Editors’ Note: Excerpted from Politico Magazine, November 23, 2019.
By Edward McClelland
DIXON, Illinois—In the gift shop of the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home is a T-shirt bearing one of the 40th president’s best-known sayings: Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem. Since opening to the public in 1984, the home, run by a nonprofit foundation, has lived by that principle, rejecting public money and staying proudly independent. Its website declares, “The Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home does not receive State or Federal Funding.”
In 2002, Dixon’s congressman, Dennis Hastert, then the Republican speaker of the House, passed a bill authorizing the National Park Service to buy the property and manage the house, as it does so many other presidential properties. The members of the Reagan home’s board of directors were aging and approached Hastert because they thought the Park Service might be a good candidate to carry on their work. They changed their minds, however, and spurned the help, in part because Congress wouldn’t match the millions of dollars private donors had invested in the property, and in part because that’s not how Reagan would have wanted it.
“He didn’t think government needed to be involved in our daily lives,” Connie Lange, the executive director at the time, said of the 40th president. “And people really took that to heart here.”
Now, though, it turns out the mantle of Reaganism might be too much for Reagan’s boyhood home and his small hometown to carry. The Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home Foundation, beset by shrinking attendance, a shortage of volunteer docents, an aging house and—crucially—the death of its most generous benefactor, is finally asking the government for a bailout. And this time, it’s basically inviting Congress to name its price.
“It’s not gonna close, if I have to stay here and run it myself,” says Gorman, who grew up nearby in another home the Reagan family inhabited. “It would be a loss to this community, the status, the tourism. Those 5,000 people that come to see us [every year], they eat in restaurants, spend money here.”
In his autobiography, An American Life, Reagan wrote that life in Dixon “was as sweet and idyllic as it could be, as close as I could imagine for a young boy to the world created by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” “Dutch” Reagan, as he was known in his hometown, skated on the frozen Rock River (“the Hudson of the West”), played right guard on the Dixon High School football team and launched his acting career in student theatricals. During the summers, he worked as a lifeguard at Lowell Park, where he claimed to have saved 77 swimmers, though locals will tell you a lot of those would-be drowning victims were girls who wanted to be saved by the handsome young man in the tank suit.
Even so, in the 1990s, the home was drawing 20,000 visitors a year—only a 10th the number of visitors Lincoln’s home in Springfield draws, but enough to make it a viable tourist attraction in Dixon, a town of 16,000 people a two-hour drive from Chicago.
The National Park Service manages 16 presidential homes, including Abraham Lincoln’s house in Springfield, Illinois, and FDR’s in Hyde Park, New York—each of which has six-figure annual attendance and could probably get by without government help. (Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo in California is owned by the Young America’s Foundation, which uses it as a center to promote conservative ideals. The Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, which receives 400,000 visitors a year, is jointly run by the National Archives and the Reagan Foundation.) There are at least 20 other presidential homes besides Reagan’s that are run by private foundations, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon, James Buchanan’s Wheatland and Andrew Jackson’s The Hermitage. Most survive on a mixture of tourist dollars and local investment.
Among presidential attractions, childhood homes like Reagan’s are not in the same league as Mount Vernon or Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The best known—JFK’s birthplace in Brookline, Massachusetts—is a Park Service property that receives about 25,000 visitors a year…. “It has less to do with presidencies and more to do with the tourist business,” says Hugh Howard, author of Homes of the Presidents. “If you go to Charlottesville, which is a fun place, you can’t not go to Monticello.”
But among presidential attractions, childhood homes like Reagan’s are not in the same league as Mount Vernon or Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The best known—JFK’s birthplace in Brookline, Massachusetts—is a Park Service property that receives about 25,000 visitors a year, less than a 10th of the traffic at Kennedy’s presidential library in Boston.
As Reagan has receded into history, attendance has fallen to 5,000 visitors per year. In 2016, finding the home in a state of decrepitude, Gorman took out a $100,000 line of credit. A retired nuclear power plant mechanic, Gorman went a year without taking a salary, but the home was still losing $20,000 to $25,000 annually. Although a pair of $25,000 donations from a local charity will help pay off the line of credit, no one has stepped forward to replace the home’s sugar daddy. Last year, Reagan’s post-presidential secretary, Peggy Grande, came to Dixon for a fundraiser; it netted only $7,500.
Hastert’s act of Congress establishing a Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home National Historic Site is still in effect, but the appropriation to buy the house has expired. The Park Service is aware of the foundation’s desire to sell, and is working to arrange for an appraisal, says Brent Everitt, a spokesperson for the National Park Service: “Once the due diligence process is completed, the NPS would likely begin the process of developing a land acquisition budget request through Congress.”
Dixon’s current congressman, Adam Kinzinger, a Republican, “supports the National Park Service purchasing the site,” he said through a spokesperson. This time, the money to honor Reagan will have to come from a Democratic Congress. One factor in the home’s favor, however: The Park Service can name its own price.
“Whatever we can get, I would recommend that we take,” Rudolphi says. “If we can get out of there, just get. We can use the money to help kids through college, give them a Reagan scholarship, help the people in the community.”
In the meantime, the Reagan boyhood home soldiers on, with dwindling resources and visitors. Gorman says he has “mixed emotions” about selling the anti-big government president’s house to the government. But Gorman believes it’s the best way to honor Reagan.
I think even Ronald Reagan would admit that times have changed,” Gorman says. “I have the utmost respect for Ronald Reagan the man, the president. I don’t want to say we’re doing him a disservice here, but we could be doing a lot better.
“I think even Ronald Reagan would admit that times have changed,” Gorman says. “I have the utmost respect for Ronald Reagan the man, the president. I don’t want to say we’re doing him a disservice here, but we could be doing a lot better.”
A lot of Dixonites have mixed feelings about the potential sale, too. “I don’t have a problem with it, because it’s struggling, and the Park Service can help,” says Marlin Misner, a former foundation board member who wrote a history of the boyhood home. “Whether they will or not, we’ll see. If you want to ruin a project, get the federal government involved.”
Reagan couldn’t have put it better himself.