Appeared in the Spring Summer 2023 Gazette
by Joan Evanich
It is hard to believe that the Schmidt-Burnham Log House moved to Crow Island Park 20 years ago this May. Surprisingly, it was not the first time the almost 200-year-old house was moved! The hand-hewn house originally was located at the current site of the Indian Hill Golf Club and was first occupied by the Schmidt family, immigrants from Trier, Germany. Three generations of the family lived in the house beginning in 1839. They eventually remodeled their home by plastering the interior walls and covering the exterior logs with clapboard siding. The house sold in 1870 when part of the Schmidt family moved to Wisconsin.
Several people owned the property after the Schmidts left. Then, in 1914, local artist Anita Willets Burnham discovered the old house while on a painting excursion. The old clapboards were rotting away, and Mrs. Burnham noticed the silver logs underneath. She became obsessed with owning it and after three years of negotiations finally bought the house in 1917 for $25. Right before the transaction was completed the land was purchased by the Indian Hill Club. If the Burnhams still wanted the house, they would have to move it, so they bought a small piece of land at the edge of the Skokie Marsh. They paid $100 for a team of horses to pull the house to its new location on North Avenue (now Tower Road). It took three days for the three-mile trip. Alfred and Anita Burnham soon built an addition on the back of the original 1830s structure to add modern conveniences for themselves and their four children that included electricity and indoor plumbing. They also added a fireplace and built-in cabinetry in the original part of the house.
A 1941 Winnetka Talk article quoted Anita Willets Burnham saying, “it was her dream for the Winnetka Historical Society to one day own her log house.” To fulfil her mother’s wish, Burnham’s youngest daughter, Ann Burnham Smith, contacted the Winnetka Historical Society in 1997 to see if it had any interest in owning and preserving her family home. The WHS board was highly enthusiastic, and focus groups were conducted with leaders of the community. Once village interest was garnered, it was decided that the Society would accept Mrs. Smith’s offer of the log house.
During the next few years, home visits were made to Mrs. Smith by board and staff members to learn more about the family and the history of the house. Because the house was to be given to the Society without the attached land, a feasibility study for moving the house had to be conducted. Inspections took place and an all-clear pronouncement was given by State Historian Ron Nelson. The house was officially bequeathed to WHS when Ann Burnham Smith passed away in 2001. A myriad of artworks and personal effects of the Burnham family were also part of the gift. These items were carefully catalogued by WHS staff and moved to safe storage at the museum at 411 Linden.
Once the house was cleared, WHS researched and hired a house mover, J. C. Muehlfelt & Sons of Wheaton, Illinois. Preparation for the move took almost a month. First a trench was dug around the house to expose the foundation and several holes were cut through the basement walls enabling access for the house jacks and metal beams required to lift the 26’ x 32’ structure.
In the meantime, the Crow Island location had its own challenges. The new site was in a flood-plain and a former trash dump was located under the house’s proposed location. These discoveries required partnerships with FEMA and the EPA. Eventually all drainage issues were addressed with the installation of drainage pipes in a swale near the house. Compensatory storage was created to make up for earth removed by a new foundation. All debris consisting of cans and bottles was removed and new clean soil was returned to the site. Everything was finally in place.
Moving day arrived on May 6, 2003, and what a beautiful, sunny day it was! The noise level was quite high as news helicopters hovered overhead. Police provided crowd control for the hundreds of excited spectators including school children, parents, neighbors, television reporters and cameras. A loud cheer broke out at approximately 9:00 am as the 75-ton log house was pulled onto Tower Road. The house was preceded by two tree trimming bucket trucks as it slowly eased its way west. A large tree limb threatened to slow down the process, but the ingenious house movers deflated the trailer tires just enough to squeak past the last obstacle and we all took a deep breath of relief. With tires reinflated, the house continued its journey toward Forest Way Drive.
The Log House Committee walked with the house as it slowly turned south onto Forest Way Drive. Our police escort closed off the street making this leg of the trip very quiet and peaceful in comparison to all the exuberance of Tower Road. Things got lively again once we turned east onto Willow Road – we were almost there! An even larger crowd excitedly watched as we entered Crow Island Park around noon. The house movers made a huge circle with their truck to make sure it was exactly in the correct position (thoughtfully chosen by Ken Behles to not be on a “grid” with the road).
After years of anticipation and planning, Anita Willets Burnham’s dream of WHS ownership and sharing of the Log House was being fulfilled. Almost all of the Log House move was privately funded through a capital campaign led by volunteers Jim Hansen and Steve Adams. The ambitious plan could not have succeeded without the partnership of the Village, Park District, District 36, the members, board and staff of WHS and the generous people of Winnetka. There was still a lot of work to be done in preparation for our future guests. We were driven to succeed by recalling Anita’s inspiring words, “Doing what can’t be done is the glory of living!” ■