“B” is for Burnham Log House

Gazette Article by: Trish Early
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 1995

Several years ago when the Minnesota Historical Society reopened its exhibit area, a unique approach was taken to interpret its history from “A to Z.” Various objects and topics were depicted by “letters,” and visitors moved through the gallery “alphabetically.” The editorial board of the Winnetka Historical Society Gazette has decided to adopt a similar technique and has added a new feature, “WINNETKA HISTORY: A to Z.”

Winnetka’s oldest structure is located on one of the busiest roads in the village, yet goes unnoticed by most passersby. Hidden among the trees, this small log house (that used to be) at the corner of Tower and Vernon exemplifies the life-style of the early settlers of our community.

It was constructed of those materials found nearby—wood, stone and earth. Although a simple log cabin requires little skill and few tools, this building is more sophisticated, with close-fitting logs, a more complicated system of notching an a second story. It was built to last and obviously has for almost 170 years. A test of its sturdiness occurred in 1917 when it was moved from its original location to its present site.

As unique as it construction is to Winnetka, so is the history of its owners. During its first century, the original half of the house belonged to the family of Schmidt. In 1947 Mrs. Cecelia Koos Weisenberg, a great granddaughter of the original pioneer Schmidt, gave a brief family history to the Winnetka Historical Society. The Schmidts came to this country in 1826 from Trier, Germany, they eventually settled in the log house. Their tract of 37 acres was strategically located not far from the Green Bay Trail, the major thoroughfare between Fort Dearborn and Fort Howard, near the current intersection of Church Road and Winnetka Avenue. Here the Schmidts raised four children and socialized with other recent immigrants from the Trier area of Germany. The house was inherited by their son Peter, who remodeled it to accommodate his ten children. Eventually the property passed out of the family’s hands and was in the possession of Mr. Charles Joy when it was “discovered” by Anita Willets Burnham.

Mrs. Burnham, a well-known local artist and writer, stopped at the structure to request some water while on a painting excursion. Her curiosity was immediately aroused when she noticed logs peeking from behind the broken plaster. Once the original construction was verified, she was well on her way to negotiating for its purchase.

In the meantime, the land became property of the Indian Hill Club. After some reluctance on part of the board of the club, it was agreed that Mrs. Burnham could buy the house, but not the land. Thus began her search for a suitable location for her $25 log house. She finally settled on a piece of property on Tower Road overlooking the beautiful Skokie Marsh. An additional $100 was needed to move the house. Once it was situated, the Burnhams had a clapboard lean-to added onto the back to provide more space. When her labor of love was competed, Mrs. Burnham spoke warmly of the little log house. “I hope it is contented with its final destiny…a home for a family that loves it, a place for their friends to enjoy.”

The house has been placed in trust for the Winnetka Historical Society and they plan to preserve its history. If one thinks of the architecture of Winnetka as “a living museum of styles,” then certainly this authentic hand-hewn structure gives us a much deeper understanding of our past. Even though it has not been determined whether this building is the oldest in Cook County, its local architectural and historical significance is undisputed. Truly the past is present when one views this log house.

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