The hottest-selling souvenir at President Ronald Reagan's birthplace in rural Tampico, Ill., is a red stocking cap with lettering that reads "Reagan Country."
The citizens of Tampico and nearby Dixon, Ill., where the President spent his boyhood, are understandably proud of a small-town boy who made good, but while the cap calls attention to the area's presidential roots, it serves a practical purpose as well. In February Reagan country is cold country.
It was bitterly cold the day Reagan was born, 70 years ago on Feb. 6. A snowstorm had swept across northern Illinois the night before, burying fields and farms and cutting off tiny Tampico from the rest of the world. On Main Street a lamp burned in an apartment above the First National Bank. LAter that day Mrs. Reagan gave birth to her second child, another boy.
Paul Nicely and his wife, Helen, (whose father bought the old bank building) are refurbishing the apartment in 1911 decor and they hope to open it to visitors this spring at a modest admission charge. Visitors now are admitted to a room on the ground floor of the building, the walls of which are lined with news clippings and photographs of Reagan, including one taken when the movie star returned to Tampico to ride in a 1950 homecoming parade.
A variety of souvenirs is offered for sale, from post cards and coffee mugs to T-shirts and a wraparound skirt depicting Reagan in cowboy garb. In March the Nicelys will move the souvenirs next door and devote the ground floor of the birthplace entirely to exhibits of Tampico history and Reagan memorabilia.
Through interviews with people who knew the Reagan family and examination of back issues of the local newspaper, The Tampico Tornado, and other publications, Nicely pieced together the story of the President's birth and learned something of the Reagans' life in Tampico.
Mrs. Reagan, of Scottish and English descent, was a genteel woman who gave readings of inspirational literature. Jack Reagan, a burly Irishman, was a clerk at the H. C. Pitney General Store at the tiem of Ronald's birth.
The apartment was heated by a pot-belly stove in the parlor and a cookstove in the kitchen. There was no indoor plumbing.
Three months after Ronald was born the family moved into a white frame house at 104 Glassburg Street. For a time it was thought the President might have been born in this house, but a woman who lived in the apartment next to the Reagans at the time of Reagan's birth has authenticated the bank building as the birthplace.
Tampico (pop. 838) is about 125 miles west of Chicago and is well off the beaten path, a good four miles from a principal highway. Main Street consists of two taverns, a bank, funeral chapel, supermarket, gas station, and not much more. A restaurant will be opening soon. The birthplace is open every day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Dixon (16,000) is 28 miles northeast of Tampico and is the community Reagan remembers as his boyhood home. "All of us have a place to go back to; Dixon is that place for me," Reagan wrote in his autobiography.
A river town, Dixon is the sort of place Mark Twain might have described in his "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Victorian frame houses sit on tree-lined streets. Downtown Dixon is noted for its picturesque courthouse and pre-Civil War hotel. The biggest event of the year is the Petunia Festival held over Fourth of July weekend.
Ronald Reagan, or "Dutch," as he was called, attended old South Central School, played on the high school football field (he was an offensive guard), and is credited with saving 77 lives as a lifeguard on the Rock River. He once retrieved a set of dentures from the river for an elderly swimmer and received a reward of $5.
While in Dixon the Reagans lived in five homes, one of which has been torn down to make way for a McDonald's restaurant. The home where Reagan lived from 1920 to 1924 has been purchased by a local preservation group that is soliciting donations to pay the mortgage and to restore the home to the Reagan era.
The focal point of the old house at 816 South Hennepin Avenue is a narrow stairway with a banister off the front entry. One can almost see young Dutch bursting through the door, cowlick flying, and bolt up the stairs two at a time, as in a scene from "Father Knows Best."
Though open to visitors on weekends free of charge, the Reagan home is in deplorable condition, having been partitioned into two apartments during its recent history.
The townspeople of Dixon honored Reagan in 1978 by naming a bridge across the Rock River after him. Another bridge, just a few blocks away, is named for Abraham Lincoln, who fought the only battle of his military career here during the Blackhawk War.
In addition to Reagan, Dixon was the home of Louella Parsons, the Hollywood columnist, and John Deere, the farm equipment industrialist. The John Deere Historic Site, where the self-scouring steel plow was invented in 1938, is in nearby Grand Detour, Ill.
Visitors began pouring into both Dixon and Tampico after Reagan received the Republican nomination last July. Darwin Burke, manager of the Dixon Chamber of Commerce, said he has had inquiries from tour operators from as far away as Salt Lake City who want to include Dixon as a stop on bus tours through Illinois. The chamber is printing a color brochure promoting Mr. Reagan's hometown and hopes to set up a tourist center in a vacant gas station.
More than 4,000 people have visited the Reagan birthplace in Tampico since last fall. They've come from all but five states and from 20 foreign countries. Mr. Nicely said. journalists from Germany, Sweden, and Japan have all found their way to the hamlet.
Plains, Ga., received close to 200,000 visitors in the year after Jimmy Carter's election, Mr. Burke said, but Tampico and Dixon probably won't get that kind of turnout, because the President no longer lives in the area and has no business or family ties in these communities.
Just what sort of visitor turnout Reagan country will get is difficult to determine in the dead of winter, traditionally a slow season for tourism. Residents won't know what effect the presidency will have on their cherished communities until the February freeze gives way to spring and the stocking caps are put in storage.