Heart Of The Prairie House
by Lana Gits, Restoration Committee, Westchester Historical
In the process of unraveling the complex history of the Franzosenbusch Prairie House we have found ourselves on a journey of surprising significance. What began as an effort to seek architectural examples for our restoration became a rediscovery of our heritage. It involved the story of President Jackson's Removal Act of 1830 and its devastating effect on the native people of this area. It included the German Lutheran immigration of the mid 1800's and it's influence on our educational system. And the account of a once powerful Chicago tycoon, Samuel Insull with his grand experiment of 1924, Westchester - "The City of Light". Beneath this, of course, lies the story of the tall grass prairie itself, over 8,000 years old. The Prairie House, then, is not only an example of the evolution of a typical Midwestern farmhouse, it represents the evolution of a community. We have come to appreciate this house as a sort of classroom where history comes alive and speaks to us through the layers its occupants left behind. Our task as a Historical Society is to listen and to share with you what we learn.
To help understand the various layers, try thinking of the Prairie House as a set of three, nested figures or boxes - each representing a basic time period. First, the exterior, "conjectural restoration" (below to the right, under label "1998"), which depicts its role as a museum and nature center. Inside, lies the old farmhouse (below middle, under "c. 1860-1880), its additions and construction dating back to the 1860's with a separate and rich history of its own. At the core lies the original, timber-frame construction (below left, under "1850's") of hand-hewn oak, believed to be the two-room schoolhouse built by German Lutheran immigrants in 1853 - also with a separate and fascinating history. We will detail all of these segments in future articles but for now we focus on the small but important inner core.
THE HEART: TIMBER FRAME
It has taken us 16 years to pick up where Ruth Lommatzsch and Ann Hoogstra left off. In 1983, while writing a 125th anniversary booklet for their church, Immanuel Lutheran in Hillside, they made an interesting discovery. Their research led them to take a closer look at a particular farmhouse in Westchester - then located west of the church property along Wolf Road. Beneath a small portion of the house they observed very old timbers and suspected that this section may have belonged to the "two room" 1853 schoolhouse spoken of in the very early records of the church. This schoolhouse was located on church property which included the southeast corner of Cermak and Wolf. This discovery, in turn, prompted citizens to form The Westchester Historical Society in 1983. The Society rescued and relocated the house in 1984, and thus began the long and infamous road to restoration.
INVESTIGATIVE DEMOLITION FINALLY BEGINS
What we found in the winter of 1999 deepened our convictions - that we did have
a structure of amazing historic significance or one that, at the very least,
dated to the early 1850's. A grueling "investigative demolition" by volunteers
further exposed three, massive, vertical hand-hewn corner timbers measuring 8x8
inches, a few heavy posts and a rare diagonal brace. These are the remnants of
the once an independent, 14x22 foot structure, now hidden within the northeast
corner of the first floor. A second floor and other additions were apparently
added around this small building in what we will call the "farmhouse" period
(beginning sometime in the 1860's).
This resulted in the removal of most of the original upright posts, ceiling and plates of the small structure. In addition, wall treatments both interior and exterior were removed and replaced with 2x4 inch uprights. Wood lathing was applied inside and cedar siding outside. Still visible from underneath, original, hand-hewn 8x8 inch wooden sills continue to frame the floor timbers. These beams support a tongue and groove pine floor above, complete with bulging knots and punctuated with mysterious markings. Apparently, as the building was incorporated into a farmhouse, the occupants removed all but the most essential floor and vertical elements of the first structure. Over the decades, this resulted in a total of three wood floors, one on top of the other. All of this has made our research difficult and yet fascinating. In many restoration projects there exist old photographs of the building to be restored, descriptions in letters or journals, incidental accounts of those who lived (or in our case, perhaps went to school) in the building. So far we have almost none of these. In addition, county and township property records are of enormous help in reconstructing an exact building site and description. In our case, however, most of the early Cook County records went up in smoke in 1871 - thanks to the Chicago Fire.
A RARE AND VALUABLE LINK
To perform a meaningful restoration of the interior of this little building, we must rely on solid historical data, even though it requires time to substantiate. Also time consuming are the assistance (pro bono) of various experts in the area of historical country schools, architectural history and restoration. Once we succeed in putting this information together, the exhibit will continue to interest the public now and even a hundred years from now. For it truly is a valuable link and a rare window to the past for school children and adults alike. Many of those familiar with it, have long agreed that this little remnant is, in fact, of well- known origin. It is strongly believed to be the very one constructed in the spring of 1853 by German Lutheran immigrants, mostly from Hanover, Germany for the purpose of educating their children in the little community of "Franzosenbusch" (German for Frenchman's Grove or Bush). In the following passage from Immanuel Lutheran Church records, we note similarities to our two-room remnant.
