Appeared in the Gazette: Spring/Summer 2000House of the Season: What’s in a Name?Is the home (that was formerly) located at 1407 Tower Road a log cabin or a log house? And what is the difference? As Winnetka’s oldest building and a reminder of the earliest settlers of our town, this structure deserves to be referred to by the correct title! Long associated with the “pioneer spirit” of American settlement and expansion, log buildings provided some of this country’s earliest housing.
In the mid-17th century Swedish and Finnish settlers introduced log construction in the area now known as Pennsylvania. Typically log buildings were simple in plan, constructed on materials found on hand, and contained little decoration. Doors and windows were cut into the walls and most structures contained chimneys. Log buildings varied by region and by construction methods used by other, primarily European groups.
Such buildings were easily erected even in areas with no railroad or water access to carry supplies. Log construction remained a popular form of building until the mid-19th century, despite the introduction of balloon framing and a then-substantial railroad network. Considered a truly national style of building, log exteriors still hold appeal for people hoping to capture a “pioneer spirit” and rustic feel. Abraham Lincoln, the “wild west,” and Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone are a few associations made with log construction.
Typical cabin construction used round logs with overlapping notched corners, similar to Lincoln Logs we all played with as children. Cabins were less sophisticated, one to one-and-a-half stories, and often limited to one or two rooms. Rounded logs made it difficult to create a weather-tight structure, and cabins were often erected quickly to provide temporary shelter.
Log houses, on the other hand, used logs that were hewn on two or four sides and stacked or horizontally laid. They were typically one or two stories high and featured more complex design, some with two or more rooms. They usually featured a chimney and windows cut into the walls. A process known as “chinking and daubing” served to fill the gaps between logs. Builders placed small stones and sticks (chinking) between the logs and then daubed with mud or clay mixed with animal hair or sand.
The corner joints of log houses were more elaborate than those of log cabins. As the number of rooms and complexity of the buildings increased, it became critical to provide stability at the joints. Log houses utilized dovetailed joints, notched and square joints.
The Schmidt-Burnham structure, built c 1820, clearly earns the nomenclature log house. When the Schmidt family relocated to Winnetka from Koblenz, Germany, they moved into an existing log house. Originally the house was built with several rooms around a chimney and a second story. It was designed as a permanent structure using square hewn logs with chinking and square corner joints. At a later date, more rooms were created, the interior stuccoed, and the exterior clapboarded, as was common to “update” log houses. In 1917 Anita Willets-Burnham discovered the house and had it relocated, at a cost of $100, to its present site.
This log house has long outlived its original family, providing generations with a view to our past. When you see it in its present site, or, in the future, on its way to its new home, you will recognize it as the log house it truly is.
(The Schmidt-Burnham Log House is now owned by the Winnetka Historical Society.)