renovation of the structure. The home hasn’t been open to the public in some time.
Burgess’ Mother West Wind was played by Dalton’s wife, Polly Philpott. She is pictured in 1980 showing kids a black rat snake, even though, frankly, she looks less than enthused to be holding the critter.
Polly sometimes took her show on the road: in this ad she brought stories and animals to the Eastfield and Holyoke Malls in 1981.
Burgess’ barn, once a nature museum (above two photos) is also closed to the public.
The area to the side of the barn facing Laughing Brook, as it appeared in 1969, is now inaccessible because of overgrown vegetation and erosion.
Harvest Day at Laughing Brook was always a spectacular affair. Pony rides were offered, according to this 1978 ad. “Wear your denims!”
Fundraising for Laughing Brook was active in not only Hampden, but Springfield.
Old Man Coyote was the Burgess character, but at Laughing Brook, he was a she: staff called her Shawnee. She was stolen from the wilds near San Diego and later relinquished by her owner to a zoo. She was shuttled from zoo to zoo before Laughing Brook obtained her.
The sprawling Education Center above was built in 1980 and expanded to 13,000 square feet in 1989, although it was largely unused by the early 1990s. “Unfortunately, careful demographics and population studies were not carried out and the center was, for its size and staffing, underutilized,” according to the Public Land Journal website. When the structure needed a $30,000 new roof in 2003, it was left vacant and scheduled for demolition. The building was burned down by an arsonist in 2004.
The History of the Burgess Esker Writing Studio
The former owner of the Burgess property, Damon N. Coates, moved into the main house with his wife in 1922, and, according to a Springfield newspaper account below from June 6 of that year, Coates built the hill bungalow for his Massasoit Fish and Game Club, which consisted of wealthy Springfield businessmen. Ironically, in a story full of ironies, the Laughing Brook area was used as hunting grounds until Burgess bought it in 1928.
Why build the club on a steep esker? The hill offered not only a commanding view of the woods and the brook, but also privacy, so Coates could serve his guests alcohol during Prohibition.
For Burgess, however, the vantage point provided inspiration. It looked out over landmarks he included in his story and the “purple hills” in the distance. There were times, during the 27 years he wrote up there, when children were his best editors and critics. Geneva Lloyd, a neighbor recalls spending many hours with him. He used to take her up to his studio, and place her in a comfortable chair. There were times when she fell asleep while waiting for him to finish typing a tale. “When he was done with his story,” she said, “he would awaken me, and I would sit on his knee and listen to the story.” He said he could always tell if it was a good one, because then she would stay awake. But if she fell asleep, she recalled, “he needed to work on it some more.”
But the building’s lack of accessibility played a large role in its eventual downfall. The 1955 flood, which ravaged the region, eroded the hill enough to prompt an aging Burgess to convert his lowland barn into his new writing studio. In the picture below, men and equipment from Christianson Construction, hired by Burgess, remove silt that was washed downstream when a dam was breached in the 1955 deluge. In yet another irony, a flooding Laughing Brook would continue to be the bane of the nature sanctuary’s existence, rising time and time again and gobbling up Mass Audubon funds needed to repair storm damage.
According to a Springfield Daily News article, the esker studio was used for storage and as an occasional classroom at Laughing Brook when it was renovated for six months in 1972-73 by the Springfield Rotary Club. As attendance continued to grow (44,000 visitors in 1972), Laughing Brook directors needed a classroom for rainy day classes, adult lecture series, and nature study workshops.
The Rotary Club donated $1,000 for materials, and its volunteers did the work, which involved insulating, paneling, and “generally rebuilding the bungalow interior,” according to the story.
Pictured above are Laughing Brook Director David Bonney and Springfield Newspapers publisher Sidney Cook installing a plaque, which, amazingly, was still on the structure during the summer of 2010 (pictured below). It was removed sometime in mid-summer 2010.
The article describes children gathering inside the esker studio in the spring of 1973 for an explanation of some of the center’s trails, before starting out on a hike. “Not only children can find things to ponder here,” according to the article. “Adults, for instance, can now sit in Burgess’ writing bungalow, look out the window at his “purple hills,” and think about what Burgess had to say about the writing of his 75 books: ‘When I start a story, I just sit down and type as the story comes to me. It’s like unwinding a ball of yarn and I never know what’s coming next.’”
The unwinding story of the deterioration of the building is just as difficult to pinpoint. When did it cease to be a “nature study workshop” and become more of a ruin? I’m sure past directors and volunteers at Laughing Brook can answer that one better than I could. I remember walking in there as a kid, but I can’t for the life of me recall the condition it was in when I left the Springfield area in 1986. The structure is pictured below in a 1985 article, but no mention is made of its condition. Because Laughing Brook still attracted 30,000 visitors back then, it’s safe to say it wasn’t decrepit—I’m sure someone would have pointed it out if the building was falling apart (like the newspaper reporter who wrote the story.)
To be sure, after the controversies of the 1990s, concerned citizens began to make waves about the studio. At least as early as 2002 someone called the Mass Audubon headquarters in Lincoln, MA regarding the studio’s condition—and about rumors that it would be torn down. A Mass Audubon official denied the rumor. In 2003 a manager at the Thornton W. Burgess Society, which operates the Thornton Burgess W. Burgess Museum in Sandwich, MA, complained in an online forum that the studio “is crumbling on its foundations.” It “needs to be stabilized—quickly—on a new foundation. It may even need to be moved to a new site as environmental conditions take a severe toll on its present foundation every year.”
In a 2003 letter to the editor of the Wilbraham-Hampden Times, a citizen, complaining about the state of the buildings, including the inaccessibility of the Burgess residence, wrote, “Perhaps we should change the name of Laughing Brook to Crying Brook.”
