“All of us have a place to go back to; Dixon is that place for me,” Ronald Reagan once said of his childhood home. This riverside community is the perfect stop for a motorcoach tour. The modest two-story house, built in 1891, is in the Queen Anne style, with a gabled roof and wide covered front porch. It is situated halfway up a steep hill at 816 S. Hennepin Avenue, on a street lined with old-growth maples and oaks.
Born in 1911 in Tampico, Illinois, Reagan spent his formative years in Dixon, from age nine through high school graduation. The family moved to five different rental homes while living here (the current executive director of Reagan Boyhood Home, Patrick Gorman, grew up in the second of the five.), but the house on Hennepin is the one the Reagan boys, Ron and older brother Neil (better known in their hometown as Dutch and Moon), remembered best. It is the only Dixon home mentioned in Reagan’s 1965 autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?
Reagan was elected to the first of two terms as President of the United States in 1981. Local friends and supporters formed the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home Preservation Foundation in the early 1980s to purchase and preserve the house on Hennepin Avenue. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, as the group restored it to its 1920’s appearance based on Reagan’s and his brother’s recollections. The home officially opened to the public on February 6, 1984, Reagan’s 73rd birthday. Both brothers were present at its dedication.
The adjacent house has been converted into a Visitors Center, with small exhibits, a gift shop, library and a theater area where tour passengers can view a short biographical film about Reagan. From there, groups head next door for a docent-led tour of the neat two-story home where he lived.
Upstairs are three small bedrooms, and the first floor includes an entry hall, double parlor, dining room, kitchen and pantry. The front parlor, the most formal room in the house, has a large picture window and tiled fireplace. The boys were not allowed to play in this room, but there is a loose tile in the hearth, where young Ron used to hide pennies. The 73-year-old Reagan put four pennies here on his 1984 visit.
Next, tour passengers can wander outside and peek into the horse barn in back and view “Bessie,” a 1919 Ford Model T, just like the one Reagan’s father Jack used to own. This barn also housed the rabbits raised by Neil and Ron. Finally, visitors can stroll over to Reagan Park and sit for a moment of rest or reflection on one of the benches in the tree-shaded park just south of the home. A statue of Reagan stands at the center of the park, and facing it are two new benches that are dedicated to two of the museum’s Board Presidents, the late James G. Burke (Mayor of Dixon) and Jeffery A. Lovett. As you exit the park, you may want to stroll back to the Visitors Center to pick out some souvenirs or possibly leave a donation. Reagan Boyhood Home is funded by tour monies and donations only; it receives no federal, state or local tax dollars. The site is a 501(c)3, so your donations are tax deductable.
The home is open April through October, Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Both buildings are fairly small; large groups will be divided into smaller groups and rotated between the visitors center, home and surrounding grounds. Buses can park in the adjacent lot for free, and passengers must walk a short distance along paved walkways to the buildings. Tickets are $8, with free driver and escort admissions. Active military personnel and first responders receive free admission; retired military personnel receive a discount on admission. Reservations for 10 or more should be made two weeks in advance, and tour planners should allot about an hour for the stop, possibly longer for much larger groups.
Afterwards, the tour bus can head north, down Hennepin Avenue – also known as The Reagan Way, to see other Reagan landmarks. At Fifth and Hennepin is the Northwest Territory Historic Center, which in Reagan’s day was South Central School, where he attended 5th, 6th and 7th grades. His sixth-grade classroom has been replicated, and a Reagan History Room, established on the same floor, exhibits personal Dixon and presidential memorabilia donated by Reagan. At the First Christian Church, 123 South Hennepin, young Dutch helped his mother Nelle to teach Sunday school. About four miles north of town is Lowell Park, where Reagan lifeguarded on the Rock River for seven summers and reportedly rescued 77 swimmers.
Dixon has hotels that cater to motorcoach tours and several local and chain restaurants that can accommodate large groups. To learn more about bringing your tour group to the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home, phone (815) 288-5176 or visit reaganhome.org or e-mail Patrick Gorman at firstname.lastname@example.org.