Many times there are incredible “off the beaten path” places that are too often left only for those who like to find the unusual. They’re well marked but discounted as they aren’t as grand as Disneyland or as exciting as amusement parks. Francis Park, which sits on the Bureau-Henry county line between Kewanee and Neponset Illinois, is one such place.
What it lacks in excitement it makes up for in history and, even more, is an example for all how that history can be brought current with solutions to our energy woes. Here’s a man who – to put it in context – gave up the rights on a patent because he felt he made enough money from it.
He was eccentric even by today’s standards. Fred Francis graduated from the University of Illinois in 1878. He was an inventor, mechanical engineer, mathematician, artist, poet, nature lover and craftsman. A vegetarian and practicing nudist he had a sauna downstairs and running hot and cold water piped to the bath.
The water source was naturally filtered rainwater, funneled from the roof through channels to drain on top of a 2,000 gallon cistern. Everything from the double doors to keep flies out to the separate food preparation service areas for he and his wife – who was not vegetarian – was thought of.
He designed and built the house, the furniture and outbuildings. A windmill powered fans that drew air from 350 feet out into the woods, circulating through the house and was the first air cooled home in Illinois. The windows when raised automatically pull the screens up as the window is raised, eliminating bugs getting into the home. Sitting porches, accessible from the inside, are also screened in to eliminate flies and bugs from entering.
When his wife Jeanie was diagnosed with tuberculosis he designed and built a solarium that changed the air inside every 60 seconds. Some hospitals today are just now getting that with technology!
The home was so constructed that three sticks of wood were all that was needed to heat it. This reduced the risk of fire as well as the amount of wood needed. It was not just around his home that he made use of his talents. He designed and helped build the “Class of 78” at the University of Illinois, a gift to the university from his class.
His only transportation was a bicycle, which he transported Jeanie to Neponset to church with on Sundays as well as made trips to Kewanee for supplies. Hidden treasure boxes hidden throughout the home were places to stash valuables – for example a section of molding pulled out to reveal a small drawer, hidden in the wall unnoticed.
After Jeanie died he set up a signal with the mail carrier that if something should happen the carrier knew to come looking for him. With all his affairs in order, including a will leaving the property to the city as a park and detailed recordings how to take care of and operate the many things seen and unseen, Fred Francis committed suicide.
Today Woodland Palace – locally called Francis Park – remains as a park for daytime rentals, camping and hiking through the wooded areas. Well cleared paths are maintained for an easy stroll through the trees, playground area for the kids, a baseball diamond and campsites for RV and tents. Tours are given of the home during much of the year, closed during the winter. It’s open 1-5 pm daily. It is a state and national historic site. A small fee is charged to tour the inside of the home to defray the costs of maintaining it – and it’s well worth the tour!
If you like history, nature and/or some incredible photography opportunities don’t miss a stop at the Francis Park Woodland Palace. It’s a beautiful, quiet setting just a half mile off Highway 34 on the county line road.