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History Made: Old Dutch Mill, a rarity among Col. George Fabyan's treasures

Published: Friday, May 24, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, May 24, 2013 3:40 p.m. CDT
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(Sandy Bressner – sbressner@shawmedia.com)
The Old Dutch Mill is a working windmill from the 1870s and is located at the Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva. The wooden mill is part of the Kane County Forest Preserve District.

GENEVA – Batavia might have the largest assortment of windmills in the Tri-Cities, but Geneva is home to the only one listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Standing 68 feet tall atop a grassy knoll overlooking the Fox River sits Col. George Fabyan's pricey "showpiece" – the Dutch Mill, better known as Fabyan Windmill. 

Situated in Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva, the refurbished and operational, extravagantly-styled Dutch windmill was built in 1875, and added to the register in 1979. It has resided in Kane County for nearly 100 years.

Fabyan was a rich businessman who inherited a large sum of money from his father's textile business, Bliss, Fabyan & Co., and with deep pockets came extravagant purchases. Sprawled across about 300 acres of Fabyan's Riverbank Estate was a lavish assortment of eccentricities, including a villa remodeled by Frank Lloyd Wright, a zoo, Japanese gardens, a Roman-style swimming pool, greenhouses, grottoes, a lighthouse and, in 1914, a windmill.

Theories abound as to why Fabyan purchased the formerly decrepit windmill for $8,000, and then paid an additional $75,000 to have it disassembled and transported from the Lombard area to Geneva, where it was reassembled with high-end improvements.

Some evidence suggests it was a gift for his wife, while a Chicago Tribune newspaper article from 1915 – gathered by Head Miller Mark Rivecco and windmill researcher Ron Behnke – apparently stated that it was Fabyan's desire to make "whole-wheat bread – made from real flour" that caused him to purchase the mill.

Rivecco has volunteered at the mill for almost a decade, logging roughly 300 hours of service a year. He also gives community lectures about the windmill's history.

"I've been quoted before saying that '[the windmill] was a big lawn ornament,' but I do believe, altruistically, that he wanted to save this historic structure. His actions certainly did that," Rivecco said.

"But, I also believe that he was a collector of objects of interest to him, whatever that interest happened to be at the time," he said. "He placed [the windmill] on the site across the river from his villa, which was visible from his deck."

Fabyan may have preserved the windmill, but its history dates back much further.

The windmill was constructed by German immigrant Louis Frederick Backhaus and his brother-in-law Friedrich Brockmann, who built it from a prefabricated Dutch-built kit in an area called York Center (now Lombard) to grind grain.

Over time, the windmill fell into disrepair, which is when Fabyan entered the picture and paid the Edgar E. Belding Co. to move the windmill to Geneva.

"They took it apart piece by piece," Rivecco said. "They made drawings and markings, and then they disassembled it."

Roman numerals, still visible on the windmill's beams and braces, were carved into pieces to ensure correct reconstruction.

"The assembly went together well – the guys who worked on this back then were true craftsmen," Rivecco said.

According to "The Fabyan Legacy" chapter of the book "Geneva, Illinois: A history of its Time and Places," it took 19 months to reconstruct the windmill and make it operational.

"Until you see it moving and you're inside [the windmill] and seeing all of the intricate moving parts, you really don't have an inkling of the engineering feat that it is," said Robb Cleave, volunteer coordinator for the Kane County Forest Preserve District.

Aside from the varnishing, hardwood floors and elegant finishes, Fabyan added a concrete basement with a bakery, something not normally associated with windmills, Rivecco said.

According to the forest preserve's website, it took 33 workers mixing concrete by hand to build the foundation, which measured 42 inches deep and more than 2 feet thick.

"The windmill is so unique that not even in Holland you'd be able to find [one] this pretty," Rivecco said. "Windmills are factories. You minimize the amount of money you put into your factory – but Fabyan turned it into a showpiece."

In 1980, the windmill appeared on a U.S. postage stamp, selected along with four other American windmills that were all featured in a booklet called "Windmills USA."

The 21st Century

After Fabyan died in 1936 and his wife in 1939, the windmill and its land were purchased by the Kane County Forest Preserve District for $70,500, according to the website, www.Illinoiswindmills.org.

In 1997, the forest preserve contracted third-generation Dutch windmill maker Lucas Verbij to restore the mill to its former glory.

"The Fabyan Windmill is the best example of an authentic Dutch windmill in the United States – actually it's a treasure and would be the most popular windmill in the Netherlands," Verbij is quoted as saying on the forest preserve district's website.

During the restoration process in 2003 or 2004, a quasi-time capsule was discovered under the shingles of the cap – or roof – of the windmill.

"Apparently, there was a newspaper enclosed in a space from the 1912-1913 timeframe," Rivecco said. "During the restoration, they took a contemporary newspaper ... signed their names to it and put the two [papers] back in the hole on top of the cap."

A public grand opening was held in 2005.

Volunteer-run

Today, the windmill is run by volunteers under the wing of the forest preserve district.

"Without the volunteers, there is no way we could do what we do and have it open to the public as much as we do," Cleave said.

Rivecco, like most of the millers, has a full-time job in addition to the time he spends volunteering at the windmill. He said he volunteers to help protect the windmill's rarity.

"It needs people to maintain it otherwise it will fall into disrepair again," he said. "People are in awe of it – that such a thing can still exist in suburban Chicago. Catching that vibe from people as they come and visit is the payback."

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