There was talk about the feasibility of literally picking up the studio and moving it to the Burgess Museum property in Sandwich, but both the Thornton W. Burgess Society and the Mass Audubon Society nixed that possibility.
In 2006, according to several emails I obtained, another conservancy group, the Trustees of Reservations, was approached by frustrated Hampden residents about the organization potentially working out an agreement with Mass Audubon to take over management of Laughing Brook. An email reply revealed that the Trustees of Reservation was willing to discuss this with Mass Audubon staff in order to find “a creative solution to the management issues.” But, apparently, nothing ever became of the brainstorming.
In 2010, the controversy erupted again with not only a blistering op-ed piece in the April 1 edition the Wilbraham-Hampden Times by David Cesan, but also, on less public level, in a letter from the Hamden Historical Commission to Mass Audubon in response to more rumors that the esker studio would be torn down. The letter recommended against demolition, on the advice from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, pointing out that tearing down the structure might jeopardize the Burgess home’s National Historic Register status, since the house’s ancillary buildings are included in the historic designation.
The demolition rumors, it seems, weren’t far off the mark, since it turns out that Mass Audubon’s prior contactors favored this solution.
But the demolition option was “unacceptable,” according to Mass Audubon, and skeptics should take note that it might just be the beginning of a new era at Laughing Brook: the work that has been conducted on the esker studio thus far is the biggest development at the sanctuary since it was significantly downsized 14 years ago.
Moreover, there is a director, Mary Shanley-Koeber, who, unlike the directors of the 1990s, finally did something to prevent the studio on the hill from succumbing to the elements.
As I wrote earlier, I am trying to keep this piece positive, and I must acknowledge that Mass Audubon’s plan wasn’t to let the Burgess’ buildings fall apart. The main house was renovated in 1985, and the barn studio was renovated in 2004. The structures remain off limits to the public, but Mass Audubon is in the business of land preservation, not building preservation. Moreover, the fact that a sanctuary caretaker lives in the second floor of the Burgess house is indeed fortunate—and he’s undoubtedly responsible for keeping the rest of the buildings from falling victim to vandalism and arson.
Mass Audubon also financially supports the Minnechaug Land Trust, a group dedicated to preserving open space in the area. I guess the real test of Mass Audubon’s commitment to Laughing Brook is whether or not it takes that second step and fully renovates the esker studio.
Who knows? Mass Audubon might even take an even further step and someday open the first floor of the Burgess home. A Hampden resident first contacted the organization about the condition of the buildings several times in 2002. She said that according to a Mass Audubon official, to open the Burgess home, what was necessary were local people willing to take responsibility for volunteering. When she called Mass Audubon again in October of 2005, the official was much less willing to make the house accessible to the public, although this conversation, which turned somewhat unpleasant, took place just after a flood that decimated the sanctuary, inundating the cellar with 19 inches of water and forcing the closing of Laughing Brook for three long years.
During this conversation, the Mass Audubon official mentioned that the organization has been made to feel unwelcome by the townspeople, according to the caller. But that was six years ago, and the maybe bad feelings have ebbed a bit. After all, at least the studio was saved.
The Hampden Historical Commission says it has “a cordial relationship” with Mass Audubon. That relationship will get even better if the studio is indeed renovated. Some people undoubtedly think this will happen when the Burgess character Piggy the Peccary sprouts wings and takes flight, but they should know this: it’s more likely to happen if Hampden residents are willing to help raise funds for the project.
The renovation of any Burgess buildings probably qualify for Community Preservation Act funding, but it remains to be seen if Hampden residents would support such an allocation, considering their mixed feelings about Mass Audubon. They view Laughing Brook as a jilted bride. Well, it’s time for that spurned sanctuary to take off that tattered wedding dress, throw on a mini-skirt, get a makeover, and get noticed again, dammit.
Don’t think it can’t happen. In spite of everything in the past, things are looking up: Shanley-Koeber and Mass Audubon President Laura Johnson are much more interested in Laughing Brook’s fate than their predecessors in the 1990s. It was under their watch that Burgess’ hill studio was stabilized. Also, they weren’t the ones who took an ax to the sanctuary’s budget in the 1990s, so may the townspeople and Mass Audubon can bury the hatchet once and for all.
And guess what: I returned to Laughing Brook on April 3 and noticed that the bagged leaves that had been cleaned from the studio floor have been moved outside, so there has been some activity there this spring!
“Of course I’m pleased that Audubon has at least stabilized the studio and hopefully will restore it, but I also wonder to what avail,” said David Cesan. “As Thornton W. Burgess’ home is closed to the public, it seems there is little chance that a restored studio might be accessible.” Until decision-makers at Mass Audubon “come to realize what a gem they have or could have in Laughing Brook and until they choose to honor the legacy of Burgess,” he adds, “then all they have are walking trails.”
Fables of the Green Forest
On another subject, I just had to leave Burgess lovers with a great find: Fables of the Green Forest, based on the Burgess tales, was a Japanese cartoon made in 1973 and its 52 episodes were translated and aired in many other countries and then in Canada in 1978, garnering it a cult following in the Great White North. I found it useful in exposing my five-year-old son to the Burgess stories, because this cartoon is much simpler version of the Burgess tales. The Burgess books are targeted toward older children, so my son didn't understand much of what was happening when I read a couple of tales to him. But he sure likes this cartoon.
Burgess entertained several proposals to animate his tales over the years, but this is the only one that came to fruition, eight years after his death.
This episode, in two parts, is entitled Adventures of Bobby Raccoon and Don Quixote:
Here is the only other episode I could find, Johnny's Secret Door:
Johnny's Secret Door, Part 1
Johnny's Secret Door, Part 2
Johnny's Secret Door, Part 3