Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Peter Hoffman's Log Cabin, 796 Center Street

During the Fourth of July Parade, there's usually one house that always makes you stop and go "hmm." Standing between a drive-thru bank and a parking lot is one of the odder sights in town - the Log Cabin at 796 Center Street.

So what IS it? A leftover from Pioneer days? No, that can't be... it's right on a side street. An old restaurant? No... not enough doors. The real answer is just as strange - a hunting lodge and home for one of Des Plaines' most prominent citizens 100 years ago.

Peter Michael Hoffman lived from 1863-1948, and was the sort of political animal you see in movies. He was the sort of rugged, brusque, driven, larger-than-life character that you generally only witness in court - and, indeed, that's how his political career ended.

Along the way, he cultivated an interest in hunting, fishing, and the outdoors. He once said, "I was born in a log cabin and I'm going to die in a log cabin." He did indeed, passing in his sleep in 1948, in his den-like bedroom, decorated with antlers and pelts. On one of his expeditions to the north woods of Wisconsin, he met an expert in log construction, and in 1921 Hoffman hired a crew of loggers, including a Native American, to build him a hunting lodge behind his house on Lee Street (Incidentally the next-door neighbor was the Kinder House, in its original location.) I like to imagine Hoffman's wife insisting he get his taxidermy, hunting gear, and poker games out of the house and meeting this dramatic response; his trophies could be displayed in a more appropriately natural setting. Ultimately Hoffman retired to the cabin, leaving the house behind vacant.
Talk about anachronism. Peter Hoffman's family settled in Des Plaines as pioneers, in 1842; there really WERE log cabins on farmsteads at that time. But the neighborhood he built it in was an early subdivision, Parson's & Lee's, also known as "Silk Stockings" because it had the city's most elaborate homes where the local elite lived. Today the Hoffman Log Cabin is one of only a few survivors on Graceland, Lee, and Center; most of the rest have been long since replaced by condos, offices, and retail buildings. The Hoffman Cabin was out of place from the get-go, but it is all the more now that it has a parking lot to one side and a bank drive-through to the other.

If you've been in many log cabins, you might expect to see a sparse, cramped, simple interior. Such was not the case for Hoffman - this would perhaps more appropriately be called a Log Mansion. This house was an absolute luxury. The house was originally adorned with every hind of hunting trophy, taxidermy, and nature scenes, and even the furniture reflected these interests. This explains the elk horns at the peak of the roof. Throughout the home, there was always a pair of glass eyes fixed on you, in a dead pose. Hiding behind branches and logs, all brought home by Hoffman, were wildcats, mountain lions, opossum, bison, elk, moose, deer, eagles, herons, pheasants, ducks, and so forth. Starting with the front door - a huge slab of solid wood with hand-forged hinges and hardware. The house also contained many portraits of Hoffman with other officials, and furniture like a teak wood chair, bear trap, and a wardrobe painted with a mountain scene. The entire house is built of true logs - no visual tricks here. Through the front doors, you come upon a dramatic, 5-foot-wide central staircase, originally carpeted in an Oriental Rug. Hanging above it was a huge wrought lantern on an 8-foot chain.

On one side of the stair is the impressive formal dining room, with huge solid-wood furniture. This room was decorated with a portrait of Lincoln and a huge wrought-iron lantern.

To the rear is the reception hall, which had the most elaborate furniture: needle-pointed chairs with hand-carved walnut frames brought from France by Hoffman's mother; tables of teak inlaid with mother-of-pearl (gifts from Chinatown's 'mayor'); a tall grandfather clock; an American flag on a 12-foot pole given to Hoffman by the "40 and 8" for his charity to World War I veterans.

An archway framed in philodendron leaves leads to the 35-foot living room with a 12-foot natural river stone fireplace. The room had a warm glow emanating from candlelight bulbs, antique furniture, and oriental rugs. The hand-wrought drapery rods bore an "H" monogram. The first floor also contains an ample kitchen, a guest room, and a den complete with a 1930s jukebox. Upstairs, a balcony opened onto three bedrooms and a bath; several of the walls are composed entirely of flattened bark.

So who was Peter M. Hoffman? After graduating from Des Plaines' schools, he went to a 2 year business college, worked as a grocery clerk and as Money Order Clerk at the Chicago Post Office. He then went to work for the Chicago & Northwestern Railway, where he worked for 17 years, becoming chief clerk for the Freight Department. During this time, he began his climb up the political ladder.

He was described as coarse, rough around the edges, sometimes oafish. He cut an imposing figure, with a walrus mustache, curly hair, and steely eyes.

