Whenever I ride that long, flat stretch of Illinois between Chicago and Davenport, I can’t help but think of Ronald Reagan and the time that he hitchhiked the highway now named for him.
It was the fall of 1932, and the depth of the Great Depression. Reagan, after thumbing a ride to Chicago from Eureka, where he had graduated from college, had just failed to become a radioman. It was raining, which is intolerable in the Windy City. So Reagan did what so many broke people did at the time: he bounced right back home.
Back home to Dixon, to his parents. Reagan, of course, did not last long in Illinois after that. He soon found a sports announcing job in Iowa. He leveraged that into a screen test while on a reporting trip to California. Producers liked that fresh, all-American face, and signed him on to be a star. Then came politics. We all know the rest of the story from there.
And yet, Reagan’s time in Illinois remains one of the most fascinating parts of his life. The state may be the Land of Lincoln, but the Gipper is its only native son. When Reagan talked about home, he meant the corn flats that roll right into the Mississippi River.
Reagan’s legacy in Illinois lives on as myth. The state legislature in 1999 created a trail dedicated to his itinerant childhood, tracing its way through every town to which his alcoholic father dragged his family. Reagan was at the time the only living president to be honored in such a way (though, admittedly, he had been dead in the public eye since his 1994 Alzheimer’s diagnosis). The trail cuts through thirteen towns, some where Reagan stepped, some where he slept, and some with no discernable relationship to the president at all.
After more than twenty years, the trail’s glory has dimmed. The signs are still on the highway, and the statues still line the streets, but the shifting tides of state politics turned the legislature sour on Dutch. The governmental body responsible for the trail was dissolved in 2016, and its care was entrusted to Eureka College, whose staff will still point a curious traveler in the right direction.
I was that curious traveler just days before the presidential election. Weighed down with a camera and a suitcase full of biographies, I landed in Chicago on Halloween, rented a car, and drove out into the Land of Reagan.
Reagan, if he had to name a hometown, would always say Dixon. Only a two-hour drive from Chicago, the place is generally accessible to tourists, except during the pandemic. Still, most of the old haunts are there: his so-called boyhood home, the library where he studied, and the school he attended. The city over time has erected a number of statues to him, as well as one to Lincoln, who served in the Blackhawk War in Dixon.
I stopped in front of a Reagan statue downtown just as the sun was setting. It’s a strange piece: he’s examining several kernels of corn, which the inscription on the base says “seems appropriate” to the miles of cornfield surrounding the town. A couple pulled up and got out of their car. The man, elderly, retired, told me that they drove out for a Saturday cruise through the fields and, as fate would have it, ended up in Dixon.
“I’ve always wanted to retrace his footsteps,” he said, pointing to the statue. “He was a good president.”
The Reagan sites in Dixon draw more than ten thousand visitors per year, and the town is also a popular wedding destination because of its scenic placement on the Rock River, where Reagan as a lifeguard in high school famously saved seventy-seven lives over the course of several summers.
Reagan’s life reads rather like a fairytale, and Tampico plays it up.
But Dixon is not the primary Reagan site. That’s Tampico, a tiny town about half an hour away, where the president was born. Tampico is not directly off any highway and is not in an area with decent WiFi reception. But it’s where Reagan came from, and where its lifelong residents keep watch over his legacy.
In Tampico, I met Joan Johnson, who grew up in the town and keeps the museum at his birthplace running. Johnson inherited stewardship of the place from two other couples in town, the Nicelys and the McElhineys, both of whom were collectors of Reaganomia as he rose from actor to governor to president. Paul Nicely, who, while he lived, poured his entire life’s savings into the museum, first showed Reagan the place in 1976, during his first presidential run. In 1992, Helen Nicely led Reagan on another tour, when, in a fit of nostalgia, he desired to see his birthplace once more before his death.
But the Nicelys and the McElhineys are gone now, leaving their cache of knowledge to Johnson, who has been leading tours since 2005. Every year she welcomes several thousand visitors from around the world (she showed me a sign-in book with names from places as distant as Florida and Russia) and leads them through the museum and Reagan’s reconstructed apartment on the floor above.
“I never thought of our family as disadvantaged,” Reagan wrote when looking back on Tampico. But to the visitor, it’s clear that he was. Reagan was the last president to grow up in an apartment without running water. The communal outhouse is in the back alley, and, with the wind whipping across the plains, I can’t imagine there was any comfort in using it.
The birthplace, more than just a museum, is a shrine for people who feel like they have been touched by Reagan’s spirit. It’s chalked full of mementos visitors have left behind. The most striking, a handwritten sign from a man named Tom Liebel, thanks Reagan for liberating Europe in the Cold War.
“You are the greatest president the world has ever seen,” the sign reads. “You freed my country, Hungary, and the world from leftist freeloading barbarians. Your name alone will strike fear into Communists and freeloaders everywhere for centuries to come.”
Johnson never met Liebel. No one in Tampico did. The sign just showed up on the front stoop one day, along with a dozen roses.
