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Fabyan Windmill

Old Holland Mill, Old Dutch Mill

Status

Open and operating.

 

Tours

Tours are available during open hours.  No admission fee is required, but a donation is suggested.

 

Hours

May 15 to October 15

   Saturday: 1:00 to 4:00 P.M.

   Sunday: 1:00 to 4:00 P.M. 

 

Closed / non-operational during winter.

 

Wheelchair Accessible

Basement level only

 

Website

Fabyan Windmill

 

Tower Height

68'

 

Sail Span

74' - 4"

 

Uses

(1877 - 1919) Wheat

(1877 - 1919) Buckwheat

(1916 - 1919) Feed

 

Note: the grinding stones and machinery have been fully restored, but the windmill does not grind at this time.

 

Constructed

(1875 - 1877) Original

(1914 - 1915) Relocation / Reconstruction

(2003 - 2005) Restoration

 

Millwrights

Louis Frederick Backhaus (Original)

Rasmussen (Relocation)

John Johnson (Relocation)

Lucas Verbij (Restoration)

 

Owners

Friedrich Brockmann (1877 - 1887)

Louis Frederick Backhaus (1875 - 1877)

Herman Volberduig (1877 - 1885)

Fred Runge (1887 - 1914)

Colonel George Fabyan (1914 - 1939)

Kane County Forest Preserve (1939 - present)

 

Honors

1979: National Register of Historic Places

1980: Featured on Windmills USA postage stamp

Sources

 

  • Accounts of the Fabyan Mill’s Origin. Ron Behnke, 2005.

  • Fabyan Windmill. Kane County Forest Preserve District, 2005.

  • Geneva, Illinois: A History of its Times and Places. Geneva: Geneva Public Library District, 1977.

  • “Windward ho!” Addison Press. 26 June 1998.

  • Mark Rivecco (miller)

  • personal records / observations

Historic Photographs

The Fabyan Windmill and new picnic shelter, August 2010.

Photo by Tom Haskell

History of the Mill

 

The Fabyan windmill now sits proudly upon a hill on the Eastern bank of the Fox River in peaceful Geneva, Illinois.  Completely refurbished and operational, the windmill is a majestic sight that complements its surroundings in what was once the estate of Colonel George Fabyan.  Now part of the Kane County Forest Preserve District, the windmill grove is the most visited in the region and is a widely popular living history exhibit. 
 
The mill was originally constructed in section 21 of York Township soon after partners Louis Frederick Backhaus and Friedrich Brockmann purchased the ten-acre farm in 1875.  The plot was located on the northwest corner of 16th and Meyers Road (now part of Knolls Park in Lombard) and cost just $900.

 

The windmill’s structure was made from a Dutch-built prefabricated kit that included hand-cut cypress beams with hickory and maple gearing.  The parts were shipped to Lombard and assembled on site.  The mill also had a wing building presumably used for storage (though it may have once housed an auxiliary steam engine).
 
Herman Volberduig became Brockmann’s new business partner upon Louis Backhaus’s death in 1877, probably just a few months into the mill’s operation.  Apparently, business for the mill was relatively good, as the land value continued to rise over time—probably because the windmill was located near the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin line (now the Illinois Prairie Path), which carried passengers and freight to and from the Loop. 

 

Still, a few years after Volberduig left the partnership, Brockmann sold the farm and the mill to Frederick Runge in 1887 for $4,000.  The windmill continued operation under Runge, as indicated in a 1912 photograph that shows the mill intact and with its sails in a ‘+’ configuration (meaning a “short rest”).  A year later, however, a storm damaged the sails, prompting Runge to find a buyer.
 
On October 15, 1914, Colonel George Fabyan purchased the mill for $8,000 from the widow of Frederick Runge.  His motivation for the purchase is unknown; some evidence suggests it was a present for his wife, while most agree that Fabyan was the kind of man who wanted things most people did not have.  Fabyan had the intention of relocating the mill onto his own estate; however, the size of the mill prevented him from easily doing so.  Thus, Fabyan would spend his next 19 months and $75,000 disassembling the mill piece by piece. 

 

One year after purchasing the mill, Runge’s farmland was sold to Louis Reinke for just $3700 (it can be assumed, then, that most of the mill was still probably standing on the land).  The mill parts were shipped to Geneva through the employment of the Egar E. Belding Company of West Chicago.  The windmill was reassembled on its present site at Riverbank by Danish millwright Rasmussen (who worked mostly on the interior) with the assistance of John Johnson (who built a new set of sails) and six others.
 
