Introduction to Every Leader
Being There: Encountering America's Presidents
RONALD REAGAN
40th President of the United States, 1981-1989
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AMERICAN PRESIDENTS

Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home
Illinois
 

Reagan family
Reagan family portrait
Ronald is about 2 years old.
Ronald Reagan Home Preservation Foundation

“All of us have to have a place we go back to.  Dixon is that place for me.  There was the life that has shaped my body and mind for all the years to come.” -Ronald Reagan

When Reagan became president in 1980, he pledged himself to restore “the great, confident roar of American progress and growth and optimism.”  By the end of his two terms, the nation was enjoying its longest recorded period of peacetime prosperity, and Reagan’s personal meetings with reform Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev seemed to bring his goal of peace through strength within grasp. Americans loved Ronald Reagan, 40th president of the United States; polls showed that he was more popular than any other retiring president had ever been.  

This modest house in Dixon, Illinois was Reagan’s home from 1920 to 1924, the site of his earliest childhood memories, and a place he recalled with great fondness.  The gable-roofed, two-story white frame house is a typical late 19th-century small-town American home.  A broad one-story front porch with a white painted balustrade stretches across the entire front elevation.  The first floor includes an entry hall, double parlor, dining room, kitchen, and pantry.  The front parlor, the most formal room in the house, contains a tile-trimmed fireplace.  Stairs in the front hall lead to the second-floor bedrooms.  Period furniture fills the house, which is restored to its 1920 appearance.

Born in Tampico, Illinois, on February 6, 1911, Ronald Reagan and his family moved many times during his childhood.  In December 1920, when he was nine years old, they rented a house on Hennepin Avenue in Dixon.  Reagan remembered raising rabbits in the back yard with his older brother Neil, and collecting birds’ nests and butterflies.  He lived in this northern Illinois town until he was 21.  Here he developed the outgoing personality that served him so well in Hollywood and Washington, DC.  His mother was an active member of the First Christian Church in Dixon, where he sometimes taught Sunday school.  She started him on his acting career by encouraging him to participate in church plays.

Ronald Reagan as a lifeguard
Ronald Reagan as a lifeguard in 1927 Ronald Reagan Home Preservation Foundation

After graduating from high school in 1928, Reagan worked his way through Eureka College. In addition to pursuing his studies, he played on the football team and acted in school plays.  He got a job as a radio sports announcer after graduation, no small feat in 1932.  During a spring training trip to California in 1937, he took a screen test and won a Hollywood contract. Over the next 20 years, he appeared in 53 movies.  One of his most famous roles was as George Gipp in Knute Rockne—All American; his nickname of “The Gipper” stayed with him for the rest of his life.  He served in the military during World War II, although he never left the country.  His marriage to actress Jane Wyman ended in divorce.  In 1952, he married actress Nancy Davis.  They were married for 52 years.

Reagan was a Democrat during the 1930s and 1940s, but the disputes over the influence of communism in the film industry he encountered as president of the Screen Actors Guild turned him in a more conservative direction.  Famous as the host of a popular TV series, he was soon touring the country as a spokesman for conservatism.  Reagan’s political ambitions grew as he became more conservative.  Elected governor of California in 1966 as a Republican, he won reelection in 1970 by a million-vote margin.  In 1976, Reagan challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination.  He lost, but his strong showing laid the foundation for his success four years later.  When he became the Republican presidential nominee in 1980, he selected future President George H. W. Bush as his running mate.  The election took place in the midst of the long American hostage crisis in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, runaway inflation, and a sagging economy.  Reagan asked voters whether they were better off than they had been in 1976, and defeated Jimmy Carter in a landslide victory.

visitors at the home
Visitors at the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home
Ronald Reagan Home Preservation Foundation

President Reagan took office in January 1981, announcing that “Government is not the solution to our problem; it is the problem.”  The release of the American hostages in Iran on the day of his inauguration started his administration on a high note.  His popularity increased 69 days later when mentally ill John Hinckley Jr. shot him in an assassination attempt.  Americans were impressed with his courage and gallantry in the wake of a life-threatening injury—in the hospital emergency room, he told his wife “I forgot to duck.”  He continued to carry out his responsibilities as president during his recovery.

President Reagan’s economic policies called for limiting government spending, reducing the burden of regulation, cutting taxes, and strengthening national defense.  When increases in defense expenditures created a budget deficit, he continued to cut taxes.  By 1984, the economy was booming, and Reagan won reelection with an unprecedented number of electoral votes.  One of the highlights of his second term was the passage of a new tax code eliminating many deductions and exempting many low-income Americans from paying any taxes at all.  Reagan declared war on drugs, and witnessed the onset of the AIDS epidemic and the tragedy of the Challenger space shuttle.

Ronald Reagan statue
Ronald Reagan's statue
Ronald Reagan Home Preservation Foundation

Reagan’s fierce anti-communism was central to his foreign policy.  The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified during his first term, with both sides increasing their military expenditures.  That changed in his second term, when the Russian economy began to crumble, and reformer Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in 1985.  Reagan met personally with Gorbachev to agree on a treaty eliminating intermediate-range nuclear missiles.  He gave strong, sometimes controversial support to anti-communist insurgencies in Central America, Asia, and Africa.  He sent bombers to Libya, when he received information tying terrorists from that country to an attack on American soldiers in West Berlin.

Reagan left office at the end of his second term in 1989, retiring to his California ranch. In 1994, the nation grieved with him and his wife, Nancy, when, with his customary honesty, he revealed that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He passed away at 93 years of age on June 5, 2004, after suffering for ten years with Alzheimer’s disease. News of his death in June 2004 seemed to plunge the whole country into mourning.

Reagan friends and supporters formed the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home Preservation Foundation in the early 1980s to preserve the house on Hennepin Avenue.  They restored it to its appearance when he lived there, based on his and his brother’s recollections, and opened it to the public.  Both brothers were present at its dedication in 1984.  The foundation also added a visitor center and a statue of Reagan to the property.

Plan your visit
The Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home located at 816 S. Hennepin Ave., Dixon, IL is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The home is open daily April-October, Monday–Saturday from 10:00am to 4:00pm, and Sunday 1:00pm to 4:00pm. An admission fee is charged. For more information, visit the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home  website or call 815-288-5176.  Visitors can tour the home along with an interpretive Visitor Center next door.

 
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