West Branch Stories and Tips

Not Everyone's Idea of a Day Trip - Part One

Barn Quilt at the Heritage Farm Museum Photo, Byron, Illinois

As I mentioned in this journal's intro, this was a day trip that encompassed 525 miles round trip from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Originally I had envisioned this being my next travel journal in my Wisconsin Series . . . "The Wisconsin Series: Road Trips from Milwaukee #2" . . . but I soon realized that not many people would consider driving 500+ miles in a single day. So this journal became something else, focused more on the two American Presidents (Reagan & Hoover). This story however, will talk about the road trip and other sights along the way. Because of the length (over 1,500 words) I had to break it into two parts. This one will cover Milwaukee to Tampico, IL and Part Two will cover Tampico to West Branch, IA and the return home to Milwaukee.

When I first framed out my little adventure, Mapquest had me staying on the major highways including two small segments of tollways in Illinois. Not to get political here, but we just hate paying tolls down there, so generally speaking, any reason to avoid them is a bonus.

I asked Mapquest to lay out my route from Milwaukee in this order: (1) Reagan's Boyhood Home in Dixon; (2) Reagan's Birthplace & Museum in Tampico; and (3) Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, IA. The routing came in at 522 miles roundtrip, which included a backtracking home along the route that got me to Hoover's historical site, utilizing major highways.

On the morning of my trip I got out of the house a little later than I had hoped as I wanted to arrive in Dixon when the boyhood home opened at 10:00am. Additionally, traffic through Milwaukee was worse than I had anticipated, so my GPS unit (affectionately called "Toots") had my estimated time of arrival as 10:35am.

Once on the other side of Milwaukee, I checked out the routing she had me scheduled for and was pleasantly surprised that she had me driving back roads that would skip the tollway between Beloit, WI and Rockford, IL. BONUS! Further, she had me driving south from Rockford along IL Hwy 251 to IL Hwy 72 (aka River Road) along the Rock River down to Dixon. Double bonus . . . NO tolls!

OK so now for the bad news. The bridge near Rockford that crossed the river was under construction and Toots didn't have a clue how to reroute me. So this part of my trip was a bit dependent on "field rep driving" . . . a navigational technique I developed while working on the road for more than 20 years servicing 7-Eleven Food Stores along the east coast and bowling centers throughout the USA.

With the river forged, I continued along the route created by Toots. As I approached Byron, IL a beautiful barn quilt caught my eye. Of course, I had to stop for a photo to add to my collection and to send to "Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail" author Suzi Parron. When I got closer to the barn, I realized it was part of a museum dedicated to preserving this farm as a representation of what farm life in the 1800's was like.

The "Heritage Farm Museum" is located along the Rock River and was the farmstead of Charles Wilbur. He moved his family west from New York in 1843 with five generations of his family living and farming here. Today the museum is open to the public April through October for visitors to explore rural farm life. There is no admission fee to take the self-guided tour.

I would have loved to have had the time to poke around here a little, as there were several buildings that looked very interesting. But alas, I was already running behind my desired schedule so with a couple of photos taken, I was back on my way.

As I drove along the Rock River I was reminded that the early American settlers often used waterways to traverse the plains. For that reason, many of the first towns were established on rivers such as the Rock. The Rock River is a decent size in terms of width and depth so it is no surprise that many used it to move from place to place. The City of Oregon, IL is one such place that was founded right along the Rock River. Today it appears to be a thriving little community.

A quick GOOGLE search informed me that Oregon is the county seat and on the 2010 census, it was reported to have just under 4,000 residents. Originally inhabited by Native Americans of the Potawatomi and Winnebago tribes, a European settler by the name of John Phelps first visited here in 1829 and returned in 1833 to build his home. He is credited as the founder of Oregon as he worked to develop the town's first church, school and post office.

It wasn't much further beyond Oregon that I reached Dixon, my first "on purpose" stop of the day. Dixon's history is very similar to that of Oregon in that it is along the Rock River and was initially settled by Native Americans. A French-American Indian had set up a crossing ferry in 1928. The following year John Dixon bought the ferry and in 1830 he moved his family to the new settlement along the Rock River. Considered to be the founding father of the town, it was named for him shortly thereafter.

As I approached Dixon from the north, I passed by the John Deere Historic Site. It is the location of his 1836 home and blacksmith shop where John Deere forged the first self scouring steel plow. Open May through October, Wednesday through Sunday, visitors are invited to take a step back in time to learn more about the early beginnings of what is synonymous with farming in the Midwest . . . the green & yellow farm equipment that still bears his name . . . John Deere.

There are several John Deere manufacturing plants in this area including the harvesters/combines factory in East Moline, IL. Tractor cabs, engines and other farm equipment are made over in Iowa in Waterloo and Des Moines. Each manufacturing plant offers tours to the public on a reservation and space available basis. More information may be found at: http://www.deere.com/wps/dcom/en_US/corporate/our_company/fans_visitors/tours_attractions/factorytours.page .

Now back to Dixon . . . today Dixon has around 15,000 residents and like many Midwestern towns has seen a slight decline in industry and residents. It was here in Dixon, IL that President Ronald Reagan talked most about when reminiscing about his childhood. While he left Dixon to attend college in Eureka, IL in 1928 and never returned to live, he did return on several occasions to visit the place that he considered his childhood home.

From the Reagan Boyhood Home in Dixon, my next stop was about 30 minutes away in Tampico. I really enjoyed visiting the Reagan Birthplace and Museum, and browsing through hundreds of the thousands of pieces of memorabilia from Reagan's storied life, as an actor, family man and politician. It was truly an amazing place.

In Tampico, there are two large murals painted on the sides of buildings on Main Street. As you look to the west side of the street, the mural on the left tells a bit of Ronald Reagan's life story. The mural on the right is of two old buildings that were torn down to clear space for the new bank. The mural is an amazing reproduction of a black & white photo taken in the early 1900's. That photo may be viewed at: https://plus.google.com/photos/107416993435533083379/albums/5835932982944859281/5835933213701210130?banner=pwa&pid=5835933213701210130&oid=107416993435533083379 .


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