Fabyan Villa Museum

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.

Flagstone wall along Rt 31 in Geneva, IL

Interestingly, there is a great deal written about him, but my guess is that much of it other than the name of the heavily-traveled thoroughfare that runs along the southern flank of Geneva is not well known. Even having grown up in Geneva, I must admit that I have spent the majority of my life ignorant of the man's story and contributions to history. I would like to share with you a bit of what I have learned, but more importantly, I would very much like to encourage you to discover for yourselves the legacy which Fabyan left us.

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.  Various guests to the estate supposedly included Albert Einstein, P.T. Barnum and Wallace Clement Sabine (American physicist and pioneer founder of the field of architectural acoustics).

Fabyan Lighthouse

There are volumes more to tell about this incredible man, but I will leave you with an interest that I hope has been piqued, and a desire to check out at least two very important and lasting contributions bequeathed for us to explore.  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 Fox River and in Geneva, along with Fabyan's Villa. 

Japanese Gardens

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 mill 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 mill 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 Fabyans 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 Mill 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.

Riverbank Acoustical Laboratories

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 Fabyans 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 get interested. 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!

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The Old Dutch Mill