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Land of Lincoln celebrates Obama presidency

When Barack Obama was elected 41st president of the United States in November, the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau was ready.

“We have an Obama tour on our Web,” said Joleen Domaracki, assistant director of tourism sales. “The day he was elected, it was on our Web site. We were prepared. This was pretty big for us; to have him be so popular and from Chicago.”

Several Chicago hotels offer presidential packages. Courtesy Chicago CTB

Although it was a big deal for Chicago, the state of Illinois has a rich presidential heritage. “We have quite a few presidents,” said Jan Kostner, deputy director of the Illinois Bureau of Tourism.

Like Obama, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant received word of their election to the nation’s highest office in Illinois, and native son Ronald Reagan spent his formative years in northern Illinois.

Last year, with a presidential race featuring a candidate from Illinois and the 2009 bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth looming, the Bureau of Tourism developed trails around the state’s presidential ties.

“It was a really good time to put them all together,” said Kostner.

Although each of the four trails highlights sites closely associated with the presidents, from birthplaces to homes to favorite restaurants, they also include other attractions in the area, making them a good vehicle for sampling portions of Illinois from Springfield in the center of the state to Galena in the far northwestern corner.

“We have itineraries you can use on our own, or we can present to tour operators,” said Kostner.


Welcome signs as you enter Dixon, Ill., feature a quote from Ronald Reagan, who called the Sauk Valley town “A place to come home to.”

Reagan considered Dixon, where he lived from ages 9 to 22, as his hometown. His widow, Nancy, in a July letter to Mayor James Burke, noted, “Dixon always had a special place in Ronnie’s heart.”

The town also has a special place in its heart for Reagan, who was known locally by his nickname, Dutch. Historic markers with Reagan’s profile commemorate several sites in town associated with the former president, from his boyhood home to the library where he got a library card to the church where he was baptized and helped his mother teach Sunday school.

“This was his hometown,” said Shawn Ortgiesen, director of public works and city engineer for the town of Dixon. “We invite people to look at his home and where he grew up.”

Most of the Reagan sites are conveniently located along Hennepin Avenue, which has been dubbed Reagan Way. “We thank him for having everything on the same road,” said Ortgiesen facetiously.

The nine-block stretch of road leads through downtown from Reagan’s boyhood home, which has been restored to the way it looked in the early 1920s when he lived there, to Lowell Park on the Rock River, where Reagan worked seven summers as a life guard, where he reportedly saved 77 lives.

A statue of Reagan astride a horse was dedicated at a new plaza in the park in mid-August during the annual Reagan Trail Days festival. In preparation for the centennial of Reagan’s birth in 2011, the festival was expanded this year to seven days, with the addition of a golf tournament, a wine tasting reception and historical walking tours.

President Ronald Reagan spent his formative years in this white two-story frame house in Dixon, Ill. Courtesy City of Dixon

The school Reagan and his brother, Neil, attended is now the Dixon Historic Center. “One of the rooms where he attended sixth grade has been restored to what it looked like when he was here,” said Ortgiesen.

The First Christian Church and the Dixon Public Library have small Reagan displays, as does the Loveland Museum, the only site not located along Hennepin Avenue.

The small second-floor apartment in Tampico, a short distance west of Dixon, with the bedroom where Reagan was born, has been restored and decorated to its original early 1900s style. The First National Bank on the ground floor has also been restored.

Reagan attended Eureka College in Eureka, and the Reagan Museum at the college features more than 2,000 items from his student days there, his movie and television career, his eight years as governor of California, his campaign for the presidency and his two terms as president. It is the largest collection of Reagan memorabilia outside the Reagan Presidential Library in California.

The nearby Ronald Reagan Peace Garden commemorates a 1982 speech he gave at the college in which he challenged the Soviet Union to a new era of nuclear arms reduction negotiations.

The garden includes a bust of Reagan and a remnant of the Berlin Wall.



Although many of the Illinois sites associated with President Obama are contemporary sites in Chicago, one historic site in Springfield played an important role in his campaign.

Obama announced his candidacy on the steps of the Old Capitol and later returned to the 19th-century building to introduce Delaware Sen. Joe Biden as his vice presidential candidate.

“He understands the importance of Springfield to his career,” said Jan Kostner.

The Old Capitol also played an important role in Lincoln’s life. He spent time as a legislature in its house chambers, and it was there that he made his famous “A House Divided” speech.

The Old Capitol is also near the current Illinois Capitol where Obama served as a state senator. The building has been extensively renovated since his time there, so there is no one spot to specifically point to as being associated with Obama.

However, Chicago’s Joleen Domaracki noted that, “this is where he made his name.”

The Obamas and the Bidens wave from the steps of Illinois’ Old Capitol after Obama announced Joe Biden as his vice presidential running mate in 2008. Courtesy Springfield CVB

She said many people want to see the field in Grant Park where Obama gave his election-night victory speech, which was seen worldwide on television and the University of Chicago, where he taught law from 1992 to 2004.

She said the city’s two Obama tours “are a little of all the things he likes. There are a couple of places downtown he likes to eat and the Hyde Park bookstore [57th Street Books] where he held the first signing of his book. And there is the West Loop boutique [Maria Pinto’s] where Mrs. Obama shops.”

Domaracki said that while you can’t get near the Obamas’ 1910 Georgian revival house, you can get a flavor of the Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood where it is located on walking or driving tours.

