The hopes and schemes of every small town that ever fostered an American hero are riding on what is known in Dixon, Ill., as "the Reagan thing."
As the boyhood home from 1920 to 1932 of then-swimming star Ronald (Dutch) Reagan, this midwestern hamlet in cornfield country is gearing up to cash in.
"None of us have any real concept, any idea of what will happen," said Dean Harrison, Dixon's Chevrolet dealer and a member of the Reagan Hometown Committee, formed to orchestrate the jump into the history books.
"In Plains the first year they had 200,000 to 300,000 people," he said of former president Carter's Georgia birthplace. "We could have five, 50 or 50,000 people here this summer. We just don't know."
Total numbers may be unclear, but Dixon's cash registers are ready.
While insisting "we don't want to be another Plains," Dixon has embarked on an organized plan to lure tourists, and some hope industry, to the farming community and Lee County seat.
A souvenir shop has sprung up, and pins, buttons, banners and T-shirts are on sale at two nearby shops. An information center, selling its own souvenirs, is nearly complete, and one of four houses in which Reagan lived is being restored to its 1930s middle-class splendor.
The recent attempt on his life has helped make Reagan, credited saving 77 swimmers while a lifeguard, even larger than life. The image of a virile, 70-year-old Reagan walking wounded and joking into the hospital emergency room is the stuff of which legends, and tourist attractions, are made.
Some talk of boat excursions on the Rock River, past the park where Reagan was a lifeguard, and bus tours of the town. "Dutch" chocolate ice cream has upstaged strawberry as the third best seller (after vanilla and plain chocolate) for the local Hey Brothers ice cream company, and Jim's Place Cafe features "Bonzo tea from the Reagan Bush."
But the glory of Dixon's new fame is to be the "Reagan Manor," a $5 million, 100-unit motel designed as a replica of his new home, the White House.
"Some would say we're capitalizing on it, and if you want to be crass, it's true," said Mayor George Lindquist. "But we like to think of ourselves as a progressive community."
Some kind of economic boost, even one based on tourism, is needed. The recession has been tough here.
Nearly 2,000 residents have left Dixon since 1975, reducing the population to 16,000. The dusty gray downtown is pockmarked with empty storefronts, and federal budget cuts may cost 450 jobs at the Dixon Developmental Center for the Handicapped, the town's largest employer.
"People are frightened. A lot of them depend on that center for some kind of a job," said Gloria Boos, a local cafe waitress. "The center keeps this town going."
Most see "the Reagan thing" as a dam to stop the flow of young people from the city, and a way to bring new jobs and new money in.
But behind the grandiose plan, and the collective shudder over the tackiness of tourism, lurks politics.
Those who want tourism argue with old homesteaders who want nothing to change. Republicans are pouting over Deomcratic "opportunists," two Northern Illinois University students who started the town's only souvenir shop while everyone else watched election returns. And others grumble that a federal grant to build sewers and roads to "Reagan Manor" should not be used for a private venture.
Even the committee renovating Reagan's former home is split between businessmen who want industry in Dixon and citizens interest in a well-preserved history.
Reagan's three-bedroom former home was secured when mailman Len Knights saw that it was for sale soon after the newspaper identified local points of interest for Reagan-watchers.
"I get a lot of time to think when I'm out walking, and I said, 'Hey, someone's going to turn this into a cheap hamburger stand,'" Knights said.
He almost ran to the bank to put $250 he'd saved for personal bills down on the $31,000 home barely one day before a Las Vegas speculator offered $10,000.
Now the hard feelings, simmering for months over doing the renovation locally or hiring a Chicago architect and turning it over to the National Park System, are coming to a head.
"Some people," said Chevy dealer Harrison without mentioning names, "want to be personally involved, they want to do everything. But we're amateurs. We need to get a real architect to tell us how to do this right."
A Chicago architect has plans for a $500,000 renovation of the home, "on the wrong side of town" when Reagan lived there. Knights said he can do it with volunteers and donations for a fraction of that cost.
"I'm just a mailman, and I've had the Republican Party say they had a plan to turn the house into their headquarters. They are very jealous of me and mad that I did it first."
Unfortunately, tourists lured by Dixon's plans are looking for more than they can find now, for the town's plans are still just that -- plans.
Drywall is being put up in the unopened information center, and the only real progress at the Reagan home is a new sign out front. Fake brick siding has been peeled off, and the inside is a mess od dropcloths, ladders, peeling paint and, of course, a few souvenirs.
"We had a busload in from Wisconsin the other day, and I felt sorry for them," said waitress Boos. "They came all that way just to see Reagan's home, and have you been over there? It's nothing but an old empty house. They said they'd never come back here, and I don't blame them. We should have held off on the publicity 'til we were ready."
Dixon hopes to be more prepared by the summer vacation season, but even Harrison admits it may be tough.
"I mean, as far as the Reagan thing, there's only a little bit here. A house, the church he went to, his school. But there really isn't anything else for tourists to do. I mean, what the hell are you going to do in Dixon, Illinois?"