On the eve of the 1980 presidential election, a rare double rainbow decorated the skies above Tampico, Illinois. The image was captured by grain elevator operator Lloyd McElhiney’s Kodak Instamatic. Those who witnessed the event swear the primary rainbow came to rest on the roof of Ronald Reagan’s birthplace.
The locals, recalling Yahweh’s post-flood covenant with Noah, took this for a good sign. Perhaps the long deluge of incompetence that had been the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations was receding at last. The next day Mr. Reagan was elected president in a landslide. The heavens were pleased.
It sounds like the stuff of legend, but there is photographic evidence. The president himself reportedly kept a framed print of Mr. McElhiney’s artistry on his Oval Office desk.
On the spring day we visited Tampico (accent on the “Tamp”) in this, the centennial year of President Reagan’s birth, there were no symbolic meteorological phenomena looming overhead; not unless the overcast skies were a reflection of the hard times Tampico has seen since they tore up the rails of the Hooppole, Yorktown, and Tampico Railroad in 1954.
The observant visitor will detect a note of wistfulness in the voice of Joan Johnson, docent at the Ronald Reagan Birthplace and Museum, as she gazes forlornly across Main Street at the derelict H. C. Pitney Variety Store. It was here that Jack Reagan (Ronald’s father) sold shoes for a dollar a day, and where the Reagans lived briefly, again in an upstairs flat. The prim Ms. Johnson, who clearly carries a torch for our 40th president, strikes the guest as being a bit of a teetotaler. “We don’t talk about that,” she says dismissively, when queried about the legend of Jack’s fondness for the bottle. The town’s dueling drinking establishments—the Good Times Tap, which, like Tampico, has seen better days, and the classier Kickback Saloon—also come in for a dose of Ms. Johnson’s scorn for the understandable reason that, besides the local diner and one generic convenience store, they are the town’s only going concerns.
As the lone visitors that day (Tampico, located in rural Whiteside County, is, to put it mildly, off the beaten track), we had the run of the Reagan birthplace, a roomy six-room flat, complete with a sleeping porch, above what was once a saloon, then a bakery, and later a bank.
The Great Communicator himself revisited Tampico on several occasions, the last in May 1992. Looking round the old homestead, he allegedly remarked: “I don’t know why my folks moved. It looks like a nice apartment.” After church services, Ron and Nancy brunched at the Dutch Diner (named not after “Dutch” Reagan but the original Amish proprietors). It was reported that Mr. Reagan enjoyed the double-crusted raisin pie and the special of turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy. On our visit we could not resist the local specialty, the Tornado, known elsewhere in central Illinois as the Horseshoe, an open-faced sandwich consisting of deep-fried pork tenderloin on toast, topped with French fries and smothered in a secret white cheese sauce. The Tornado alone was worth the five-hour drive.
After a thick slice of pumpkin pie (“They have the best pie in the Sauk Valley,” Joan Johnson proudly avers), we stimulated our overly taxed digestive systems with a stroll through Tampico’s quiet residential streets. We strode past St. Mary’s Catholic Church, where Jack and elder son Neil attended Mass (so stunningly ornate is St. Mary’s sanctuary that couples come from three counties to marry here), then on to the Church of Christ, where Mrs. Reagan and Ronald worshiped (Nelle was so devout many in the congregation believed she had the gift to heal). The peal of long-distance thunder signaled it was time to go indoors, thus we made a beeline for the Good Times Tap.
The Tap, a charming ramshackle affair with a low cinder-block addition, is justly famous for its two-dollar cans of Old Milwaukee, its “Polack 15” (a Seven & Seven), its poker machines (a few that even work), and its take-out tacos deep-fried in “new grease.” The Tap is also for sale—permanently, it seems—for those with an enterprising spirit and a longing for a crime-free environment. During our visit, we heard one regular quip: “I’d buy this dump if it didn’t need so much work.” To which Mark, the lethargic, heavyset proprietor, responded with due umbrage: “Why it don’t need much work. Got the best foundation of any building in town!”
IN ITS SALAD DAYS, Tampico bustled with a stockyard, a grocery, a creamery, a blacksmith shop, a newspaper, two hardware stores, and plenty of work digging the nearby Hennepin Canal feeder, where young Ron learned to swim. Today, Main Street is desolate save at lunchtime at the diner and again at happy hour, when Silverados and F-150s begin pulling up in front of the Kickback for the nightly contest of Texas Hold ’em.
Until five years ago, the Kickback operated as the village grocery store. But not even little Tampico has been spared the Walmartization of America, and villagers now drive to one of the many nearby retail giants for their supplies. So it shouldn’t be a total loss, Bonnie Anderson purchased the vacant building and opened the town’s second tavern. Business has been so brisk that she talks of turning the former stockroom into a banquet center.
Most evenings the Kickback harbors a good-natured clientele of boisterous farmhands and wisecracking carpenters. The ladies are mostly of the tattooed variety, hardworking and hard-drinking Irish girls, and included Meg, our capable waitress from the Dutch Diner, who appeared sociable as ever, even while flipping off our drinking companions through the window during one of her many smoke breaks.
On this particular night, the locals were trying out a new drink called the Bin Laden. “Two shots and a splash of water,” explained Missy the barmaid. Our host for the evening was a young farmhand who went by the unironic appellation of Skinny. Skinny introduced us to the local libations, which turned out to be the standard Anheuser-Busch and Miller fare. We settled on a round of Bud Light Golden Wheats, an unfiltered wheat beer with a hint of coriander and citrus, which Missy expertly rolled on the bar to loosen the settled yeast.
As with most small-town bars, strangers are an overwhelming curiosity, though the denizens of Tampico are too well mannered to pry. All except Skinny, who had no qualms about cornering us by the jukebox and demanding to know why the hell anyone would come to a “hole in the wall” like Tampico. Told we were on a tour of the Reagan sites, Skinny could only shake his head in wonder. In this way, he is reminiscent of those New Yorkers who have never been to the Statue of Liberty. “Lived here all my life and never once set foot in the Reagan home,” he allows, before ordering another round of Bin Ladens.
One hundred years after the birth of its favorite son, the residents of Tampico are waiting for another sign. One that reads open for business, perhaps, or, failing that, half off on all drinks, 4 to 7 p.m.
Either one would be entirely welcomed.
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