Several of Chicago’s top museums are nearby, including the Museum of Science and Industry.

Also nearby is the University of Chicago, where you can take a self-guided tour of the law school and see Obama’s favorite classroom, Room V, also called the Harry A. Bigelow Lecture Hall.

Other places on the Hail to the Chief’s Favorites tour are the South Shore Cultural Center, site of the Obamas’ wedding reception; Promontory Point, where the family enjoys lakefront strolls; and the basketball courts at Hayes Drive where the president and his brother-in-law, Oregon State University men’s head basketball coach Craig Robinson, like to shoot hoops.

The tour ends with a recommendation for a special evening dinner at Spiaggia on North Michigan Avenue, a four-star restaurant where the president and first lady had a private dinner-for-two election victory celebration.



When Abraham Lincoln came to Illinois as a young man, he settled in New Salem, a new town just emerging along the Sangamon River.

“During his six years there, he went from pretty much an aimless young man to a man of purpose,” said Dave Blanchette, public information officer for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. “He taught himself the law while living there and was elected to political office [for the first time] while living there.”

Although the original town of New Salem, about 20 miles northwest of Springfield, no longer exists, it has been faithfully re-created as part of a state historic site.

A dozen log houses, the Rutledge Tavern, 10 workshops, stores, mills and a school where church services were held have been reproduced on their original sites as much as can be determined. The furnishings include some items actually used by the New Salem residents of Lincoln’s time.

“It is a living-history village. We portray it as a frontier springboard to Lincoln’s political and professional success,” said Blanchette. “From time to time, we have costumed interpreters in the cabins portraying the roles of Lincoln’s neighbors. They talk about him in the present tense.”

Lincoln moved to Springfield, the new state capital, in 1837, where met, courted and married Mary Todd; began raising a family and building a prosperous law practice; and bought the only house he would own.

The house is preserved much as it was when the Lincolns lived there as part of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site.

“We concentrate on his Illinois years,” said Jim Sanders, executive director of the site. “We look at him first as a husband and a father and a neighbor.

The re-created log store that Abraham Lincoln was part owner of is in the reconstructed New Salem Historic Site. Courtesy Illinois Historic Preservation Agency

“We have a four-square-block area in downtown Springfield and have restored all the homes that remain from his era. We literally have a residential block that takes you back to the 1860s period when he was elected president.”

Visitation to the site was up dramatically this summer during the bicentennial commemoration of Lincoln’s birth. The site was able to add additional interactive programming, including first-person interpreters throughout the neighborhood.

The restored house includes several personal items and furnishings from the Lincolns, including toys their boys played with.

The recently restored Great Western Depot, where Lincoln left Springfield on his journey to Washington to be sworn in as president, has exhibits about Lincoln’s life and times.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield provides a thorough look at his entire life with the latest in museum technology, including holograms that cast life-like images of Lincoln, his family and his contemporaries.

“We say it takes 21st-century technology to show a 19th-century story,” said Jan Kostner. “It’s not just here is his hat and gloves. It gives you a feel for what where the issues at the time. It brings President Lincoln to life.”

The 12-million-item library houses the world’s largest collection of pre-presidential Lincoln material.

The Lincoln Presidential Trail features several other towns through the region that Lincoln traversed often as a lawyer following the judicial circuit of the time.

“Lincoln traveled a lot,” said Kostner. “Because he was a lawyer on the circuit, he spent a lot of time in central and south-central Illinois. He did get around.”



Although his presidency was considered unsuccessful and he may not be as familiar to contemporary Americans as the other Illinois presidents, Ulysses S. Grant was hugely popular following the end of the Civil War, during which he led Union troops to their eventual victory over the Confederacy.

Grant received a hero’s welcome in 1865 when he returned to Galena, where he and his family had lived for a year before he left for the war. There were parades, speeches and fireworks, and the citizens of the town presented him with a fully furnished house, where he lived until elected president in 1868.

Volunteers give guided tours of the Italianate brick house, which is a state historic site. Restoration has returned its house to the way it appeared when Grant was elected president.

The citizens of Galena presented Ulysses S. Grant with this two story brick house when he returned to the Illinois town following the Civil War. Courtesy Galena/Joe Daviess County CVB

“It looks like he is about to walk back in, like he has gone away for a couple of days,” said Jan Kostner. “It is part of their historic district, which includes more than 1,000 properties on the National Register of Historic Places.”

One of those properties is the 1855 DeSoto Hotel, where Grant had his presidential campaign headquarters and where he received word of his election. Lincoln had also stayed at the hotel, as did Theodore Roosevelt later.

“We have these wonderful 19th-century buildings of brick and wood,” said Elizabeth Bulasko, director of marketing for the Galena/Jo Daviess County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “A lot have the original merchant’s name over the door or in the tile at the threshold.

“The Quality Hill area above Galena has wonderful mansions built by doctors, lawyers, merchants and steamboat captains that remain intact with great views.”

Bulasko said the Old Market State Historic Site and the Galena History Museum both have exhibits about Grant.

The Grant Presidential Trail also highlights the three wineries in the county: Galena Cellars Winery, Massbach Ridge Winery and the Rocky Waters Vineyard.

“Rocky Waters outside Hanover is the newest; it opened July 3, 2008,” said Bulasko. “It has a big structure with a wrap-around deck. They do music in the vines in the summer; you can sit on the deck and listen to music.”


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