Kane County History: 'HER STORY' in Geneva Begins With Charity

Kane County History: ‘HER STORY’ in Geneva Begins With Charity

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was submitted by Terry Emma, executive director of the Geneva History Museum.

In honor of National Women’s History Month, we celebrate and honor Geneva women who made an impact on our community. Some of these women grew up in Geneva and a few were only here for a short while, but they all left a lasting impression.

Visit the Geneva History Museum’s YouTube channel to view the Geneva History Museum’s entire HerStory presentation.

Charity Herrington

In 1833, at the age of 34, Charity Herrington traveled from Pennsylvania to Chicago by covered wagon with her husband, James, and seven children ages 1 to 13. It took over two months.

Charity did not enjoy the rough drinking and gambling of Chicago and wanted James to find a quieter place to raise their family. In 1835, James found a cabin along the Fox River owned by Daniel Haight. James bought Haight’s claim and moved Charity and their now eight children to Geneva.

Haight’s shanty was so dingy, smelly and unpleasant that the family lived outdoors. Immediately, work began on a double log house, a common style from western Pennsylvania. Living in a log cabin, with no running water or electricity, baby number nine arrived the next year.

In 1839, just four years after settling in Geneva, Charity’s husband died in March. Two days later, her 13-year-old daughter died, and the following month, she gave birth to child number 10. To top it all off, she turned 40 in September.

In 1839, women could not inherit money, so Charity had to become resourceful in raising her nine children and paying her husband’s debts. She eventually offered land to the city of Geneva and Kane County, including property for the railroad and West Side Cemetery.

Luckily, her two oldest sons were 19 and 17 and could help.

She was a midwife for the area and would go out at all hours when needed.

One of her sons had a ferry system across the Fox River using a dugout canoe. He would often take his mother across the river if needed.

Another story tells us of her on her way to help with a baby, riding a horse at night with only a candle in a lantern to guide her.

Charity died in 1879 at the age of 80 and is buried along with James and her children in Geneva’s West Side Cemetery on Stevens Street.

Elizebeth Smith Friedman

The youngest of nine kids, Elizebeth Smith was born in rural Indiana in 1892. Her mother spelled her name unusually because she disliked the name Eliza.

Young Elizebeth was bright and displayed a talent for languages. She was determined to attend college despite the discouragement of her father. She was so determined that she borrowed tuition from him at a 6% interest rate.

Smith graduated from Hillsdale College in Michigan in 1915 with a major in English literature as well as studying Greek, German and Latin. She also discovered her lifelong love for Shakespeare.

Elizebeth served briefly as a substitute principal at an Indiana high school and quit soon after, due to boredom. She traveled to Chicago in 1916 and worked at the Newberry Research Library, where Shakespeare’s first manuscript was on display.

It was here that she was introduced to the eccentric George Fabyan, who ran a 500-acre private research facility called Riverbank Laboratories in Geneva.

At that time, Fabyan also employed scholar Elizabeth Wells Gallop, who was trying to prove that Sir Francis Bacon had actually written Shakespeare’s plays. Gallup needed a research assistant, so Fabyan took Smith to Geneva and hired her.

Elizebeth worked with Gallop on a cipher that Gallup claimed was hidden in Shakespeare’s sonnets and supposedly proved Bacon as the author.

Riverbank went on to become one of the first institutes to focus on cryptology, and in the early days of World War I, the War Department relied upon Riverbank almost exclusively.

Elizebeth wrote in her memoir, “So little was known in this country of codes and ciphers when the United States entered World War I that we ourselves had to be the learners, the workers and the teachers all at one and the same time.”

Elizebeth met her husband, William Friedman, at Riverbank. He was a Cornell-educated geneticist who was hired by Fabyan to work on wheat, although William became increasingly drawn to the Shakespeare project.

William and Elizebeth fell in love and were married in 1917, one month after the U.S. entered World War I. They worked together at Riverbank until 1921, when they moved to Washington, D.C.

In D.C., Elizebeth worked for the War Department, the Navy, U.S. Treasury Bureau of Prohibition and the Bureau of Customs. During World War II, Elizebeth began working for the Coordinator of Information, an intelligence service that served as the forerunner to the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA.

One of her best known projects for the FBI was her code-cracking expertise to solve the “Doll Woman Case of 1944.”

An antique doll dealer based in New York was convicted of spying on behalf of the Japanese government. Elizebeth proved that letters written by the doll dealer seemingly thought to be about the condition of antique dolls, actually described the positions of U.S. ships.

