Kewanee, Illinois – Woodland Palace

Fred Francis
Fred Francis


Just outside Kewanee, Illinois is a unique Victorian house called Woodland Palace.  It was built in 1889 by an eccentric guy named Fred Francis.  He was something of a Renaissance man, in a Kewanee-sort-of-way.  Among his talents were mathematics, engineering, poetry, painting, and woodcarving.


Kewanee is about thirty miles north of Peoria.  Fred was born in that area on January 21, 1856.  He was an excellent student and graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Fred met and married a widow named Jeanie Crowfoot in 1890.  It was surely a case of opposites attracting –  he was a vegetarian, she liked meat; he was an atheist, she was a devout Christian; he was a practicing nudist, she dressed in prim, Victorian style.  But despite their obvious differences, they lived together for over thirty years, until Jeanie died of tuberculosis in 1921.

The home they shared was built by Fred using brick, stone, and native wood.  It’s situated on sixty acres of wooded land.   An interesting feature of the house is a dome that gives the building its “Woodland Palace” look.

Fred used his mechanical engineering skills to great effect throughout the house.  He invented a way to air cool the rooms through a series of fans, have doors and windows that opened automatically, and enjoyed clean, running water – all this without the benefit of electricity. (He powered things by a windmill.)

When you enter inside, you’ll see a home that’s a rare combination of unusual, yet tasteful.  The materials used throughout are high-end, and the craftsmanship is exceptional.

My favorite room is the Coach Room in the upper level of the house.  It was built to resemble a railroad coach of the late 1800s.  Each side of the “coach” had a bedroom.


Fred didn’t own a car, but he had a bicycle for transportation.  He modified the front so Jeanie could ride with him.  He took her nearly five miles to church and waited patiently outside until the services were over.

Fred & Wife bike
Photo property of Woodland Palace


In later years, after Jeanie died, Fred enjoyed visitors to his land for picnics and nature walks, but he had his rules.  The welcome/code-of-conduct sign he posted in the front yard is still there:



“Grounds are free for all who do right and all such are welcome.  Those who throw paper and rubbish on the ground, meddle with property, or let kids do so, are hereby cordially invited to stay away.   Fred Francis”

Fred passed away in 1926 and bequeathed his property to the City of Kewanee.  Today it is operated as Francis Park and Woodland Palace, where you can picnic, camp, hike and tour Fred’s beloved home.

Bonus Stop:

Ryan Barn

Not far from Francis Park is the Ryan Round Barn.  It’s the largest round barn in Illinois, measuring 80 feet tall and 85 feet in diameter.  Dr. Laurence Ryan had it built in 1910.  He was a brain surgeon with an international reputation in that field.  He went to medical school at Chicago’s Loyola University in addition to studying in Vienna and Berlin. But he also had an interest in farming, having grown up in the Kewanee area.


Round barns were popular from the late 1800s to the 1920s.  They withstood high winds better than rectangular structures.  (No corners for the wind to catch on and do damage.)  This type of barn was also efficient for housing cattle and horses.


One of the most striking features of the barn is the ceiling. The silo in the middle held about 400 tons of corn.

In the lower level, Dr. Ryan added some modern conveniences to his barn including a duel track and trolley system to deliver feed and remove waste.


Today the barn is open for tours and houses a museum of early agricultural implements.  You’ll want to check the website for open times at:

Kewanee Murals

In the summer of 2013, a group of artists and sign painters known as the Walldogs arrived in Kewanee and painted murals at fifteen different locations in the downtown area.  Various organizations and businesses sponsored the murals.  The scenes highlight Kewanee’s past, present, and future.  The sampling below shows some of the Walldogs’ beautiful murals.




Geneva, Illinois


Late this summer, it was Cruzn with girlfriends Missy, Cele, and Kathy O. in the Fox River town of Geneva, Illinois about 36 miles west of Chicago.  We decided to check out the Fabyan Villa Museum and Japanese Garden that sit amongst 235 acres of the Forest Preserve District of Kane County.  It’s an inviting area with paths for walking and bicycling, along with the historic sites.

Fabyan Villa Museum
George Fabyan


It all began around 1905 when millionaire George Fabyan and his wife, Nelle, bought a farmhouse and ten acres of land on the west bank of the Fox River.  Over time they purchased more surrounding land until they had nearly 300 acres.  They named their estate Riverbank.  It featured a Japanese garden, private zoo, Roman-style swimming pool, greenhouse, gardens, wind mill, and a lighthouse.

In 1907, George and Nelle hired Frank Lloyd Wright to remodel their 1800s farmhouse.  Wright added a south wing and other characteristic elements to make it a Prairie-style house.  Today the home showcases the Fabyans’ collections of natural history and animal specimens, sculptures, and history and photos about the couple and their life.

George Fabyan was interested in research and built a private laboratory for various studies.  He is credited with being a pioneer in the field of modern cryptography – his findings were helpful during World War I in breaking codes used by the Germans.


Located a short distance from the house is a working windmill.  In 1914, the Fabyans purchased this windmill from a farm in nearby Elmhurst and had it re-constructed on their property. It was used to grind grain for the surrounding community during war-rationing.  The windmill was originally built in 1851.




On the way to the windmill you also see other structures that the Fabyans had built, including a random column with an eagle at the top and a lighthouse.


The Japanese Garden was designed for the Fabyans by Taro Otsuka, a well-known landscape architect in the Chicago area.  This type of garden was fashionable among the wealthy in the early 1900s.  Some of the plantings seen today can be traced back to 1910 when the garden was originally installed.




George and Nelle Fabyan passed away in the 1930s.  The Forest Preserve District of Kane County then bought 235 acres of the Riverbank estate and opened it to the public.

After a visit to the Fabyan Villa, be sure to stop in downtown Geneva at Third Street for some more local history, lunch and shopping.  The Geneva History Museum is a fine facility to learn about the community and the importance of the Fox River.

Geneva History Museum

For a hidden treasure, walk across the street to the Kane County Courthouse and take a look at the murals on the second floor.  They were painted in the early 1900s by Aurora artist Edward Holslag and depict scenes of early Kane County life.


My favorite place to shop in Geneva is the Little Traveler at the corner of Third and Fulton Streets.  I’ve enjoyed going there for years with family and friends.  It’s a Victorian era Italianate house that’s been added on to over the years and now contains 36 rooms.  There’s everything from clothing to home décor, gourmet foods and local wines, and a tea shop for lunch.


The blocks around the Little Traveler have lots of historic homes and other buildings of note.  For a small fee, the Geneva History Museum sells self-guided walking tour maps so you can stroll around the area and appreciate all the architecture.

Geneva has a lot to offer, and I would certainly agree with their description – “this charming hamlet, nestled on the banks of the Fox River, is truly a picture postcard.”  It’s worth your time to visit.