Who the Heck was John Burroughs, Anyway?

by Susie Hodgson

Burbank is an interesting city. Known for its state-of-the-art studios, you could call Burbank a modern metropolis. But the tree-lined streets, with its many 1950s era homes, belies this idea. So you could call Burbank an old-fashioned, friendly, sweet self-sustaining town. I know I would.

One particularly telling sign of this is the way Burbankers feel about their high schools. From cradle to grave, locals forever identify with being a Bulldog or an Indian. It’s not like that everywhere. As one who went to high school in Woodland Hills, I can guarantee you I didn’t know my high school’s team names. And I certainly didn’t know that of our rivals’! (Note: But before you label me an outsider, fear not! I’ve been in Burbank for 32 years!)

We probably all know where Burbank High got its name - from Burbank! (Dr. David Burbank, dentist, who founded our fair city, not botanist Luther Burbank.) But where did John Burroughs High School get its name? Who the heck was John Burroughs anyway?

Let’s see. There was the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, founded in 1886 and renamed the Burroughs Corporation in 1953. It was founded by William Seward Burroughs. Was he John Burroughs’ Dad? Gramps? Uncle? Brother? None of the above. They were not related. Sorry.

Then there was the famous beatnik writer and beatnik leader, William S. Burroughs II. Now he WAS related to the Burroughs family of Burroughs Adding Machine Company fame. It was his grandfather who founded the adding machine company. Needless to say, William S. Burroughs II was born into wealth. His most famous book, The Naked Lunch, was labeled risqué in its time – it might even be today! Legend has it he was disowned because of it. William S. Burroughs II wrote graphically from his own personal experience – as a junkie and a gay man in a time when that was still considered a mental illness. But writer Burroughs was also acclaimed by many others, especially beatniks!

John (NOT either William) Burroughs was a naturalist, born in 1837, the seventh of ten children who lived in the Catskills in NY. He lived on a family farm and was captivated by the fauna and flora that populated it. But that sweet, fairy-tale-like upbringing was not to last. As a teenager, John’s father presented him with an INVOICE for what it cost to raise him! Dad also refused to pay for his son’s extra books or higher education. John Burroughs got a teaching job, paid his father back and never talked to him again.

For a while, John alternated between teaching and going to college. At first he attended a seminary, but he dropped out when he realized how much he missed the girl he left behind. He later finished college and married his girlfriend, Ursula. And then he got his big break: In 1860, John Burroughs wrote an essay for the then-new magazine, the Atlantic Monthly. A few years later, he got a “day job” as a bank clerk, later followed by the job of bank examiner. He also befriended poet Walt Whitman. In 1873 he built an estate called Riverby on nine acres in NY where he grew various crops. It’s now a historic landmark. Later he bought additional land on which he and his son Julian built a cabin they called Slabsides, also a historic landmark. Later still, he bought an old farmhouse he called Woodchuck – yet another historic landmark. How he got the money, we don’t know. But we do know that John Burroughs wrote 27 books. (Guess nature was popular!)

And he made friends – VIPs even. Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, Harvey Firestone, EH Harriman and Thomas Edison to name a few. How he made such fancy friends, we don’t know. All of them achieved truly great accomplishments, BUT today we also know a few not-so-nice facts about some of these buddies, such as….

Teddy Roosevelt (while still a hero) was a big-game hunter and hawk. John Muir, nature lover, is now called a racist and ardent believer in eugenics. Genius Henry Ford was a raging anti-semite. Harvey Firestone lived on a 90-acre site developed by Henry Ford. EH Harrison was a not-always-ethical railroad executive and the patriarch of a wealthy family. (Note: Pamela Harriman, ambassadors to many countries, was EH Harriman’s daughter-in-law. She also married: Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph, an alcoholic; Leland Hayward, a renowned producer who was once married to Margaret Sullavan, who played the female lead in old-time cult classic film, The Shop Around the Corner. She was also married to Henry Fonda, and she later committed suicide as did two of her kids.) Finally Pamela wed the rich W. Averill Harriman, a man with whom she carried on an affair for years while still married to Hayward. And another John Burroughs’ friend, Thomas Edison, although he had thousands of inventions, had virtually no education, and made a film showing the literal electrocution of an elephant. [It's on YouTube. - Wes] Edison also toyed with making chemicals, including aspirin, which he eventually sold to Bayer. Bayer provided the gas for the ovens in the Holocaust.

John Burroughs married twice, oops - make that once. Remember first wife Ursula? Ursula grew sick of John. She claimed he -- AND his, um, physical demands, if you know what I mean! -- were immoral and intolerable. She died at 29 and no one is sure what killed her. Then he met Clara Burrus. Clara was a physician who worked in a mental hospital. She was 37 years old – nearly half the age of John Burroughs, yet to him, she was his greatest love. She was his intellectual equal -- plus his lover. When Ursula died, Clara moved in.

But going back, when John Burroughs first started college, he attended seminary. That changed. In fact, he became a devout atheist. A pantheist even – and that means believing that, “God is all around you. It’s nature.” AND he stated, “Leap and the net will appear.” And then there’s this quote, “There is no God.”

As mentioned, John Burroughs wrote a LOT. Clara Burrus also published their letters and his biography. Did you notice Clara’s surname stayed Burrus? That’s because they never married. Some said she slept in the guest room downstairs. But people in-the-know said, uh, not quite! They lived together! Not exactly kosher for the times. John Burroughs died at age 84, while enjoying himself at the foot of the same rock he played on as a child.

And now you know who John Burroughs was! A brilliant naturalist, a stubborn son, a friend of many famous people – and you might say, a sinner! (A semi-sinner? A sorta sinner?! You pick!)

Want to learn more about Burbank? Come visit us!

The Burbank Historical Society/Gordon R. Howard Museum
Located in George Izay Park, right next to the Creative Arts Center
Phone: (818) 841-6333
Web site: www.burbankhistoricalsoc.org
Email: ghowardmuseum@sbcglobal.net

Return to Burbankia