Weird Illinois Part 2: The Enchanting Eccentric

Now for part two of the strangeness I have called home for the last forty (something) years.  This edition of Troy Taylor’s “Weird Illinois” takes us to the town of Kewanee and the man who created a landmark that was ahead of its time and a legacy that will not be soon forgotten.”No one can be profoundly original who does not avoid eccentricity.”
Andre Maurois

In the heart of Henry County in Illinois is the small city of Kewanee.   At one time, it had a thriving steam engine industry, however the economy shut down many of the jobs that were once abundant.  However, the hard times cannot take away Kewanee’s biggest claim to fame and the permanent tribute to a man who called the small city his home.

Frederick Francis (1856-1926) was born very close to Kewanee on a farm.  He was highly advanced in intelligence, something that showed at an early age.  Frederick, or Fred, as he was known, had a very shy demeanor and didn’t relate well to people.   After high school, he attended the University of Illinois which at the time was known as the Illinois Industrial University.   He loved the college itself and paid his tuition by designing engines and even going so far as to sell the university the rights to a patent for one of his inventions. He  graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1878, and was almost immediately hired at the Elgin Watch Company.  His inventions were recognized quickly and the patents he gained the rights to and received royalties from made him independently wealthy after about eleven years of employment.  He left the watch company telling them to keep the checks from the royalties as he had ‘more money than any man should have’.  He then began the path to life on his own terms.

Although he had difficulty making friends and getting close to people, he fell in love with a woman named Jeanette (Jeannie), a widow with grown children.  In 1889, Fred purchased 60 acres of land in Kewanee with the intent of building his dream home and in 1890, Jeannie became his wife.  They made quite a pair, for Jeannie was a very sweet, conventional woman while Fred had already made it clear to anyone who knew him that he was unapologetic for what some considered ‘odd’ behavior.  His philosophies led him to build his home to be as self-sufficient as possible with an environment that promoted constant activity.  Using only the stones and bricks found on the land, he shaped his unique vision with no set style and limited only by his mind.  Many of today’s modern appliances were fashioned for the house that were years ahead of their time, such as heating and air conditioning systems.  The home would come to be known as Woodland Palace.

No question, Fred was unique.  He didn’t believe in God, but he did adhere to a spiritual side of mankind–one that he felt was sadly lacking in the world as he saw it.  He was an advocate of “air baths”, or essentially running around his yard, naked as a jaybird.  When he went into town, he rarely wore more than a pair of pants, even when the weather seemed too chilly.  He saw no need to trim his beard, so he had the appearance of an unkempt derelict.  It mattered not to Fred what anyone thought because he was happy living life with Jeannie and building his home.  Other people’s opinions didn’t factor into his daily routine, and as a result, the town of Kewanee grew to be rather fond of him.

He and Jeannie were often seen riding the only form of transportation he would use–a bicycle with mirrors that could easily show what was approaching in all directions.  It was clear to anyone who saw them  that they were enamored of each other completely.  One was rarely seen without the other until tragedy struck in 1910.  Jeannie developed tuberculosis and even though Fred took marvelous care of her, going so far as to build a solarium for her to get as much fresh air and sunshine as possible, Jeannie passed away.  Fred was devastated.

He remained in his home and continued adding more features.   He reportedly said that he would spend the rest of his life working on the home, up to and including his 100th birthday.  He was generous about sharing the land with the community and asked only that anyone who wished to throw garbage around and leave a mess “cordially stay away”.  He grew older and remained alone.

One day, the mailman noted that the flag on Fred’s mailbox was not raised.  This concerned him as Fred had mentioned if the flag was ever down when he came to deliver the mail, there may be an emergency.  When the mailman approached the home he was greeted with a terrible sight.  Fred was on the floor, dead from a self inflicted gunshot wound.  He had been in serious physical pain from illness and quite simply, he was done.  He decided to end the pain and go to be with the one person who truly understood him–his beloved Jeannie.

Woodland Palace was left to the village of Kewanee with the stipulation that the grounds be preserved and used for everyone’s enjoyment.  That wish has been fulfilled, and today it remains a landmark to a man who was truly ahead of his time.

For further reading:

    “Weird Illinois” by Troy Taylor and edited by Mark Moran
    and Mark Sceurman