Politics & Policy

The Reagan Tour

On your next vacation, stop in Tampico, Ill.

“I was born February 6, 1911, in a flat above the local bank in Tampico, Illinois.”

Today, Ronald Reagan’s birthplace in the tiny town of Tampico (pop. 772) is a small museum with erratic hours. It was once the site of a prophecy: “According to family legend, when my father ran up the stairs and looked at his newborn son, he quipped: ‘He looks like a fat little Dutchman. But who knows, he might grow up to be president some day.’”

Reagan loved a good story, but even he seems to think this one is apocryphal, at least the second part. The first bit, of course, stuck: “During my mother’s pregnancy, my parents had decided to call me Donald. But after one of her sisters beat her to it and named her son Donald, I became Ronald. I never thought ‘Ronald’ was rugged enough for a young red-blooded American boy and as soon as I could, I asked people to call me ‘Dutch.’ That was a nickname that grew out of my father’s calling me ‘the Dutchman’ whenever he referred to me.”

When people think of America’s great presidential sites, their minds turn to Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Lincoln Memorial, and the like–each one a famous symbol and a beloved tourist destination. With the exception of the Roosevelts, no 20th-century president has been so well commemorated.

There is, of course, a quixotic effort to carve Reagan’s image on Mount Rushmore. There’s also the Reagan Legacy Project, an ad hoc group devoted to having public sites and programs named after the Gipper. At last count, there were 47 dedications in 18 states (including the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport) and 5 more abroad (my favorite: the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site in the Marshall Islands).

Several Reagan sites also qualify as genuine tourist attractions. I’ve toured a few of them in Illinois–and hereby recommend them to anybody with an interest in the 40th president. The birthplace is tops on my list–it’s quaint, homey, and well maintained by a handful of caring locals. Reagan himself visited the spot in 1992. “They’ve got more movie poster than we do,” he said to Nancy, upon seeing the museum’s extensive collection. His 4th-grade report card is also in view. (He earned all A’s and B’s–”We probably would not have displayed it otherwise,” one of the caretakers told me.) A gift shop sells a postcard showing a rainbow beaming down on the birthplace, from a photo taken after a brief rain on November 3, 1980–one day before Reagan was elected to the White House.

After Tampico, the Reagan family moved to Dixon, Ill., in 1920. Reagan was 9 years old; he lived there through high school. “It was in Dixon that I really found myself,” he wrote in his autobiography.

The Reagans switched addresses within Dixon several times. Today, one of their old houses is maintained for the public as Reagan’s boyhood home. “As I look back on those days in Dixon, I think my life was as sweet and idyllic as it could be, as close as I could imagine for a young boy to the world created by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” wrote Reagan.

After high school in Dixon, Reagan continued his education at Eureka College, also in Illinois. (“I’ve been accused of majoring in extracurricular activities at Eureka. Technically, that wasn’t true,” he once quipped.) Today, Reagan aficionados can travel between Tampico, Dixon, and Eureka College by taking the Ronald Reagan Trail–so designated by the Illinois General Assembly in 1999 and sponsored by Jelly Belly (no kidding).

Reagan’s life was only getting started in small-town Illinois, of course, and there are lots of other sites to see. There’s Hollywood (read entries #15 and 24), the presidential museum and archives, and the Reagan Ranch.

These are all worthwhile, though I’ve always been more drawn to the sites associated with his origin rather than his destination. A lot is to be learned in places like Tampico and Dixon, as Reagan himself pointed out:

“I think growing up in a small town is a good foundation for anyone who decides to enter politics. 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: Every individual is unique, but we all want freedom and liberty, peace, love and security, a good home, and a chance to worship God in our own way; we all want the chance to get ahead and make our children’s lives better than our own. We all want the chance to work at a job of our own choosing and to be fairly rewarded for it and the opportunity to control our own destiny.”

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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