Troubled Times at Ronald Reagan’s Boyhood Home: ‘We Cannot Keep Bleeding Money’
DIXON, Ill. — One morning back in 1988, a fancier car than usual rolled up to Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home in Dixon. It was Monday, and the home-turned-museum was closed, but a well-dressed man walked up and persuaded Kenny Wendland, then a tour guide, to take him through it.
The man fired question after question at Wendland. “What’s Ronald Reagan’s brother’s name?”
“Neil,” he answered.
After the tour, the man revealed himself to be Beryl Sprinkel, an economic adviser to Reagan, then in his second term as U.S. president. Though Reagan had been at the museum when it was a fledgling operation, he had asked Sprinkel to check out how it was operating as his time in office was coming to a close. The museum was established as a tourist and educational destination during Reagan’s first term and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
Wendland is no longer a tour guide there, but he stopped by for a tour during a recent morning. He pulled out a wallet-size photograph of himself standing with the former president. Impressed with Wendland’s tour, Sprinkel had offered to introduce him to the president during a future trip to Dixon.
When Wendland volunteered at the home, Reagan was still in office at the height of his popularity, and interest in his northwestern Illinois boyhood home was at a high point.
But 15 years after Reagan’s death, the home’s future is uncertain. It is run by a nonprofit organization that maintains a museum, visitor center and gift shop, and conducts tours of the home.
Without a financial turnaround, the home is at risk of closing as a tourist destination, saddled with debt and unused property purchased for a grand vision of expansion that never came to fruition, according to its executive director.
Recent tax records show the expenses to run the house far outstrip the revenue it brings in, running at a loss of more than $80,000 per year in recent years.
“We cannot keep bleeding money,” said Patrick Gorman, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home nonprofit organization.
The white, two-story house with clapboard siding and a roomy porch sits on a hilly street near the Rock River. The quiet river town of Dixon is about 100 miles west of Chicago and just another 45 miles to the Mississippi River and Iowa border.
Born in nearby Tampico in 1911, Reagan and his family moved into the Dixon home when he was 9, renting the three-bedroom house for about $15 a month. They stayed in the home about three years. Reagan’s influence ripples throughout the 15,000-person town where he continued to live into his early 20s. A bronze statue of a young and rugged Reagan wearing a cowboy hat and riding a horse stands on the riverfront near the center of town. As you enter Dixon, signs proclaim that it is the site of the former president’s formative years.
Reagan’s boyhood home is not alone as it confronts financial challenges. Experts say state historical sites struggle for funding amid changes in tourism and waning interest.
“Visitation to these sites is down. People don’t go anymore.” said William Furry, executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society.
Gorman surmises that interest in Reagan — who overwhelmingly won two terms as president in the 1980s — is fading more than a decade after his death. He said there are dwindling numbers of volunteers to work at the home, which saw a small downturn of visitors in the past year.
Annually, the museum usually sees 5,000 to 6,000 visitors, Gorman said. In 1994, a Chicago Tribune report said the home attracted about 20,000 visitors each year.
The historical significance of presidential boyhood homes is debated. One expert said the homes tend to be more meaningful to the communities themselves rather than holding a place of prime importance in American history.
Gorman, though, can’t imagine the loss of this piece of history and is launching a campaign to save the home. Furry, of the state’s historical society, agrees.
“They are invaluable,” Furry said, of the state’s historical sites. “Without these, you can’t tell the story of Illinois.”
Gorman stands in the museum’s quirky gift shop on a recent morning, speaking to people trickling in for a tour. The gift shop features DVDs of Reagan’s movies from his Hollywood days, bobblehead dolls, old Time magazine covers featuring the 40th president and other memorabilia. The shop, set up in a visitors center next door to Reagan’s home, brings in a large amount of the museum’s revenue, along with ticket sales and donations.
Gorman used to work at a nearby nuclear facility taking apart nuclear reactors but retired in 2010. He had been involved in local history, so he jumped at the chance to take the reins of the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home in 2016.
But it led to a lot of sleepless nights for Gorman. Records show the organization has been operating in the red since at least 2014, and Gorman said they did not have enough funding to do much-needed renovations when he started in 2016.
Earlier this decade, Gorman said, the board of directors bought four properties around the home with the goal to expand the museum and visitor center. But the museum did not have funding to expand, and the project stalled.
Meanwhile, in the existing museum, the bathrooms had mold, the roof was leaking and the foundations were crumbling, among other maintenance issues, Gorman said.
So Gorman took out a line of credit and did $100,000 in renovations. He stepped up fundraising efforts, reaching out to local philanthropists in an effort to generate the funds to pay off the debt.
