Burnham Log House: 170 Years of Living

Appeared in the Gazette: Summer 1999

Society to preserve Cook County’s oldest building

The Winnetka Historical Society has been given the unique opportunity to preserve and share with the community the Burnham log house – considered to be the oldest building in Cook County. Thanks to the generosity of the Burnham family, the Society has been selected as the eventual owner and curator of this architecturally and historically significant structure.

Located on one of the busiest streets in the village, the small log house often goes unnoticed by passersby. Hidden among the trees at the corner of Tower and Vernon Avenue, it exemplifies the lifestyle of the early settlers of our community. It was constructed of 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. Now more than 170 years old, its sturdiness was tested in 1917 when it was moved from its original location to its present site.

The house originally belonged to the family of Michael Schmidt. The Schmidts emigrated from Koblenz, Germany in 1826 and settled on this homestead. Their tract of 37 acres was strategically located not far from the Green Bay Trail, the major thoroughfare between Chicago and Green Bay, Wisconsin, near the current intersection of Church Road and Winnetka Avenue. Here the Schmidts raised three children and socialized with other recent immigrants from the Trier area of Germany. Their son Peter inherited the house and remodeled it to accommodate his ten children. Eventually the property was sold to Mr. Charles Joy, the owner when it was “discovered” by Anita Willets Burnham in 1914.

While on a painting excursion, Mrs. Burnham, a well-known local artist and writer, stopped at the structure to request some water. 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 1917 the property was in the possession of Indian Hill Club. After some reluctance on its part, the club’s board agreed that Mrs. Burnham could buy the house, but not the land, for $25. Thus began her search for a suitable location for the log house. She finally settled on a piece of property on Tower Road overlooking the beautiful Skokie Marsh. The house was moved on rollers by a team of horses for a fee of $100. Once it was situated, the Burnhams added 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 last of Anita Willets-Burnham’s four children continued to live in the house and preserve its history until her passing.

If one thinks of Winnetka as a living museum of architectural styles, this authentic hand-hewn structure gives us a deeper understanding of our early history. The Society’s eventual plans for the house include moving it to another site where it will become an historical house museum open to the public.

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