Johann Peter Schmitt was not a man to take chances with the lives of his sons. The political climate in Germany during the 1830’s grew more perilous by the day, as his twin boys pursued their teenage optimism of political activism. But the father of these young progressive thinkers knew better. He had seen too much. And he became not only alarmed, but desperate.
Peter had lost several of his brothers and many of his cousins to the Prussian army. Peter’s younger brothers and older nephews had joined the socialists to participate in the German Revolution. He also had cousins who had settled previously in New Jersey, sending letters from the Long Pond Ironworks—which were not only successful, but had been instrumental in building the colonies.
So the choices for Peter were not good in Germany, and the New World presented opportunity. As his sons were about to turn 16 years old—the age of the draft, he had to make a hard decision. (Did he also sense the doom of the impending revolutionary disaster?)
Peter was already 62 years old with three older daughters, as well as his youngest twin boys. The two eldest girls were married, and the youngest, engaged. He needed to focus on the future for his promising sons. He chose escape, and planned their new beginning.
I began the Schmitt story with “Specific Schmitt: Surname Origin” that discusses Peter’s heritage in Germany. So, consider this Part 2: Peter with wife and three children were Chicago-bound in 1840. Although descended from blacksmiths, Peter was a farmer and entrepreneur. He chose not to live in the city, and with the help of grown children, decided to clear the land and establish a large homestead just north along Lake Michigan.
First, the family built a rough cabin that serviced Peter and his wife for thirty years. I have illustrated this cabin and am pleased that it has been beautifully preserved by the Winnetka Historic Society. (The cabin had been purchased by the Burnham family, moved, and subsequently donated to historic preservation.)
As the Schmitt children married, they built houses nearby. Then, the grandchildren scattered. But Peter with his wife, Anna Maria Bruck, stayed in their rough cabin until they built their “dream house” in 1870. He was 82 years old, which for the time was ancient. To realize such a dream for him even at an advanced age had to be gratifying! He died in 1875, so he did not get to enjoy his dream house for too long, but at least he did.
I have illustrated the Illinois phases of change witnessed by Peter, and summarize the series of “Symbolic Schmitt.” Although he did not move from his homestead, the community grew around him, evolving from Grosspoint to Ridgeville to Rodgers Park, to Chicago (today). Peter evolved from a tiny beleaguered village in Germany to a prosperous farmer, property owner, and successful builder in America. Uncle Peter lived to see his goals for family fulfilled, proving that it is never too late to dream. —always inspired, Liane
The Story of Schmitt: The Series
The history of the Schmitt family is ubiquitous. As their “Schmitt” name is common, they also share experiences that are part of almost every American’s family tree. Schmitt descendants left the oppression of their homeland for the freedom of choice. The patterns of prosperity and devastation had become intolerable—especially when there was an escape. All immigrants to the United States want the same things: opportunity, prosperity, and a better life for the next generations.
The Schmitt family is unique in how much they exemplify these qualities. As people with deep convictions, they stood up for their beliefs and helped to shape their communities. Their achievements, versus their names, can be found in the history books. Theirs is a story of building, developing industry, following opportunities, participating in change, and taking risks. They hold a mirror up to ourselves, as their past is our past. Their story is both worth remembering and honoring:
“Symbolic Schmitt” gives an overview of the series and how it developed.
“A Boast of Modesty” shows the first Schmitt house that I drew, representative of where the family lived the longest.
“Specific Schmitt: Surname Origin” portrays the family origins in an ancient, and preserved, German village.
“Biography in Buildings” summarizes the Schmitt Story in six images—the first three representative and the second three documented.
Please see the overview of the series “Ore and Origins: A Biography.”
Liane Sebastian wears an artist’s hat, designer’s coat, and editor’s shoes.