The Changing Landscape of Winnetka

Gazette Article by: Bean Carroll
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 2004

The Beginning

What did the first residents of Winnetka find when they traveled north from Chicago and settled on the shores of Lake Michigan? This article begins a series of articles discussing the changing face of the landscape of the North Shore.

What was here before the time of settlement? Though Illinois is known as the “Prairie State,” the shoreline north of Chicago along Lake Michigan was called the “Big Woods.” This area covered most of the land from Lake Michigan to the east banks of the Chicago River’s North Branch. Growing conditions varied depending on the terrain. The changing levels of glacial Lake Chicago had created a series of ridges and swales that fostered a diverse forest. This area not only had dry areas, but also very wet conditions, including a swamp forest. In drier portions stood oaks—black, red, white and burr—and shagbark hickory trees. Also, these areas included white birch, white pine, juniper and occasionally black cherry. The lowlands and swales were home to swamp white oaks, American elms, basswood, ash, silver maple, sugar maple, bitternut hickory and butternut. The lowland and swale forests occurred more frequently and were the least disturbed by the influx of settlers.

As is still true today in remnants of the old woods, the spring is lush. As recorded by Lillian Simmons of Northwestern University in the 1920s, the land was rich and luxuriant, full of young trees such as chokecherry, elderberry, prickly ash and unfriendly poison ivy and bristly green brier. Early settlers would also find such plants as white trillium, red trillium, bulbous cress, white trout lily, bloodroot, bellwort, and mayapple flowering under the springtime canopy. The region was rich in floristic diversity.

This diversity would have been wasted on the early settlers. As they first arrived in the “Big Woods” after having been able to purchase an acre of land for a dollar, they were more interested in clearing the area and building a homestead. The first pioneers began settling on the North Shore in the 1820s. According to J.S. Curry, an Evanston historian, new arrivals in this region cleared a space for their dwellings and continually enlarged it so that in a season or two, they formed the outlines of fields for future farms. Curry wrote, “He attacked the forest growth with such furious zeal that daylight began to penetrate the gloom of the original forest in many places, and so great was his eagerness to extirpate every vestige of the obstruction to open farmland that he did not allow a single tree or bush to remain near his dwelling.” The wood that was cleared from these sites was primarily transported to Chicago and sold. A cord of oak sold for 75 cents.

The log house, now located in Crow Island Woods and possibly built by Alexander McDaniel in 1837 as a bachelor’s inn, would have been witness to the aggressive clearing of the forest. The log house was purchased in 1841 by the Schmidt family who lived there and grew their food in a vegetable garden and apple orchard around the house. What would they have brought with them to plant in their garden? What native plants would still be growing near the house even though it had been cleared? These are questions we hope to answer as this series continues.

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