In his time, Hoffman was clearly the biggest political name in Des Plaines. He served as Des Plaines Village Board President in 1893-1894, where he worked hard trying to get cement sidewalks in town. He was Board of Education president from 1898-1917. In 1916 he was also president of Des Plaines State Bank, a director of the Des Plaines Commercial Association. He was also a member of the Chicago Association of Commerce, the Hamilton Club, the Illinois Athletic Club, the Chicago Real Estate Board, the Masonic Fraternity, the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Royal League, the Royal Arcanum, the Modern Woodmen, the Elks, the Loyal Order of Moose, the Maccabees, the German Benevolent Society, the Plattdeutsche Gilde and other fraternal organizations., Meanwhile, he was a Cook County Commissioner from 1898-1904 and then County Coroner from 1904-1923, where he went through a series of typical Cook County scandals - patronage, etc.

In those days, a coroner served an administrative function - not directly examining bodies. As coroner, he claimed to have "posted over 100,000 bodies." In 1912, he brought in modernization to the coroner's office; he brought in a laboratory, began keeping detailed records, and formed a committee to select physicians to hire. In 1913 he kicked off the Safety First campaign with the Public Safety Commission of Chicago, an early effort aimed at cutting automobile and industrial accidents, including educational programs in schools. He pushed for paved railroad crossings and marked crosswalks. In 1915 he played an important and often-overlooked role in the Eastland disaster.

With a rapidly rising body count, Hoffman realized that a large, central location was needed to store the dead, so that identification could take place in an orderly manner. Observing rescue efforts, he immediately launched a special jury to find the blame for the disaster. Later, he would be tasked with keeping order in the inevitably heated and chaotic scene at the warehousing site.

In 1922 Hoffman was elected Sheriff. Remember this was the roaring 20s, Prohibition. Hoffman saw Leopold & Loeb; saw Capone's rise to power, and so forth. An ingrained politician, Hoffman would be involved in one of the more embarrassing Cook County scandals ever. In 1926, Republican bosses had slated Hoffman to move up to County Treasurer as a reward for his work with a political alliance in the "country towns" - Cook County at that time had separate boards for the City and still-rural suburbs.

Hoffman had run for Sheriff as a reformer - odd given his track record as Coroner - and vowed to clean up the corrupt and seriously overcrowded (built for 500, housing 1500) Cook County Jail. He hired Warden Wesley Westbrook from the Chicago Police Department, who was hailed by reform groups as squeaky clean.

Two of the inmates were bootleggers Frankie Lake and Terry Druggan of the Valley Gang, bigger than Capone in their time. They had been sentenced to a year in prison by Federal Judge James Wilkerson for contempt of court. They arranged to pay the squeaky clean Westbrook $2,000 a month for special privileges, discovered when a newspaper reporter came to interview Druggan.

He was told by the jailer, "Mr. Druggan isn't in today." The reporter then tried to interview lake. "Mr. Lake also had an appointment downtown. They'll be back after dinner." Naturally this raised the newspaperman's eyebrow.

The reporter learned from other jail personnel not receiving pay that, after morning roll call, Druggan and Lake were able to do whatever they wanted. In trial, the District Attorney found that Druggan had visited the dentist approximately 100 times in the year, where he met friends, did business, and stopped at banks, friends, and associates on the way to and from the office. Druggan was chauffered from jail in his own limousine to his 15-room Lake Shore Drive apartment with a silver plated toilet seat to spend evenings with his wife. Lake visited his mistress. Other times they went to their doctors and dentists (a dozen visits...), shopped, dined, golfed, went to the nightclubs. They also recieved private rooms with baths, and pampering by the jail staff. That's one way to address overcrowding.

Hoffman was shocked, shocked! that something like this could happen under his watch, and immediately fired Warden Westbrook. In court, before the same Judge Wilkerson, Westbrook then turned the blame on Hoffman. He explained that, following a visit from 20th Ward Boss Morris Eller, Hoffman came to acommodate the boys for their clearly unfair sentence. Although nobody could prove Hoffman recieved any part of the bribes, which totalled $20,000, Hoffman was found in contempt of court, and entered the history books by becoming the only Cook County Sheriff to serve prison time while still in office - 30 days, plus a $2,500 fine. Later that year, he resigned, claiming he would work as a private citizen to amend the Volstead act, which he said was unenforceable and overtaxed the Sheriff's resources.

Two weeks later, he was appointed assistant forester in charge of the county forest preserves, where he served until 1932.

In 1990, the Sun-Times described him so: "Perhaps the most buffoonish of all Cook County sheriffs was Peter M. Hoffman , who wore a diamond-studded gold star in the Prohibition era. Hoffman was the prototype for dim-witted sheriff Peter B. Hartman in the rollicking newspaper play "The Front Page," by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It was Hoffman who merrily opened up the western suburbs to Capone's mob. The sheriff also was reputed to be on gangster Johnny Torrio's payroll."