Of course there is something romantic in all of this. Reagan’s life reads rather like a fairytale, and Tampico plays it up. The day before the 1980 election, a double rainbow appeared over the building where Reagan was born. Someone snapped a picture. When Reagan took office the next year, a delegation from Illinois visited the White House and delivered it to him. He noted in his diary that it was an “eerie” coincidence.
Nevertheless, he kept the thing on his desk through both his terms. A sort of rendezvous with destiny, I suppose. The museum has it now — and plasters reproductions on everything from magnets to postcards to t-shirts.
The myth of Reagan captured the attention of his biographer, Edmund Morris, who fancied his subject’s childhood in Illinois to be an American riff on Wagner’s Parsifal. Beginning in Reagan’s first term, Morris shadowed the president closely with the intention o fproducing an intensely researched biography. But, like most other Reagan affiliates, Morris found Reagan impenetrable. Morris believed those miles of desolate cornfields had something to do with the problem.
So did Nancy Reagan, who told Lou Cannon, the president’s most acclaimed biographer, that “a combination of his childhood and never feeling any root anywhere and never having an old friend for a long, long time,” as well as a disastrous first marriage, committed the Great Communicator to a life of reticence.
Reagan’s silence frustrated Morris so much that he scrapped the biography idea. Instead, when writing what became Dutch, he created his own version of Reagan’s itinerant childhood, where a fictionalized version of himself could be Reagan’s old friend. Morris, leaving behind his nearly unlimited access to the White House, took to western Illinois, following Reagan’s heritage down what is now the trail and interviewed anyone who had ever known (or claimed to have known) him.
Morris threw himself into his work, almost literally: While at the Rock River, he envisioned himself as one of the people Reagan fished out of the current.
“I felt bound to testify that I owed these past seven decades to Dutch,” Morris wrote, explaining his own fictional near-death experience as prophetic for the way in which Reagan brought the United States to triumph in the Cold War. “Someday, I hoped, America might acknowledge her similar debt to the old Lifeguard who rescued her in a time of poisonous despair and, in Joseph Grucci’s words, carried her ‘breastward out of peril.’ ”
Morris had been given the chance of a lifetime — to shadow someone that he rightly realized possessed “presidential greatness” — and many people felt that he blew it. And none more acutely than the people of Tampico, whose anecdotes, recollections, and lore the biographer used to weave his fable.
The book is still displayed prominently in the Reagan birthplace museum. It is, after all, a piece of Reagan history. But people Morris interviewed when he visited Tampico with Reagan in 1992 thought he, typical of a journalist, had pretended to be their friend only to betray them.
Helen Nicely, who had shown Reagan the room where he was born, felt that Morris, in presenting his childhood, had “portrayed it more like a fantasy” than “the true story of how it all happened right here,” Johnson recalled. In attempting to fabricate the Myth of Reagan, he had obscured a very real myth that already existed and is still being cultivated by the people of western Illinois.
This is, after all, why the Reagan Trail exists. And why the people of Tampico hold Reagan so close to their chests. The town, along with Dixon and Eureka, is the gatekeeper of his official history. At the end of the day, what they say about the man becomes fact.
Reagan, for instance, could have been the second Catholic president, if it were not for a curious incident that occurred after he was born. Reagan’s father, Jack, was supposed to tell his mother, Nelle, to have his son baptized at St. Mary’s, the local Catholic parish. Nelle for some reason demurred, and Reagan became a Disciple of Christ.
It’s strange, walking into St. Mary’s and seeing what could have been. As I examined the high altar and baldacchino, Deacon Bill Lemmer said that it is reputed to be “the most beautiful church between Chicago and Des Moines.” But it is in decline: in the past twenty years it has gone from about two hundred families to sixty. An average of twenty-seven people attend Sunday mass. It no longer has a full-time priest.
Pointing up at the organ, a beautiful, nineteenth-century beast, Lemmer told me how the only person in the parish who knows how to play it, a woman over eighty years old, is so weak that she can no longer ascend the steps to the loft. There is no music on Sundays.
But it could be worse. The church Reagan attended with his mother closed in 2018, without ceremony. The secret of why Reagan never was baptized Catholic went down with it. Jack’s negligence, Nelle’s independence — it could be one or both. “That’s the story we tell, anyway,” Johnson said.
“And it’s probably true,” Lemmer added.
When we returned to the museum, a couple from Georgia was visiting. They were on the trail, too, just for a day trip. The wife remarked that Reagan reminds her of Donald Trump. And then she was off to inspect the outhouse.
Johnson joked to me as we walked out to my car that if I ever needed her to make up something about Dutch, to give her a call.
“With some of these things, we keep telling the same story and everything,” she smiled. “Because, at the end of the day, who is going to dispute us?”
That comment reminded me of Morris. I asked if maybe he wasn’t entitled to his own myths, too.
“It’s hard to tell about anything,” she said. “We all have our own opinions.”