Dixon, Illinois is a nice little town with a lot of history. Bisected by the Rock River, Dixon was settled in 1828 as a ferry crossing. Four years later, in 1832, a young Abraham Lincoln joined the Illinois militia at Fort Dixon during the Black Hawk War. Today, the Lincoln Monument State Memorial marks the location of the old fort with a statue of the man who would one day become the sixteenth President of the United States. It is said to be the only statue of Lincoln in uniform in existence.
But Abraham Lincoln was not the only future President to spend time in Dixon. Ronald Reagan was born in nearby Tampico, Illinois on February 6, 1911 and moved to Dixon when he was 9 years old. He lived in Dixon until after he graduated from high school.
The Reagan family lived in several rental houses in Dixon, but the two-story frame house at 816 S. Hennepin Avenue is the only one that Reagan specifically mentions in his biography. They moved into the house in December, 1920, and Ronald and his older brother Neil attended school at South Side School, later known as South Central School, just four blocks away. The Reagan family lived in the Hennepin Avenue house for three years, moving to another house when the landlord raised the $15 a month rent and they could no longer afford it.
Nicknamed Dutch, the future president was a popular student and was involved in many extracurricular activities, including being student body President, a member of the Drama Club, playing on the football team, and a member of the yearbook staff. He was also a drum major for the Dixon YMCA Band. During the summer he worked as a lifeguard at Lowell Park in Dixon, where he was credited with saving 77 lives. There is some speculation that at least a few of those “rescues” were actually young ladies hoping to attract the attention of the handsome lifeguard.
Jack Reagan, Ronald and Neil’s father, worked as a shoe salesman and changed jobs several times when his sons were young. Ronald Reagan wrote of his mother, Nelle, that she “always expected to find the best in people and often did.” She taught Sunday school and gave Bible readings to her church’s congregation during the services, as well as conducting prayer meetings at church.
His mother’s faith and sense of justice influenced her children. Young Ronald wasn’t afraid to stand up for what he believed in. When a local inn refused to rent rooms to a small group of African Americans, Ronald brought them home with him, where Nell fed them and put them up for the night.
But he also wasn’t above some occasional teenage mischief. He recalled the time when, as a teenager, he was setting off fireworks, which were illegal in Dixon. When a sheriff’s deputy pulled up in an unmarked car and confronted him, Reagan replied, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star. Who the heck do you think you are?” That stunt earned him a trip to jail, where his father had to come down and pay a fine to bail him out. The teenager worked all summer long to pay off the debt to his father.
After graduating from high school, Reagan attended Eureka College and then became involved in radio. This eventually led him to work in movies and then television before he became involved in politics and started on the path that would eventually lead him to the White House. But he always remembered his small town roots and the good times his family had while living in Dixon.
A visit to the Reagan home begins at the Visitor Center, which is located next door. Here visitors will see numerous photos of the boy who would grow up to become our nation’s 40th President, and watch an eight-minute long video on President Reagan and his connection to Dixon. The Visitor Center includes a gift shop with books and souvenirs of your visit.
While it looks to be good sized from the outside, the Reagan house actually seems pretty small on the inside. It was interesting to see where the future president lived a modest lifestyle while growing up.
Our tour guide was very knowledgeable about the Reagan family and the history of Dixon and shared a lot of interesting details with us. This included the 1984 visit President Reagan made to Dixon for his 73rd birthday celebration. The President, his wife Nancy, and brother Neil toured the Boyhood Home, ate dinner in the dining room, and received a key to the home. President Reagan remarked that he used to hide money under one of the tiles in the fireplace hearth, then found the correct tile and worked it loose to reveal four pennies that had remained there awaiting his return for decades.
The house has been restored to the way it looked when the Reagans lived here in the early 1920s. It has been furnished with period furniture and personal items, some of which were donated by President Reagan’s estate. There are many photographs throughout the house of the Reagan family during the time this was their home.
Even though the home had three bedrooms, the Reagan brothers shared a second-floor bedroom and their mother used the third as a work room and guest bedroom.
After we toured the home we drove down the street past the school where Reagan and his brother Neil attended classes, and the library where he borrowed hundreds of books over the years.
The street ends at the Rock River, where a statue of Ronald Reagan on horseback stands. A lot people don’t remember that before he became a politician, Reagan was a popular movie actor who starred in many Westerns.
The Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home is open daily between April 1 and November 12. Hours are Monday – Saturday from 10 AM to 4 PM, and Sunday from 1 to 4 PM. Admission is $5. There is a parking lot behind the home, accessible from 9th Street. For more information, call (815) 288-5176.
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It’s Thursday, so it’s time for a new Free Drawing. This week’s prize is an audiobook of Big Lake Blizzard, the fourth book in my Big Lake mystery series. To enter, all you have to do is click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – When you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat. – Ronald Reagan