Gazette Article by: David Shelby
Appeared in the Gazette: Summer 2003
Winnetka Real Estate Development: History of the 559 Oak Area
Alexander McDaniel was one of Winnetka’s first land developers. In summer 1836, he came to Chicago as a young man from a Mohawk Valley farm in New York and traveled north to look at land in the Ouilmette Indian Reservation. He put a deposit on three 40-acre sections that had not yet been surveyed. After he purchased another 31 acres, it is believed that McDaniel built a bachelor hotel on the grounds of present day Indian Hill Club. The log structure was later purchased by the Schmidt family of Koblenz, Germany. Although it had several other owners in the late 1800s, the log house was eventually bought by Anita Willets-Burnham who moved it to Tower Road in 1917. Of course, this is the historic building that has recently been moved to Crow Island Woods by the Winnetka Historical Society.
Early documents show the final McDaniel transaction was for 151 acres for which he paid the U.S. Land Office a total of $190 or the standard $1.25 per acre. This was just five years after stagecoach service was established on the Green Bay Trail from Chicago. McDaniel seemed to have a “golden touch” as he became a forty-niner in 1850 and actually returned to the area with $2,700 proceeds from his California claim that he used to buy more land in Wilmette. Upon his return, McDaniel immediately sold 80 acres to John Happ, an immigrant from Trier, Germany, who opened Winnetka’s first blacksmith shop near the southwest corner of Elm and Maple Streets in 1843.
Ten years later, Happ sold his 80 acres to Charles Peck and Walter Gurnee who oversaw the original Winnetka subdivision into 71 blocks and streets in 1858. As Gurnee was the president of the Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad, this transaction may have been Winnetka’s first “land speculation” based on advance knowledge of the future transportation route.
Named by Peck’s wife Sarah, Winnetka had a population of about 100 at that time. Surviving original title abstracts focus on the 4.8 acres of Block 21, bounded by Oak, Poplar, Elm and Cedar Streets. Ownership of the block passed through Townsend Abell and L. B. Mason before being sold to Artemas Carter in 1862 for $500 including a “premise” on the land, probably the residence at 559 Oak. The price was $104 per acre representing an average annual return of 23% compared to the price originally paid the U.S. Land Office.
Sarah Peck organized the first school in Winnetka in 1856 on the northeast corner of Elm and Sheridan Road that was subsequently moved to the Village Green. A community-minded person, Charles Peck donated the land for the Village Green in 1869 with the stipulation that no structure may be built on it which meant that the school had to be moved once again. That same year, Winnetka was incorporated as a Village with a population of 450.
Artemas Carter was the first Village president. In the 1870s, Carter started selling individual lots in Block 21 beginning with 545 Oak and 559 Oak to Austin Chamberlain for $1,000, including one acre and the 559 Oak dwelling. In 1872, Chamberlain sold the southeast corner lot at 545 Oak to Thomas Copelin for $6,100 including the original house. Two years later, Carter sold 527 Oak and 567 Oak to Horace Carter at the low price of $875. He also sold 513 Walnut to Murry Nelson who later donated the lot for resale in 1882 to John Dale.
About this time, the Village population was 584 and the first kerosene streetlights and some wooden sidewalks had been installed. In 1884, city water was first piped into Block 21. Until the late 1800s, the original title abstracts and records were written in beautiful cursive handwriting. All of this material is available for research at the Winnetka Historical Society. Learning more about the development of your neighborhood can be a very exciting and satisfying endeavor.