Somewhere Over the Reagan Rainbow, Part II: She Came In Through the Reagan Window

“No, he was actually born here. This is where the story started.”

Ms. Johnson explains Reagan's birthplace artifacts to curious visitors. Photo by Rachel Pincus.

A second installment on Reagan’s birthplace in Tampico, IL. Below is a conversation with Joan Johnson, birthplace volunteer and president of the Tampico Historical Society.

Also, everything you ever wanted to know about the Reagan Rainbow but were too afraid to ask. Read on.

Tell me about the Ronald Reagan birthplace.

Ronald Reagan was born upstairs, above the apartment next door. At the time he was born, on February 6, 1911, downstairs was a bakery restaurant. And the next door building was a grocery store. His father worked across the street, at a partly grocery odds-and-ends store. He worked for Mr. Pitney in this general store, where they sold shoes and hats and clothing and some groceries. He especially liked doing shoes because he was especially trained to sell shoes. The building here was built in 1895, and the family moved here soon after Jack and Nelle Reagan were married in 1904.

And when did this site become a historic site?

Soon after he was governor of California, Mr. and Mrs. Nicely, the owners of the building, began doing all the research for him. The building was owned by Mr. Seymour when it was built. Then he sold it in 1919 to the Woods family, and the Woods family are the ones who owned the bank.

When was it opened to the public?

I’m thinking it was the late 1970s. I’m not completely sure, though.

So, before he was elected president?

Right.

Tell me about the Reagan Rainbow. It’s on your shirt.

The Reagan Rainbow. On November 3rd, 1980, it had been raining and late in the afternoon the sun came out with this rainbow coming directly over where Ronald Reagan was born. Fortunately, the manager of our Tampico Elevator had his camera at the right time and got this picture and actually there is a double rainbow, but it’s coming down. The next day was Election Day, and Ronald Reagan was elected by a landslide. And so we had that picture, and we sent that to him, and he kept that in his office at the White House all the time he served as president. And he made the remark that different times he would look at that picture for inspiration, to help him remember where his roots were.

How would you characterize Reagan’s childhood in Tampico?

Typical young boy growing up amongst friends and neighbors. He was, like I say, pretty typical. In this small town, everybody raised all their kids. Everybody knew who was doing what.

Do you think his life in northwest Illinois had a large impact on his career or life?

I think that a small town influence had a lot to do with his philosophy of life. His mother’s Christian bearing also had a lot of bearing on his morals. As he went on into the public, he was able to interact with people very much from a common sense point of view. Common sense type thing.

How much has he been back here?

He was here in 1950, and then he came in 1976—the first time he ran for president, was defeated by Ford in the primary—and then he was here in 1992, after he had served as president. That was Mother’s Day. He and Nancy came back, and the first thing they did was attend church where he and his mother had gone. And then they went down to our Dutch Diner, which was named somewhat for Ronald Reagan. Named pretty much because they called him Dutch. And after they had lunch at the diner, he came here, and he had a tour and he got to see the restored apartment and he went through the window that he had been passed through as a baby.

Oh, can you speak a little bit about the Reagan window?

The building where the Reagans lived, they built that in 1995, and then they built the building that we’re standing in here later on, and when they built this building, they connected the two with a common wall and they left the windows in the apartment. There are three windows that join the two apartments. And Mrs. Daisy Seymour Nokes lived in the adjoining apartment, and they were good friends. They would often babysit for each other, and instead of going up and down the steps, they would hand their children through the window. As a baby he was handed through the apartment window. When he visited us in 1992, he also went through the window. And both his sons, Michael and Ronald, were here last year, and they got to climb through the window as well. And Newt Gingrich. And Ed Meese. And we’ve had several other prominent folks who have visited.

How would you describe Tampico to an outsider?

I’m sure an outsider would think we’re kind of quiet, and in an out-of-the-way spot. We really don’t have industry or anything anymore. It’s a pleasant place for people to come. But we don’t have a grocery store. We do have a doctor. And that’s a big plus. And we have a Casey’s store, which is a convenience store and gas station, so people can get that. And we have some nice parks in town. And a group of people who are trying to keep the community going.

How do people remember Reagan here?

Every year, we have a birthday party for him on February 6, between our historical society and the Reagan Museum here, where we have birthday cake and an open house and things like that. This year, of course, was the really special one-hundredth year, so we had a gala at which Newt Gingrich spoke. And a big birthday party. We had a special postmark from the post office department, special stamps issued. We had our annual celebration the latter part of June, so we had a Reagan-themed parade. We have Reagan Park down here. And we are trying to raise funds to put a statue in the park of Reagan as a young boy.

What about the mural? How long has that been there?

We’ve had the mural for several years. I’m not sure how long it’s been.

What about townspeople in Tampico? How do they feel about Reagan?

Tampico is kind of divided as far as Republicans and Democrats, but this is history—to everyone.

Are people proud to live here?

Yes! We are the only town in Illinois where a president was born. Someone comes in and says, “Well, I’m going to Dixon, because that’s where he was bon,” and we all get up in arms and say, “No, he was actually born here. This is where the story started.”

Dixon is where he lived as a child?

Yeah, it’s his boyhood home. And that’s where he was from the time he was ten years old to the time he graduated from college. So yes, that is—

What’s the strangest Reagan artifact you’ve ever seen here?

Oh, artifacts? I don’t know. I think some of these odds and ends, like these little bobble-head guys, and those bedroom slippers over there, those are kind of, you know, odd. We do have an awful lot of newspaper articles, and many many books, which I’ve never had time to go through. But they all have some great articles about him.

What do you think Reagan’s most admirable accomplishment was?

Well, we have so many foreign visitors here from the European countries and such, and Ronald Reagan is their ideal because of helping to break down communism and bringing the countries to peace. You know, his famous “Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

What characterizes the domestic visitors here?

A lot of them are visiting the different birthplaces and such, and just because they are great fans of Ronald Reagan, and they see the sign . . .

Do you ever get people who really dislike Reagan and want to argue about it?

I’ve had a couple. And I haven’t been very gracious. [laughs] Some of their arguments were not very worthy.

What did they say?

Well, someone said, “Oh yeah, because of him, we lost our job” and things like that—well, you know, he did what he could to try to get the economy going.

What else is there to say about the Reagan birthplace?

Well, I think we’re all very proud to have this historical significance here in Tampico, and we’re the spot. We also have spawned other people who have gone on to make names for themselves as well. We have Admiral Reeves, who was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Navy during World War One for a few months. We have the president and chairman of the board of AAA Chicago Motor Club. We’ve had other people who’ve gone on to make names for themselves. Hugh Downs’ wife is from here also.

Photo by Rachel Pincus.

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