In 1970, Hoffman's daughter, Evelyn Johnson, who lived in the house from 1948 until her own death in 1995, said in a newspaper piece on the house, "I love this place, and I love old things. There is so much around that should be preserved. I have tried to keep everything in its original state - the lanterns, the collection of old guns, the oxen yoke and bear trap, as well as all the animals, fish, and birds."

Unfortunately, the house today is starting to show its age; sags are visible in the roof and bark and logs seem to be rotting. The house has been listed for sale several times in the past several years, and, judging from this video, is now unoccupied with many of its furnishings missing. This house is clearly one of the most interesting in Des Plaines and is more than deserving of landmark protection; why isn't it?

UPDATE 09/10: The house was rehabilitated over the summer to address the previous issues. Many of the logs were stripped of bark, stained, and sealed to prevent rot; many boards and logs were replaced; and the trim was painted green. The Hoffman cabin has a refreshed look and a new lease on life.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. is it possible to see the removed comment?

    2. The removed comment was just someone asking for my contact info.

  2. Your "blog" on Sheriff Peter Hoffman was a nice "read" and will help me write a history of Chicago in the 20s. I of course will provide my source for whatever I use.
    Wayne Klatt
    author of "Chicago Journalism."

  3. That's my Great grandfather your talking about. I remember as a boy looking up at all of that different animal heads that hung above the front door. There was a one man play written about him. He did play a crucial role in the Eastland Disaster. Now that was a tragic event. Waht is now the Des Plaines Historical Society used to sit just to the North of this Beautiful Logcabin made of wood from Michigan.

  4. Thanks Brad! It's unfortunate that Mr. Hoffman's accomplishments have been overshadowed. I've noticed recently that the cabin is getting a lot of work - many of the logs are being peeled, other logs are being replaced, and they are being re-chinked. The roof is also being reinforced.

  5. Brad, you indicate you are a great-grandson of Peter M. Hoffman. I'd be interested in learning more about your relationship...for instance, what are the names of your parents? For nearly 35 years, I spent considerable time with my grandmother, Evelyn M. Johnson, at "the" cabin. I don't recall ever hearing about any of her nieces or nephews, having a son named "Brad." The "recollections" contained in your comment are all regurgitated from the article. And, the "The Front Page," which featured a caricature of the Sheriff, was certainly not a one-man show -- there were a cast of characters. Get your facts straight, "second cousin."

  6. Interesting. Is there anything you'd like to add to this story to make it more complete, beyond what I could piece together from newspapers and books?

  7. Thanks MS for the name of that play. I never heard much about the "The Front Page" or this side of Peter Hoffman. I'm interested in exploring more of my family roots. I was was so excited to find this web page about a relative that I chimed in before even reading it.

    I am a decedent of Edith Mae Hoffman. As I’m sure you know, Edith was one of your grandmother, Evelyn’s, many sisters. Edith married George Kinder and they lived most of their married lives in the Kinder House that is now the Des Plaines Historical Society. From what I’ve heard that block were The Cabin and the Kinder House sat was kind of a Hoffman/Kinder compound. Between the two family’s weren’t there at least four houses that many of them lived in?

    I believe Evelyn had two daughters and a son? Which one of her children is your parent.

    It must have been great spending so much time in "The Log Cabin" over all of those years. I remember how breathtaking it was around the holidays with the giant Christmas Tree at the top of the staircase.

    What was ever done with all of those heads that hung above the front door?

    Someone jokingly told me Peter went on a hunting trip with Teddy Roosevelt.

    I never saw but heard that there was an apartment above The Cabin’s garage.
    Was it also decorated like a hunting cabin inside?

    M.S., Would you be willing to share any information with me about Peter Hoffman’s
    childhood and also about the Pete side of our family history? I would like it for my own genealogy research. Didn’t the Pete’s own land by Dam#2 on the Des Plaines River?

    -I'm also interested in hearing more about Peter Hoffman’s daughter, Auntie Rae and Jack O'Connell. As a kid people used to say there were bullet holes on the side of there house in Des Plaines. Did this have anything to do with Peter Hoffman being Sheriff during the 1920's?
    -What was the name of Peter Hoffman's son was it “Peter” also? Was he the youngest?
    Did he have any kids? I don’t know much about him.

    1. Hello Brad, I see your post is from 2010 ! Peter Hoffman's mother, Nanette/Annetta Hoffman nee NIMSGERN, was the sister of my 2xgreat-grandfather, John NIMSGERN. Their parents, Johann NIMSGERN and Susanna GRILL, immigrated from Betting, Mozelle, France in 1853. They were from the Parish of St Avold where I was able to get copies of birth certs through Church of Later Day Saints. If you would like more family history on Peter's maternal ancestors, the Nimsgern family, I would be happy to share with you! sandiesquilts@att.net

    2. Peter's children were Edith, Nettie, Lela Rae, Margerite, Evelyn, and a son, Gordon. Even though I relate to Peter through his maternal line, I also have Peter's paternal ancestry

  8. There used to be a letter by Peter Hoffman that hung to the left of Mr. Kinder’s desk at his hardware store. It was a public thank-you written to the people who helped in the aftermath of the Eastland Disaster.

