Gazette Article by: Laurie Petersen
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall/Winter 2006
Despite steady rain and an unseasonable chill, tours of the Schmidt-Burnham log house were filled to capacity at the grand opening on September 10. Visitors of all ages learned about pioneer days from docents in period costume and heard a dramatized first-person account of Anita Willets-Burnham’s fascinating life. Outdoors, visitors in the new Crow Island Woods picnic shelter listened to the bluegrass band Special Consensus and applauded the dedication ceremony for both the park and log house. Tours began with the exterior of the house, where docents shared a brief history of the c.1837 structure, the 1917 addition on the back, the house’s two moves within Winnetka, and its restoration. Once inside, visitors traveled back in time to the two different eras. In the front room, furnished with reproductions of furniture and household goods, docents discussed the joys and rigors that pioneers like the Schmidts experienced in the early 1850s. Upon proceeding to the back of the house, visitors were greeted by a dramatic caped woman impersonating log house owner and artist Anita Willets-Burnham (in reality Ellie Carlson, the Society’s costume curator). It was Anita who added these rooms to the house after moving it from Indian Hill to Tower Road in 1917. Copies of her book Round the World on a Penny and artwork of its illustrations were on display. The reenactment was especially poignant for three visitors: the granddaughters of Anita Willets-Burnham. Carol Dearborn, Susan Varn and Jane Bernhardt all traveled to Winnetka from their homes in New England and were delighted with what they saw. The event also brought together several descendants of Peter Schmidt, the home’s first recorded owner. Winnetkan Jean Quinnan was joined by relatives from as far away as Texas, all of whom trace their family back to Schmidt through his granddaughter, Ellen Engelhardt. The process of transforming the pioneer lodging and artist’s home and studio into a house museum was complex. One of the biggest challenges the Society took on when they moved the house in 2003 was site preparation. Because the house occupies parkland (on a long-term lease from the Park District) there were no utilities; gas, water, electricity and telephone service all had to be brought in from surrounding streets. Grading and drainage issues also needed to be addressed due to the flood plain location. Gravel access paths and a ramp at the back of the house make it fully accessible to the handicapped. Alarm and sprinkler systems were other necessary additions. The most visible of all the work was the repair of the deteriorating wood, which will soon blend in as well as the restored windows do. Plantings around the house and in Crow Island Park evoke the prairie landscape as well as early settlers’ gardens. A boardwalk provides access through a sedge meadow that serves as a rainwater detention swale. The Garden Guild of Winnetka made a major financial donation, Martin & Associates donated the landscape design, and the Crow Island Brownie troop provided money from their 2006 cookie sale to purchase three apple trees just outside the house. The log house was open for two additional Sundays in October and will be toured by school groups before re-opening to the public in May. The Winnetka Historical Society is proud to bring to life two important eras of the Village’s past, marking a new milestone in the long and significant history of this house.