Winter 2011 | Volume 60, Issue 4
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.
Back in 1965 Ronald Reagan published his first memoir, Where’s the Rest of Me?, borrowing the title from a line in the 1942 Warner Brothers film Kings Row. In the movie—Reagan’s favorite of all he starred in—he played Drake McHugh, a playboy whose legs have been removed by a sadistic surgeon. “Where’s the rest of me?” Reagan famously cried out when he came to, with thespian relish worthy of an Academy Award nomination.
Up until now Reagan—like McHugh—hasn’t been whole. His legacy has been too rooted in Hollywood, Culver City, Pacific Palisades, Sacramento, Beverly Hills, Simi Valley, and the Santa Ynez Mountains. On the centennial of his birth in the tiny northwestern Illinois town of Tampico, the Midwest is determined to make Reagan whole again. The Tampico prodigal has become the Land of Lincoln’s new favorite son.
Grim economic times have not spared Tampico’s Main Street Historic District today: home foreclosures and the decline of the family farm have shuttered many buildings and infected its residents with an omnipresent, shroudlike fear that the American dream is in permanent recession. Yet each year over the last decade, tourism has picked up as the legend of Ronald Reagan grows as wide as the Mississippi River only 50 miles away.
On February 6, 1911, our fortieth president was born in a second-floor apartment above a brown-floorboard saloon in a hard, cold sleet that blanketed the prairie town in gray. That’s right, Reagan was born above a bar. The Tampico Historical Society erroneously claims on its website that Reagan was born above a bakery, likely because it sounds more wholesome than a tavern. The first floor of the Graham Building—at 111 South Main Street—didn’t become a bakery until 1915, four years after Reagan’s birth and long after his family had moved to their next house on Glassburn Street.
The Reagan birthplace—a red-brick building with three second-story windows and a cornice—is a modest First National Bank museum today. What it lacks in Reagan artifacts it makes up for in modest homespunness. In his 1990 autobiography An American Life, Reagan repeated his one and only 111 South Main Street birth story, which he regularly recycled over the years. “He looks like a fat little Dutchman,” Reagan claimed that his father, Jack, an Irish Catholic alcoholic, had said when he first saw his cute butterball son. “But who knows, he might grow up to be president someday.” Historians over the years have inferred that this story is apocryphal. Yet the anecdote is pure Ronald Reagan, somehow seeming appropriate even if Jack never said it. And the nickname “Dutch” clearly stuck. At least that’s the way they’ll tell it at Tampico’s Dutch Diner, where they dip fried food in a special “Ronnie sauce.”
What historians do know about February 6, 1911, is that William Howard Taft was president (but struggling), crew members were prepping the RMS Titanic for its inaugural Atlantic voyage, and Mexico stirred with talk of revolution. The future president’s mother Nelle, an ardent Disciples of Christ churchgoer, had planned to call her baby Donald, but because her quick-draw sister had beat her to it, the infant won the consolation prize of being named Ronald. And no biography disputes that Nelle had an extremely difficult time delivering him in that drafty Tampico flat. She had given birth to Ron’s brother Neil (nicknamed “Moon”) two years earlier, and she was weak, frail, and cold. “My mother was informed that she shouldn’t have any more children,” Reagan recalled.
Tampico’s claim to fame in 1911 was an irrigation ditch success story and a gnarly tornado that had destroyed nearly 30 structures. Most of its 820 residents wanted to leave—except the Glassman family, who fancied themselves local kingpins. But being born above a tavern in a West Illinois hamlet with some businesses posting signs that read “NO DOGS OR IRISHMEN ALLOWED” was an auspicious start in life for Reagan.
“I think growing up in a small town is a good foundation for anyone who decides to enter politics,” he reflected after being president. “You get to know people as individuals, not as blocs or members of special-interest groups. You discover that, despite their differences, most people have a lot in common.”
When Reagan was born, Illinois was already associated with two presidents: Abraham Lincoln, who lived primarily in the Springfield area from 1830 to 1861, and Ulysses S. Grant, who worked in his family’s leather shop in Galena from 1860 to 1868. Yet of all the four U.S. presidential claimants (which now includes Barack Obama, who adopted Chicago as his home in 1985), only Reagan was actually born there; this gives his statewide legacy a special bragging right.
The Reagans were decidedly nomadic. When Ronald was four years old, they moved to Chicago, where his father worked at the Fair Department Store. When that didn’t work out, they moved to Galesburg and then Monmouth before returning to Tampico. In Galesburg there are two residences with indisputable Gipper lineage: a dwelling where his family lived at 1260 North Kellogg Street and a home at 1219 North Kellogg. The Reagans rented so many homes and apartments between 1911 and the Great Depression that even the postal service must have found it difficult keeping track of them.
This future president’s troubled home life has proved to be a genuine boon to the commercial business in these economically stressed towns, which never imagined that Reaganism might become as big as Elvisism in the tourism department. Eureka College, located halfway between Peoria and Bloomington, where Reagan graduated in 1932, now houses more than 2,000 items in its archive pertaining to the Gipper. “Everything good that happened to me,” Reagan once said, “started here on this campus.” That wasn’t hyperbole.
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.