Fabyan made alterations to his mill after it was moved.  A new foundation for the mill was poured at Riverbank creating a basement level, making the rebuilt mill six floors high (the tallest in Illinois).  Windows were added to the fourth floor (reasoning unknown).  Even though the original mill was made almost entirely of wood, he had an iron drive shaft installed (separate from that of the wooden upright shaft) to run the machinery in the basement level (which included a sharpening wheel, a corn sheller, and a grain separator).  He also installed an oven in the basement, although evidence suggests it was rarely, if ever, used.  Because of the mill’s structure, an exhaust system was built underground, then came up through a chimney disguised in a stone bus shelter (destroyed in the 1950s by a truck).

Some of the other parts of the mill that ought to be wooden—such as the quants—are now iron, but it is not clear whether these alterations were made by Fabyan or by previous owners. The mill stones are designed for wheat, corn, and feed grinding.  In addition to being an asset to local farmers, the mill’s products were also used to feed the Colonel’s livestock and two bears, Tom and Jerry.  The mill stopped grinding in 1919.

Colonel George Fabyan and his wife, Nelle, first settled on just ten acres south of Geneva.  The Villa was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1907 (the Villa now serves as a museum full of photographs and memorabilia).  In 1914, landscape architect Taro Otsuka designed Fabyan’s Japanese Garden.  The garden was restored in 1971 and again in 1994, and is open to the public.  Eventually, Fabyan’s estate grew to cover 600 acres and was the home to award-winning livestock and other animals.  The Colonel died May 17, 1936; his wife died two years later, and the executors of her will sold Riverbank to the Kane County Forest Preserve for $70,500.  The unique preserve instantly became a local landmark.

The windmill, although rarely used after the forest preserve’s acquisition, was a tourist attraction.  Soon Fabyan Forest Preserve became the most visited of the county’s forests, and the windmill the most photographed structure in the region.  The forest preserve left the mill open to the public, complete with tours of its interior.  Amazingly (aside from the natural dry rot of the wood), the mill’s structure suffered little over time.  Even the sails remained intact (probably because the cap was turned to face south, so the prevailing west winds would have passed through the sails rather than try to turn them).
 
Kane County considered the windmill’s demolition as early as 1990 when it became structurally unsafe for public inspection.  Jack Cook and Jon Duerr, among others, began fighting to keep the mill intact.  In 1997, the Kane County Forest Preserve District hired Lucas Verbij, a world-renowned third-generation Dutch millwright, to inspect the Fabyan windmill and compose a condition report.  Verbij was discovered by the Preservation Partners of Fox Valley, a non-profit organization dedicated to Riverbank’s care.  The initial cost estimate was over $600,000.  Although the price was steep for the Forest Preserve, many locals, the Preservation Partners, and Lucas Verbij insisted that the unique mill be preserved.  Through fund-raising, private investments, and a grant, the Kane County Forest Preserve voted to preserve the mill.

In 2003, the cap was lifted off the tower (the sails were already taken down some years ago, as they were a structural threat) so that parts could be shipped to Verbij’s company in Holland.  Meanwhile, in Illinois, construction crews worked to strengthen the concrete foundation and reinforce the tower.  The cracks in the huge wooden support beams were filled with a wood and fiberglass mixture.  Other parts of the mill, such as the hoppers, grain elevators, and chutes, were completely rebuilt.  In April of 2004, the rebuilt cap was lifted onto the tower. On October 16, 2004 (90 years and one day after Colonel Fabyan bought the mill), the restoration was complete, save some minor details and the grinding stones.  The windmill remains mostly as it did during Fabyan’s ownership, except for some modern amenities (fire alarms, track lighting, flood lights).

The forest preserve held a grand opening celebration on June 3, 2005, exactly 26 years after it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Local artists displayed their work and a ceremony was held to commemorate those involved in its restoration on a job well done.  The mill itself was dressed in red, white, and blue as the volunteer millers managed to get the sails turning despite light winds.  The final cost of restoration was $916,000. 
 
In 2008 work was completed on a small picnic pavilion just to the south of the windmill; historical photographs of the mill were posted throughout the shelter the following year.  From a distance—and at just the right angle—the shelter almost looks like the wing building that used to be attached the mill when it was still located in Lombard.  New landscaping and sidewalks are among the improvements made at the site since its restoration.
 
In 2010 Muscat Painting was awarded a contract to repaint the trim, wind shaft, sails, tail poles, bracing, and stage of the windmill.