Black Hawk, John Deere and Ronald Reagan are an unlikely trio, but you can honor all of them with a trip along the Rock River. Stop to see the stately trees at White Pines Forest State Park and take a riverboat ride to add a nice note of nature.
The Dixon-Oregon-Grand Detour area, 170 miles north of Springfield, is chock-full of historic and natural wonders. One of those is the 50-foot Lorado Taft sculpture of Chief Black Hawk, a renowned warrior and leader of the Sauk nation in the early 1800s. Taft intended the reinforced concrete statue to honor all Native Americans, but most visitors know it as Black Hawk.
You get to the statue overlooking the Rock River through Lowden State Park near Oregon. As you gaze up at the imposing figure, you can contemplate Black Hawk’s 15-week standoff against state militia in an effort to regain tribal lands in the 1832 war bearing his name.
At the John Deere Historic Site, you can see a working replica of Deere’s shop and visit with blacksmith Rick Trahan while he pumps double bellows to stoke his metal-shaping fire. The site also hosts an archaeological exhibit of the first shop, the Deere family home, a gift shop and a patch of prairie.
Run by the Deere Company, the site is free and open from March through December except for holidays. A free fall festival is on tap for Oct. 13.
Trahan says visitors come from around the world. “There’s a dedication to the John Deere brand. They can come here and see where it came from 181 years ago.”
Visitors in the mood for more history should head to the Ronald Reagan boyhood home in Dixon, where his family lived in the early 1920s. A one-hour tour includes the home with period furnishings, a visitor center with introductory movie, a garden and the family’s Model T, restored.
The home is open April through October. Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for veterans and children 5-12.
For a deeper dive into Reagan’s life and other area history, go to the Northwest Territory Historic Center a few blocks from the Reagan home. Friends of Reagan funded the overhaul of the old South Central School built in 1908. It houses the classroom where Reagan spent sixth and seventh grades.
Manager Dave Latta says Norman and Harriet Wymbs from Florida put millions into the museum and the city of Dixon to bolster their friend Reagan’s fame. “They wanted to make this place into something for the kids, and the kids like it,” Latta explains.
Adults too will enjoy the prairie room with stuffed bison and information about the nearby Nachusa Grasslands, the gallery featuring mannequins of Sauk Indians with recorded voices, a settlers’ cabin and early farming gear, rooms devoted to Abraham Lincoln, the military and Reagan, and a model of Dixon’s Rock River Assembly. In the late 1800s the Assembly’s main auditorium could hold 5,000 people for Chautauqua gatherings.
The school’s auditorium and gym hearken to earlier days while a large portrait of Reagan made from Jelly Bellys hangs at the top of the main stairs. The museum is open Monday through Friday during the school year and Tuesday through Saturday in the summer. Admission is by donation.
Be sure to drive under Dixon’s Veterans Memorial Arch, built to welcome home World War I soldiers. It spans the Lincoln Highway, a national scenic byway. The Lincoln Highway Association’s national headquarters is east of Dixon in Franklin Grove and hosts a general store.
Or kick back under the tall trees in a cabin at White Pines Forest State Park west of Oregon, part of the legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The resort’s historic log restaurant serves meals from March to December and hosts a dinner theater from mid-April through December. Hiking and picnicking are popular in the park as well.
The park celebrates the winter holidays with a Christmas tree forest, hot apple cider, wagon rides and “Scrooge the Comedy” shows from Thanksgiving to Christmas.
For more information about the area, go to www.discoverdixon.com, www.johndeereattractions.com, www.whitepinesinn.com and www.nthc.org.
Mary Bohlen, a Springfield travel writer, is exploring Illinois in 2018 in honor of its bicentennial and writing about her findings monthly for IT.