By Holly Marihugh
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall/Winter 2019
Even though it rained cats and dogs on and off, around 300 visitors stepped across the threshold of the Schmidt-Burnham Log House on Pioneer Day held September 22nd. The event was part of Winnetka’s year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the village’s founding. The historic house gave visitors a chance to step back in time for a day: Families gathered around the fireplace and heard stories of daily pioneer life, such as rising early to feed farm animals, hauling water in buckets from a well, or scrubbing clothes on a washboard. They also watched a blacksmith fashion a tool over a red-hot fire, and a photographer demonstrate how to make old-fashioned tintype images.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the c. 1837 Schmidt-Burnham Log House has been open to the public since 2006. It’s named for the Schmidt family who immigrated from Germany in 1839 and lived in the historic house, and also for the Burnham family who called it home from 1917 to 2001. But it hasn’t always been located in the wide green expanse of Crow Island Woods where visitors flocked for Pioneer Day.
When the house was donated by the Burnham family to the Winnetka Historical Society (WHS) in 2001, a team of committed volunteers took on the Herculean task of moving it. In 2003, it traveled from Tower Road to its current site in Crow Island Woods. Leading the moving team was Joan Evanich, former WHS Executive Director, and a 37-year resident of Winnetka.
“In 1941, the Winnetka Historical Society officially became a not-for-profit,” says Evanich, now a WHS board member. “That same year, there was an article in the Winnetka Talk about a meeting held at the Log House hosted by Anita Willets-Burnham. She is quoted in the article, saying that one day she hopes that the Log House will belong to the Historical Society.“
In 1999, Ann Smith, a daughter of Willets-Burnham, made good on her mother’s wish. Smith sent a letter of intent to WHS, which declared that the upon her death, the Log House would be donated to the organization.
That letter sparked a flurry of activity for Evanich and WHS board members. The million-dollar question was: Did the village really want the Log House as a permanent historical building in town?
Evanich joined hands with partners Nancy Judge, the WHS board president at the time, and Ken Behles, an architect and former WHS board member. To gauge interest, the three of them talked with people all over Winnetka during a couple of years.
“We met with the Chamber of Commerce and the Village of Winnetka,” Evanich says. “We also met with Dr. van der Bogert of Winnetka Public Schools, the Winnetka Park District, and some community members. Overall, people thought the idea was fabulous.”
So with a thumbs up from the community, the next step was to find a permanent place to put the Log House. The Village of Winnetka had said that for a variety of reasons, it couldn’t stay on Tower Road. After investigating several sites, Behles, Evanich, and the board found the one that offered promise was Crow Island Woods. It appeared to have all the ingredients for an ideal location. The team then pressed onward to the “Big Move.”
Evanich talked with several organizations in both Illinois and Wisconsin that had moved historic buildings and concluded that the best way to transfer the Log House was to keep it in one piece.
“When you’re moving a structure like that, you can do it in two ways,” Evanich says. ‘You can take it apart and move it, which is easier in some ways to do. Or, you can move it intact. We decided to move it intact because we were very concerned about being left with a pile of logs, and then we’d have to raise more money to put it all back together.”
Despite the risks of moving, the team’s confidence remained solid. “We were just really optimistic,” Evanich remembers. “It was kind of scary, but we just thought it would work.”
Plans bumped along. The J.C. Muehlfelt & Sons company of Wheaton, Illinois had executed big structural moves like this one. It had helped moved the Cape Hatteras Light House in North Carolina. “It was clear they had the expertise,” Evanich says.
In the meantime, permits had to be issued for electrical wires to be taken down, the water hook-up had to be disconnected, and Comcast had to drop some of its cables for the Log House to pass along the route. Plus, Evanich and others had to negotiate with three different governmental entities–local, county, and state–to gain clearance for the Log House to travel west on Tower Road, south on Forest Way, and east on Willow Road.
Moving day finally arrived on May 6, 2003. Evanich paints this scene: “It was 70 degrees outside on a beautiful sunny day. We had kids from Hubbard Woods school there, in addition to hundreds of people lining up along Tower Road, watching this whole thing. There were helicopters flying overhead, which was the news media. Nancy [Judge] and I were interviewed on television. It was such an exciting, joyous occasion.”
Before the adventure, the owner of the moving company, Mr. Muehlfelt, pointed to a cup on a hook in the kitchen of Log House and said, “This move is going to be so smooth that this cup will not fall off the hook.”
And Evanich said, “Oh, really,” but she was thinking, “Yeah, right.” When the house was finally moved, and she went inside, that darn cup was still hanging on the hook!
The next three years were a whirlwind for the Historical Society. A new foundation was dug; a gigantic commercial-sized fire suppression system was installed in the new basement; and a comprehensive drainage system was designed for the grounds since Crow Island Woods is in a flood plain. Then a big surprise surfaced: truckloads of garbage were discovered on the site. All kinds of tin cans and bottles from the early 1900s had to be hauled away after FEMA and the EPA weighed in.
In addition, Evanich and staff developed educational materials and programs for children who would visit the Log House when it opened. Finally, various experts were consulted, and one from Maine was asked to calculate the exact age of the house and if certain fixtures, such as the fireplace, were original. It wasn’t.
The year 2006 turned over on the calendar, and the Historical Society hosted a grand opening party with about 200 guests in September. Grandchildren of Anita Willets-Burnham traveled from around the country to attend, and descendants of the Schmidt family joined the celebration as well. Everyone seemed grateful that the historic house was going to be preserved.
When Evanich thinks about why it’s important to save a historic house like this she says, “I feel very strongly that we are a country of immigrants. People came here for the idea that they could build a better a life for their families. Mr. Schmidt didn’t have his wife because she’d died, and he still brought his four children to this country.”
“The story of Anita Willets-Burnham also is fascinating because she’s such an individual, and was not your typical Winnetka homemaker,” Evanich continues. “The fact that we can tell these two stories in one house, covering a period from 1837 to the present makes the Log House a wonderful tool.“