The Changing Landscape of Winnetka

Gazette Article by: Bean Carroll
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall/Winter 2005

The Early Settlers

In the first article of this series (Fall/Winter 2004), we discussed the landscape that existed on the North Shore before the area was settled. As the first pioneers moved in, they brought with them their traditions and possessions. As has been demonstrated by many different immigrant groups, people tend to recreate what is comfortable and familiar to them in a new location. The early settlers of the Midwest were no different. How did this impact our landscape? We will look at the Schmidt family and what they might have brought with them from Germany, both in traditions as well as land use ideas. What would the log house have looked like while the Schmidt family lived there?

In the 1830s, the Midwest experienced a large influx of Germans. This migration had many causes. Some left Germany for religious reasons, others due to a collapse of the country’s agrarian economy between the 1820s and 1840s, and others left because of political changes. The Schmidt family emigrated from Koblenz, Germany in 1839. According to New York, 1820-1850, Passenger & Immigration Lists, Peter Schmidt, his son and three daughters arrived in New York from Le Havre on a ship named Florence. How they traveled from New York to Chicago is unknown. They may have come across to the Midwest by wagon or through the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes. Descendants of the family note that they moved into the already-built log house in Winnetka in the 1830s. They are the first fully documented owners of this house, having officially purchased it and 40 acres of land in 1841 when the property first became available for sale by the government. Most immigrant groups in America tended to live among their own people. The Germans were no different. A group of German Catholics lived along the Ridge Road, stretching from Grosse Pointe to the southern regions of present day Winnetka, where the Schmidt-Burnham log house originally stood. An immigrant’s native region affected garden patterns, livestock, furniture and food. The Schmidt family most likely would have planted a little bit of the homeland around them. We can only guess at the fruits, vegetables and other plants they might have planted in their garden; however, history provides us with many clues. Whatever the German immigrants’ social class or region, there was little difference between a decorative and a kitchen garden. The most common layout, if the land was fairly flat, was a rectangular or square garden divided into four plots. The gardens were generally to the rear of the house, hence the name kitchen garden. It was just outside the back door, with the house forming the fourth side to the fencing which surrounded the garden. Gardens were always enclosed to keep animals out. This was usually done with wood—woven strips, palings, pickets, or similar poultry-tight and hog-proof fencing.

The enclosed kitchen garden—or useful garden as it was frequently called—contained various items. Lists included vegetables, cooking herbs, flowers, medicinals, and plants with “magical attributes.” Flowers, herbs and vegetables were intermingled due to the German belief that companion plantings led to healthier plants and insect resistance. To prevent mulching, plants were sown closely to provide shade for each other. Raised beds with board sides were seldom used except for the occasional asparagus patch. Vegetables most commonly planted by German immigrants were rhubarb, onions, leeks, garlic, chives, shallots, white and red cabbage, kale, broccoli, peas, runner beans, sorrel, various lettuces and radishes. Due to the great importance to the Germans of their “useful gardens,” many brought seed with them of plants which are uncommon today. It would have been unusual for a German family to not have considered planting such a garden in their new home.

In a rural setting such as the Schmidt’s house, the garden would have been next to a small orchard which was also tightly fenced. We know that the house was sitting in the middle of an apple orchard when Anita Burnham found it. Germans would have had many different fruit trees in their orchard. Certainly, apple trees would have been there as well as pears, prune plums, fresh plums and cherries. Other fruits were also found, including raspberries, blackberries, red and black currants and gooseberries. Germans of all economic levels appreciated variety in their diet and had a deep love of fruit.

As the North Shore became further developed and lots became smaller, the landscape changed yet again. Kitchen gardens that were fenced to keep livestock out would become less common. Instead picket fences, roses and peonies would begin to cover the yards of newer houses. The next article in our series will discuss what changes would have been seen in the 1860s at houses such as 411 Linden.

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