Fabyan Villa

It is incredibly easy to drive either in to or out of Geneva along Route 31 without ever really noticing the stately but aging and decaying flagstone wall that runs for several hundred yards along the east side of the road just south of town, let alone take a moment or two to ponder what lies just beyond the wall. Along with much of the other rich history that resides within and just beyond the borders of Geneva, Illinois, is the story of Colonel George Fabyan.

Fabyan Villa

George Fabyan

As a young lad, George apparently ran away from home and was disinherited by his father. Some years later, he actually went to work in Chicago (using an assumed name) at a warehouse owned by the Bliss Fabyan Corporation – the largest cotton goods organization in the world. The quality of his efforts did not go unnoticed by his supervisor, who eventually introduced him to the head of the company… his father, who accepted him back into the family and promptly put George in charge of the warehouse. He ultimately amassed quite a fortune and began to purchase land in Geneva.

Fabyan Villa

George would then meet and marry the Marinette, Wisconsin-born Nelle Wright and the two would move to a 10-acre parcel of land purchased from part of the Joel Harvey farm south of Geneva and begin what was then known as the Riverbank Estate. It would grow to encompass some 600-plus acres of land on both sides of what is now Route 31 (including the Riverbank Laboratories facility – an amazing story in and of itself!) and on both sides of the Fox River as well; it would be comprised of an incredible menagerie that included a lighthouse, a Dutch windmill, greenhouses, stone sculptures, farm animals, a boathouse, formal gardens and a farmhouse (redesigned by Frank Lloyd Wright) in 1907. Dubbed The Villa, it is now a museum that houses some of what Fabyan collected. Wright, by the way, also built the Fox River Country Club on the estate -- just to the southwest of the Villa -- at about the same time. Unfortunately, that building burned down not long afterwards. Various guests to the Fabyan estate supposedly included Albert Einstein, P.T. Barnum and Wallace Clement Sabine (American physicist and pioneer founder of the field of architectural acoustics). 

Fabyan Villa

Only two years after the death of Colonel Fabyan – the title by the way, was an honorary one, given him by Illinois Governor Richard Yates for service in a number of capacities – Nelle Wright Fabyan also passed on.  But her will did make available about 230 acres of the vast Fabyan Estate for purchase by the Kane County Forest Preserve at a cost of about $70,000.  And boy, what a great deal they got!  The two contributions – among an incredible list and along with a tremendous legacy – to which I refer are the old Dutch Windmill in Batavia and the Japanese Gardens on the other side of the River and in Geneva, along with Fabyan’s Villa.

Both are a must see, whether one is a local resident or just visiting the area and wanting to indulge oneself in a bit of culture and history. The windmill was built – depending on the account one reads – somewhere around 1875 in York Township at a cost of about $900. Fabyan bought it in October of 1914 for $8,000 and then spent another year and a half and $75,000 to have it dismantled, brought to his estate and reassembled. Time ravished the mill and it was almost demolished in 1990 because it had become unsafe. However, due to Herculean efforts on the part of many, the windmill was completely refurbished and ultimately rededicated in June of 2005… at a cost of almost a million dollars. The humble mill that once provided the flour for fresh bread on the Fabyan’s table is once again a proud part of local history; it also resides on the National Register of Historic Places. The mill sits quietly on the hill overlooking the portion of the Fox River that flowed through Colonel Fabyan’s Estate, is the subject of countless photographs, and stands guard through the winters when children of all ages plummet down the hill on sleds, saucers and toboggans. The Old Dutch Windmill should be a definite stop on your tour of the area.

The Fabyan Japanese Gardens is another place that is definitely worth some of your time.  Designed originally by Japanese landscape architect Taro Otsuka as a private garden for George and Nelle Fabyan, the Gardens have been masterfully restored in 1976 and replanted in 1992; they are a favorite spot of photographers, hikers, those who appreciate beauty and solitude and even those who wish to plan ceremonies such as weddings.

Most of the references to George Fabyan will include his Riverbank facility and the work in cryptology done there by William Friedman, work in acoustical research done by Wallace Clement and Paul (a distant cousin) Sabine, and Fabyan’s strange desire to prove that the works of Shakespeare were in fact not written by Shakespeare. Whatever your reason for getting interested, there are lots of reasons to do so. Listed below are several sources that I consulted while researching for this article. You can start there, but make certain to visit the legacy left to us all by Colonel George Fabyan and Frank Lloyd Wright!

 

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