Revisiting the Past at Northwest Territory Historic Center
It’s debatable whether the massive jelly bean picture of Ronald Reagan or the life-sized talking Native American mannequins fascinate visitors the most.
The evolving Northwest Territory Historic Center offers locals and even some world travelers a glimpse into the history of northwestern Illinois right here in Dixon, Reagan’s boyhood home and a territory for Black Hawk, a warrior of the Sauk tribe. The museum’s detailed and well-planned exhibits on Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, Native Americans, Black Hawk and early American farming captivate various audiences with free admission to boot. The center accepts free will donations, the funding that keeps the place afloat.
“We offer a lot of history of the northwest territory of Illinois,” says Dave Latta, the museum’s manager. “There are different parts of history in here that I believe attract all types of different people. Everybody has their own hobbies they like to study, and I think we pretty well cover it for most of this area.”
Opened in 2004, the museum building itself carries a story. For $500, Reagan’s personal friend Norm Wymbs bought the deteriorating and abandoned South Central School where Reagan attended sixth and seventh grades. A visionary and entrepreneur, Wymbs formed a crew and completed a major restoration of the building from floor to roof to replicate its circa-1908 charm. The museum today consumes three levels of the old school, which includes the restoration, re-creation and present-day exhibit of the very sixth-grade classroom in which Reagan studied.
Today, about 2,000 visitors per year from all over the world peruse the halls and classrooms of Reagan’s boyhood school, Latta says. A mural covers an entire wall and outlines Reagan’s life from birth to presidency. Memorabilia in the Reagan History Room, including historical documents, family photographs and original movie posters, further commemorate the 40th president of the United States. The artwork at the front door contains more than 15,000 Jelly Belly jelly beans, a piece made and donated by the manufacturer to celebrate Reagan’s beloved treat.
“People come from all over the world to this town specifically for the Reagan home and what we have at the center,” Latta says.
Likewise, the exhibits on regional Native American life and the Black Hawk War draw those who study its history, yet it tends to mesmerize any visitors. Opened in 2012, this area of the museum documents various battles and life for the Sauk and other tribes in the region.
Debuting at the same time, an exhibit on early American farming features a similar, visually impressive approach with life-sized mannequins and animals that make noise.
An exhibit on American bison opens soon. Meanwhile, mainstays like the Walgreen room and dioramas of Dixon in the 1800s offer detailed glimpses into local history. Charles R. Walgreen Sr., the founder of Walgreens drugstores, grew up in Dixon. The museum’s auditorium provides the amenities for business meetings and presentations, and the gift shop offers souvenirs for all ages.
“I like to watch the reactions of the kids when they come through,” Latta says. “They are amazed … They have a thousand questions for you because they are so interested in everything.”
If You Go...
Northwest Territory Historic Center
Location: 205 W. Fifth St. in Dixon
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday. No admission charge, but supported by donations. Call to schedule a group tour or school field trip.
Phone: (815) 288-5508