It sort of worked. Tax records show revenue for the museum grew from about $67,000 in 2014 to more than $108,000 in 2017. But it wasn’t enough. Expenses exceeded $195,000 in 2017, and now the museum has the added debt from the renovations.
Now, Gorman is trying to sell the unused property to pay off the debt. The organization has sold one property and is still trying to offload the remaining three.
Even if all the properties sell, though, Gorman knows it still will be an uphill battle to balance the books. Right now, the organization operates mostly with volunteers, the ranks of whom are growing smaller. Instead of working to solicit donations, Gorman often finds himself working at the gift shop to fill gaps in volunteer hours. One year, he did not take a salary.
“The bleeding is going to continue,” he said. “We need staff here that we cannot afford.”
One possible lifeline was rejected in 2002. Congress authorized the National Park Service to make an offer to purchase the boyhood home, according to congressional records, but Gorman said the then-board of directors turned down the offer.
Gorman is working on organizing fundraising events and trying to persuade more people to work as volunteers. He’d like to see younger people get involved.
“I would like to think it means something to the town,” Gorman said.
The area around Dixon, known as the Blackhawk Waterways region, has actually seen an uptick in tourism, according to Diane Bausman, executive director of the area’s convention and visitor’s bureau. The region, which includes four counties around the Mississippi and Rock rivers, saw an increase in travel expenditures of about 4.5%, according to the Illinois Office of Tourism.
Bausman, though, feels that tourism trends are changing. People flock to the region for its natural resources and seem less interested in historical sites. The area also is home to the John Deere Historic Site.
“They want to interact with their surroundings,” Bausman said. “We are seeing an increase in hiking, biking, canoeing.”
People are more likely to go to a site like Reagan’s boyhood home as an “add-on” if they are already in the region to visit a state park or go boating, she said.
“A lot of museums are finding they have to up their game,” she said.
Furry, of the Illinois historical society, feels there isn’t enough focus on Illinois history in schools, which would foster an appreciation of and desire to visit places like the boyhood home. He noted that the state has 10,000 years of Native American history, in addition to connections to four presidents (though he pointed out that Reagan is the only U.S. president born in Illinois).
“It has to start in schools,” he said, adding that he believes members of the General Assembly should also be required to learn about Illinois history.
However, Theodore Karamanski, a history professor at Loyola University Chicago, said presidential birth and boyhood homes aren’t often historically significant, with the possible exception of presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Historians tend to favor places that were central during periods of power.
He pointed out that presidents often have several homes they lived in during childhood, including Reagan, who even lived for a time on the South Side of Chicago.
Instead, it is the local communities that generally push for a historic designation for birth and boyhood homes.
“They obviously want that connection to the broader pattern of American history,” Karamanski said.
Still, Bausman said the Dixon home remains a popular stop for bus trips and a key point of interest in the area.
“It’s still really important to us,” Bausman said. “People want to connect to their past.”
On one weekday morning in September, six people trickled in to take a tour of the home.
The guide, Nell Nooney, noted that her first name was spelled differently than Reagan’s mother, Nelle Reagan, as she took the visitors up a narrow staircase to a small landing with the three bedrooms: a master bedroom, a guest room and the room Reagan shared with his brother, Neil.
She pointed out that the house was modern with an indoor bathroom, a rarity in 1920.
Downstairs, she pointed to a spot on a tiled floor near a fireplace where Reagan himself took a tile when he came back and toured the home. As a child, he would hide pennies underneath loose tiles. During a visit, he picked it up and asked if he could keep it. It is now displayed in his presidential library in California.
The connection to the former president runs deep for some in Dixon.
Jack Heng, 85, took a tour through the house wearing a veterans baseball cap.
His mother worked at Lowell Park beach along with Reagan, he said. She worked at a food stand, and the two sometimes swam together in the river.
Throughout the town of Dixon, some residents shrugged when asked about the museum and its future in the town. Others, though, expressed pride at the small town’s connection to a Republican fixture.
Back in 2013, the town’s mayor tried to raise money for another statue to be erected at Lowell Park beach, where the former president worked during summers as a lifeguard and reportedly saved 77 people, though that project later stalled.
“I think it’s really nice,” said Kevin Kuhlemier, a resident of nearby Rock Falls, “that somebody in our area grew up here and went on to be president.”
©2019 Chicago Tribune
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DIXON, Ill. — One morning back in 1988, a fancier car than usual rolled up to Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home in Dixon. It was Monday, and the home-turned-museum was closed, but a well-dressed man walked up and persuaded Kenny Wendland, then a tour guide, to take... Read More