    I wonder if Des Plaines History Center may have a copy of it to add to this site?

  9. I heard that one of his son-in-laws was a bootlegger during prohibition and supposedly had to go into hiding because he served the gun men of the St. Valentines Day Massacre after the shooting.

  10. Marguerite and Edith married brothers Wallace (Kinder Hardware) and George Kinder (Des Plaines Mayor). Lela Rae and Evelyn married John F. O'Connell (Goodyear salesman) and Bennett Johnson (realtor), respectively, in a double ceremony. Annette J. Hoffman married Bennett's brother, Ellis A. W. Johnson. So, no, I don't think so.

  11. I live at the cabin since July 09. I love the place. Your articles was wonderful and filled me on the history. I think Peter was one hell of a man, larger then life type of guy. Thank You Kyle

  12. I'm so relieved to see all the quality work going on this summer. Thank you for preserving this wonderful house.

  13. Brad: Peter Hoffman had one son, Gordon. Gordon died without issue. Pete did have a grandson, Peter Johnson, the son of Evelyn Hoffman Johnson and Bennett Johnson, and this grandson also had a son, Peter. My son is named Peter after Peter Hoffman as well, who whould be Pete's great, great, grandson.

  14. I found some more interesting information regarding Lela Rae and Jack Howard O'Connell. Shortly before their marriage, a reporter discovered that they had in fact married nearly three years earlier in Waukegan, a fact suppressed by the Lake County Clerk. Their participation in the double marriage was, in fact, a re-marriage.

    Rae Hoffman's home is actually directly behind my own. It's a beautiful yellow brick colonial. I have also heard the gangster rumors - my grandmother says she visited with Rae a few times, and she said Jack had been an "importer-exporter" and died in early February, 1946.

    I looked him up on ancestry.com; his 1918 draft card lists his occupation as "Examiner for Cook County Commission". His 1930 Census lists "Real Estate Broker" and his 1942 draft card lists his employer as Mar-Salle, 168 N. May St. A classified ad in the Tribune from 1942 shows a bottling plant at that address. So who knows...

  15. Although I suppose it's a bit curious that a man who bounced around so many different occupations would be able to afford a large, elaborate home at age 30, unless Peter paid for it.

  16. I just love your blog and I think your article is so awesome!! I love antiques and what a way to go green!! I think the towels would just be so adorable also. Thanks for sharing the story about how it was made. Makes it that more special! Take care, Fran.

  17. Hey everyone, we are going back on the market, here are some pictures I just had taken, really looks great. Larry, the current owner has poured money into it this last year, making the exterior very nice and set for maybe another 90 years? Please if someone has any interest or has a friend who can live here and keep it intact, have them give me a call. The underlying zoning allows a lot of condos, in a 10 story building, so when the condo market comes back, I would like to see this already in the hands of someone who will keep it as a log cabin. We had condo builders try to buy it in the past. I think we have enough of them.


  18. I am researching for a book on Peter Michael Hoffman, Cook Co. sherrif. If you have any information, please email me at kenjstoll@yahoo.com...I would really appreciate it. Thanks

  19. I was sitting in my 8th grade classroom on the top floor of Immanuel Lutheran School in the early 90s during a bad thunderstorm. We saw a bright flash and tremendous boom simultaneously. We all thought the school had been hit because it shook. Within minutes we heard sirens, but were assured that it wasn't the school. I left school about an hour later to cross the street to my father's print shop, next to what was a motorcycle dealership (Now the whole building is a church). When I went out the back of the shop to play in the parking lot, which is shared with this house, I saw that it had been hit by lightning! This place has survived a lot of things and deserves to be protecting.

  20. Brad or MS Fraser... I am a genealogist in the family descended from John Hoffman, Peter's uncle, and would appreciate your getting ahold of me at geniegeek at hartneyfamily.net. Thanks.

  21. According to my grandfather, Walter Spiegler, Jack O'Connell was a bookmaker working for the Moran gang of St. Valentine's Day Massacre infamy. He was rumored to have been en route to the garage that morning, but was late.

    My great-aunt, Pearl Spiegler, grew up next door to the Hoffmans. Her dad, Spike Nagel, had the Olds dealership near Lee and the Sioux Line tracks (the one that burned down about fifty years ago). She and her brother Tack were friends with the Hoffman girls.

    My memory of Rae O'Connell was that she cut an elegant figure, but never answered the doorbell on Halloween, so we kids in the neighborhood marked her down as "rich, but cheap."

    1. Thanks Jake. Your contributions are always very appreciated.


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