Published January 14, 2015
The past week has brought a tourism mini-boom to the often forgotten small towns where Ronald Reagan (search), the only Illinois-born president, grew up playing football and dreaming of Hollywood.
Five times the usual number of tourists have crossed the porch of Reagan's boyhood home in Dixon daily since his June 5 death. Hundreds of others have discovered the Reagan collection at Eureka College (search), where he graduated in 1932.
"Whenever anyone passes away, it's a time of reflection. I think people want to touch and feel and have a connection," said Jan Kostner, deputy director of the Illinois Bureau of Tourism (search).
Reagan's body was sealed inside a tomb early Saturday at his hilltop presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., following a week of mourning and remembrance by world leaders and regular Americans.
Illinois tourism officials hope the interest spreads all along the state's Reagan Trail, and they are considering a new campaign to promote Illinois' ties to three U.S. presidents: Reagan, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.
But they say there's no way to predict how much tourism might grow or for how long.
History has long been a tourism draw in Illinois, fueled in part by the state's deep ties to Lincoln, who migrated there as a young man.
Only shopping and dining rank ahead of history and culture in the state's nearly $22 billion tourism industry, Kostner said.
But until now, drawing visitors to Reagan sites has been tough. The towns are all at least a few miles off interstate highways, and Reagan had been largely out of the public eye since announcing he had Alzheimer's disease a decade ago.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich gave Reagan-boosting efforts a hand last week by naming part of Interstate 88, which runs within 10 miles of both Dixon and Tampico, the "Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway" and ordering signs proclaiming the name.
"When someone dies, we tend to think about the positive things in people's lives rather than the negatives, and I think that draws people to the places they've been," said Dixon Mayor Jim Burke, a member of the 11-city Reagan Trail association.
Reagan's boyhood home, the restored two-story house and neighboring museum in Dixon, the town where "Dutch" grew up and became a football player and lifeguard, has been drawing up to 350 visitors a day since his death, said site coordinator Marla Trimble.
Just as many are turning up about two hours south at Eureka College, where the late president graduated in 1932 and donated thousands of items for the largest Reagan museum outside his presidential library in southern California.
"It's been a steady stream, probably 20 or 30 an hour. Before, we sometimes went days with no visitors," said Ruth Ann Uphoff, a secretary at the college's Cerf Center, which houses the display.
In Tampico, a village of 800 about 20 miles southwest of Dixon, about 80 people toured Reagan's birthplace the day after he died, compared with fewer than a dozen on a typical Sunday, said Lloyd McElhiney, a volunteer at the restored second-story apartment.
Kostner said renewed interest in Reagan's Illinois roots could bode well for tourism this summer, based on projections that a rebounding economy will mean an uptick in vacation travel.
Visits have doubled or tripled at most stops since the Reagan Trail was established in 1999, said Joe Serangeli, president of the trail association. Where it might go from there is "a wild guess," he said.
When former President Lyndon B. Johnson died in 1973, attendance jumped for nearly a year at his presidential library and museum in Austin, Texas, said library spokesman Robert Hicks. Three decades later, annual attendance has dropped from a peak of about 650,000, but the library still drew more than 266,000 visitors in 2003.
Illinois officials hope interest in Reagan's life has staying power.
"He was just such a down-to-earth president. He was a people president," Trimble said. "I think the interest is going to stay because of the type of person he was."