In 1951, the Friedmans collaborated on a manuscript, “The Cryptologist Looks at Shakespeare,” which finally rejected the argument about Bacon and Shakespeare.

Elizebeth died in 1980 and is buried with William at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1999, Elizebeth was inducted into the National Security Agency Hall of Honor.

To further commemorate the contributions of the Friedmans, NSA’s OPS1 building was dedicated as the William and Elizebeth Friedman Building during the Agency’s 50th Anniversary Commemoration in 2002.

May Belle Adamson

May Belle Adamson was born on a farm just west of Geneva in 1888.  She attended Geneva High School, then graduated from Mercy Hospital’s nursing school in Chicago in 1910.

Adamson was one of the first American nurses during WWI to go overseas to assist the injured, her first trip was taken in June, 1915. She made multiple trips to France during the war, finally returning to American in June, 1918. She also recruited, organized and enlisted a contingent of 30 nurses to go to the battle front in England and later 35 to France.

Adamson had no trouble getting recruits when she told the stories of how sorely nurses were needed, and how, frequently because of lack of help, wounded men lie for hours without attention.

Adamson died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 34.  She was given a military funeral and is buried in Geneva’s Oak Hill Cemetery.

Juanita Martin

After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1931, Juanita Martin gave up her plans to become an English teacher in Hawaii and was in charge of building sewage disposal plants with her fathers construction office in Weldon, IL.

She became junior partner and a successful contractor. She was the foreman of a construction crew connecting the sewage line from North Aurora to Aurora.

Geneva needed to join with the state of Illinois for a combined sewage disposal plant for the city and the Illinois State Training School for Girls. Juanita’s bid was chosen in 1932. She lived in Geneva for a year to manage the job. She signed contracts, hired men, and bought materials.

According to The Geneva Republican newspaper, “Salesmen from all parts of the state came to Geneva to dicker with the good-looking young boss about the raw materials for the job.”

The article continues with a quote from Juanita, “I’ll never forget one salesman’s technique. His procedure included kissing my hand, like some foreign count. He remembered me in his dreams, and he went so far as to serenade me with love songs. But he didn’t sell me anything until his prices had been brought down where I knew they belonged.”

The federal district inspector pronounced her concrete work comparable to the best in the state.

When the job was completed early and on budget, the city of Geneva named the landscaped area around the sewage plant Juanita Park.

Darlene Larson

Darlene Larson grew up in Batavia, and after a time living in California, she returned to Geneva to raise her family. In 1972, Larson’s family hosted a Japanese exchange student.

During a five-day gathering of exchange students across the country, the final activity was a group picnic at Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva. She took the students to the Japanese Garden on the estate and was embarrassed at the rundown condition.

This was her inspiration that started the Friends of Fabyan organization that led to many restoration efforts of the Fabyan Estate.

The following is a short version of all that she accomplished, and it demonstrates why her personalized note paper was labeled “The Force to be reckoned with.”

Larson was a longtime member of the Geneva Garden Club and spoke to fellow members to take on the project of restoring the Japanese Garden. She met with the Forest Preserve District, and there was even talk of bulldozing the garden.

Work began with a huge clean up effort, removing brush, overgrowth, scavenger trees and bushes. There was a picnic table and trash can sitting in the garden, the walkway to the Tea House had been buried under mud and the original half-moon bridge had disintegrated beyond repair.

Under Larson’s leadership, the Garden Club raised money and sent letters to businesses and merchants asking for contributions.

Larson researched and collected historical information regarding what should be included in a Japanese garden and their symbolic meanings. She also contacted former Fabyan employees and their families for historical accounts and invited them back to visit.

The result of the restoration of the Japanese Garden was celebrated in June of 1977 with a dedication ceremony. Larson invited dignitaries from the county, the Buddhist Temple of Chicago, and a Japanese Koto player.

She asked the first donor of the project, a Geneva High School boy, to cut the ceremonial ribbon. Following the ceremony, Garden Club members gave tours of the garden, a tea ceremony took place in the Tea House, and there was an origami demonstration.

Larson led other restorations of the Fabyan Estate such as the reconstruction of two concrete eagles in 1988 that were damaged by lightning — one on the estate and one at Riverbank Laboratory. She was awarded grant funding to assist with the restoration of Fabyan’s garage and the exterior of the villa to their original splendor and had the lighthouse reconstructed along the banks of the Fox River.

Larson passed away in 2018, and she donated her Friends of Fabyan collection to the Geneva History Museum.

About The Geneva History Museum

The Geneva History Museum is a non-profit organization with a mission to preserve and share Geneva’s story while inspiring and engaging the community.  Donations are appreciated and needed.

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