"...The first carpenter was Father Meyer. He contributed his time and others gave the building material. The building erected had two rooms, in one of which the teacher lived and the other served as the school room. One of the early teachers, Mr. Kirchner, had a large family. The children, when it came time to go to bed, slept in a loft in which the feed for the cattle and horses was kept. The hay served as a couch and it is related that the youngsters enjoyed it immensely... The new school house naturally served as a religious home. Reverend Brauer would come over and once in a while preach there on Sunday afternoons..."
- from the archives of the Immanuel Lutheran Church Records, Hillside, Illinois
FLOOR PLAN: Mechanical drawing by Larry Godson for construction of a
scale model of the two- room schoolhouse. Model shows structure as it may have
looked in 1853. All details are based upon on-going site investigation and
research. When completed, it will be used as an educational and display piece.
Please double-click on the thumbnail picture to the left to obtain a full-screen
view of the floor plan.
To the right is a wall sketch by Larry Godson, showing existing timbers (dark) and probable timber placements - based on mortise locations. This form of construction suggests a German "Fachwerk" style that might have included mud infill.
Examples of the distinctive diagonal bracing were found in the existing east and west walls of the 'schoolhouse' section of the Franzosenbusch Prairie House.
THE DETRITUS OF A 150 YEARS...
|For the research team to begin a more intensive investigation, we had to inspect the original floor. Volunteers struggled to pull off two wooden floors that covered it. One was installed in the 1870's, the other identified as post World War II. After vacuuming up the detritus of 150 years of fallen dust and debris, original floor mortises began to appear, carved in the sills around the edge of the building. Eventually we were able to decipher remnants of thresholds that are - indications or traces where entrances may have been. Window placements were the most difficult and are still the most elusive to pin down. Under the guidance of Mike Lambert, our historical architect, we learned to detect wear patterns, and thin buildups of dirt and straw which leave faint outlines where furniture may have been placed. Small burn marks, partially sunk in the floor and scorched semicircles were clues to fallen embers and coal buckets indicating the location of a stove.||Hand made nails pulled from the "Old Schoolhouse" during the investigation.|
INSIDE THE LIVING QUARTERS
In the spring of 1999, two of us returned to clean the pine floor in the smaller or western section. This is where we believe the teacher's living quarters were. As we washed the floor, a yellowish, soft ocher-tint began to appear against the pine. It looked as if a wide strip of the floor had been painted. Later, upon our invitation, Mr. Gary Vondrasek, of Edwardsville, Illinois who specializes in historic restoration and carpentry, explained that this paint layer may have been applied to the floor, directly underneath a row of wall pegs. These pegs may have served to hang wet, dripping coats and hats after a long, icy walk. Paint could have been applied to protect the floor from the constant dripping. While there is no longer a visible wall here, three, original mortises indicate a floor to ceiling partition firmly in place, separating the building into two distinct rooms. Traces were found to indicate that this wall was flanked by two interior doorways to allow passage between the larger and smaller areas. While two doorways, (sometimes constructed directly across from each other and both leading to the outside), were not uncommon, two additional, interior doorways were unusual. This is one of the most important findings to support the original use of the building as a schoolhouse or church. It was only churches and parochial schools of the time that tended to build two, separate entrances - one for males and one for females.
THE OLD SCHOOLROOM?
One afternoon, Mike began a slow and thoughtful walk, circling the center of the
east room two or three times over. He observed heavy use in the center of the
room where the floor was heavily worn. He felt certain that this could be the
same "route" the teacher, or preacher might have taken as he lectured to the
children or preached to the congregation.
Mike further noted that the floor in this room showed distinct patterns of non-use. He felt that this indicated the presence of benches to either side of the room where schoolchildren, and on Sundays, the congregation would have sat. This was contrary to his original opinion that desks had occupied the center of the room.
FIRST LUTHERAN REVERENDS TO USE THE SCHOOLHOUSE
|Reverend E. A. Brauer||From 1847 to 1856, pastor, third leader of the Dunklee's Grove congregation. Eventually, his ministry included the Franzosenbusch District where he preached at the first Immanuel Lutheran schoolhouse on Sunday afternoons. Historians believe the remains of this structure form the core of the Prairie House. He was succeeded by Reverend Franke.|
|Reverend Franke||Reverend Franke succeeded Reverend Brauer as the minister of the Lutheran Church in Addison. Like Reverend Brauer, Reverend Franke gave Bible lessons at the first Immanuel Lutheran schoolhouse in Franzosenbusch.|
To be continued click on Prairie House Schoolhouse Research, Part 2.
We welcome any comments, questions and corrections. In accumulating this information we have found conflicting evidence. We have endeavored to use the most reliable sources available BUT we can not be sure we have all of the facts completely accurate. We need your help. More information from the families of these nine "Founding Fathers" would be of great value to this ongoing project in order to maintain accuracy. At this time, we are especially interested in photos, journals, letters, etc., which would describe the southeast corner of 22nd Street (Cermak) and Wolf Road in Hillside, prior to the 1860's. This will help us now, as we work on the restoration.
Please feel free to contact me at email@example.com. I will route your email through our other researchers.
The primary compiler of this information was Lana Gits with:
Last Modified: 10/02/2002