- Historic Sites
A Boy From Tampico
Most associate Ronald Reagan with California, but he spent his formative years in the midwest. On the centennial of his birth, a handful of small Illinois towns want a share of the limelight.
Winter 2011 | Volume 60, Issue 4
Reagan’s loyalty to Eureka—where he majored in economics, graduating with a C average, and served as student body president—was intense. He served three six-year terms on the board of trustees and visited campus a dozen times after graduating.
If no single Illinois town can fully claim Reagan as its own, the state proudly can. It seems as if every grain elevator, lumber yard, feed mill, and egg house has Reagan lore associated with it. Reagan’s boyhood home in Dixon, into which he moved as a nine-year-old, is the most worthwhile pilgrimage place. It was there that Reagan graduated from high school and worked as a lifeguard, saving 77 people from drowning in the treacherous Rock River (dubbed “the Hudson of the West”). That herculean feat alone was far more of a genuine accomplishment than most of us will ever have. It might surprise people who remember Reagan as being an antienvironmentalist that growing up he proclaimed himself as a “great naturalist” of the Rock River Valley. William Ruckelshaus, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, recently told a story about flying with the president from Washington, D.C., to Seattle on Air Force One in the mid-1980s. “Reagan ordered the pilot to swoop down low when we got to the Rock River,” he said, “and tip a wing in homage.”
But Tampico, Galesburg, Dixon, and Eureka College aren’t alone in clinging to the Reagan centennial kite tail. In Ohio, Illinois, a village of 550 situated along Route 26, visitors are told that Reagan used to thumb through town with a beaming salesman’s smile, commuting back and forth from Dixon to Peoria. In Walnut (population 1,400) the visitor learns that young Reagan used to pile into a road-weary gray Buick clunker (bought for $10) with his buddies to catch sporting events in
Peoria and Normal. Princeton, Illinois, is promoting Reagan’s admiration of their New England–like architecture, while the town of Henry boasts an Illinois River Bridge that Reagan surely drove across dozens of times on his way to Eureka College. In Chillicothe, apparently, Reagan used to visit his fraternity brother George Taylor, while in Fulton locals will point out the gravesite of Reagan’s maternal grandmother, Mary Anne Wilson.
All this is part of the Ronald Reagan Trail—the ex-president’s fabled hitchhiking route—which was officially created in May 1999 to promote his Midwest legacy. What only a dozen years ago seemed like an Illinois stretch is now attracting scores of visitors who see Reagan as a giant, the man British prime minister Margaret Thatcher said won the Cold War without firing a single shot. (London is planning to unveil its first Reagan statue to coincide with the centennial.) If Lincoln’s bicentennial in 2008 could boost tourism upward in Illinois like a jet-propulsion rocket, there is no reason that Reagan’s centennial can’t too, or so says the state’s chamber of commerce.
Not that California is giving up on its Reagan franchise. The Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena will have a dominating Reagan-themed float on January 1; USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism is throwing a huge conference hosted by Tom Brokaw; and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley will open a completely renovated museum display (plus ribbon cuttings, military flyovers, and a star-studded celebrity concert). Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a permanent Reagan Day holiday in California. While there are currently no plans to add Reagan’s face to Mount Rushmore, it looks like a major Nevada peak will soon be named in his honor.
But it’s Illinois that has best prepared to bask in Gipper glory in 2011. The entire heartland now belongs to the boy from Tampico. It makes you believe in the luck of the Irish and the resilience that comes from growing up in the Midwest.