The Herald Bulletin

January 26, 2013

Pierce Burton was county’s first kids author

By Beth Oljace
For The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — Over the years, Madison County has produced several authors who wrote for children.

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, who wrote the popular Shiloh series of books, and Sanford Tousey, who wrote and illustrated books set in the western United States, are the best-known. But the first Madison County children’s author is all but forgotten today.

Charles Pierce Burton was born in Anderson, but he became famous far from Madison County. His father and mother were natives of New England. A love of writing brought his parents together. Charles’ father was a fledgling newspaperman on the North Adams Transcript who became acquainted with his mother when she wrote some schoolgirl essays for the newspaper.

After they married, they came to Indiana where Pierce Burton found work as a railroad clerk. Unfortunately, Charles’ mother never seems to have recovered from the effects of childbirth, and it became clear to her husband that she wasn’t going to live long. With a dying wife and an infant son to care for, Pierce Burton had no choice. He took his family home to Massachusetts to her family. His wife died soon after, but he remained with his in-laws and worked as a grocer, while his son was raised by his grandparents.

Young Charles roamed the area around Adams, Mass., a lonely boy from a household of adults. Immediately behind his grandparents’ house was a 200-foot ridge called Bob’s Hill, after the owner of the property. It wasn’t a real mountain, but it was enough to fire his imagination and provide adventure. He wandered the banks of the Hoosac River and the foothills of the Berkshires and dreamed. By the time he was in school, his restless father was gone again. Tiring of Massachusetts, he bought a newspaper in Alabama and then one in Illinois.

Charles joined his father (who by now had a new family) in Illinois when he was 12. His father had become a respected newspaper owner, and the family lived in the Chicago suburb of Aurora. Charles went to high school, where he did well. He liked to joke that he was the brightest boy in high school class. (He was in fact the only boy in his high school class.)

He worked for his father as a printer’s devil and became a newspaperman reporter in Aurora. He also wrote essays and articles on serious business topics which were published in prestigious magazines like Harper’s. He married, and he and his wife had three children. Like most parents, he told stories to his children. Most of them were set in Adams, Mass., and the hills and streams around it.

In 1905, a chance request from a friend who was an editor changed his life. The editor remarked that he was looking for a new series of books for boys. Burton, thinking back to his childhood, said that he thought he might try to write one. Burton produced The Boys from Bob’s Hill.

The story, set in a fictionalized Adams, followed the summer exploits of eight boys who court adventure and disaster in the pursuit of fun. (Fun being loosely defined as train wrecks, landslides and the occasional forest fire.)

The book was immediately popular and Burton followed it quickly with three more Bob’s Hill books in the next few years. The fourth book, The Boy Scouts of Bob’s Hill, was perhaps the most popular of the series and was praised for its early adoption of the Boy Scout movement.

While children’s books became Burton’s ticket to fame, he was a man of many interests. For a while, he moved to northwest Indiana, where he worked for newspapers in Valparaiso and Gary. He was actively involved in supporting the New York-Chicago Air Line, a proposed straight, high-speed railway between New York and Chicago, a project that never got off the ground.

For 20 years he was the editor of Earth Mover magazine, the monthly publication of the Austin-Western Machinery Co. He developed an interest in many technical fields, and some of his later books are about mining and construction. He wrote a newspaper column for the Aurora newspaper and was in constant demand as a speaker.

The Bob’s Hill books continued to be popular. Burton published 12 in all, the last in 1939, 34 years after the first book. Some of the later books have far-away settings inspired by Burton’s own travels. (A trip to Brazil for an international exhibition gave birth to The Bob’s Hill Boys in the Andes.)

While not as popular or well-known as Tom Swift, the Bob’s Hill gang maintained a consistent audience. For years, fans of the books made pilgrimages to Adams, Mass., to see the hills, the caves and the rivers that inspired the author.

Charles Pierce Burton died in 1947 of heart disease at age 85. He was buried in Aurora, where he had lived most of his life.

If he had never left Madison County, he wouldn’t have written the Bob’s Hill books. However, it’s fun to speculate what he might have written if he had stayed. Perhaps the White River and the Indian Mounds might have become the setting for a different series of boys’ books.

The Bob’s Hill book series is still in demand by book collectors. The books have become very scarce now and used copies are listed for huge prices on the Internet.

Beth Oljace works in the Indiana Room at the Anderson Public Library. She can be reached at boljace@yahoo.com.