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PRESIDENT REAGAN’S MONMOUTH MEMORIES
Although Ronald Reagan only lived in Monmouth just over one year, it was an important and formative year in the life of the future president. The year 1918, when seven-year-old “Dutch” Reagan moved to Monmouth, would be a memorable time for everyone in the Maple City, let alone an impressionable young boy.
It was early in 1918 that Jack Reagan, having recently been dismissed from a job in Galesburg, had secured employment in the shoe department at Monmouth’s biggest department store, Colwell’s, and moved his young family to Monmouth. A hard-drinking Irish Catholic, he had married Nelle, a strong but loving Scotch-Irish Presbyterian, whom both Dutch and his older brother, Neil, adored.
The family moved into a two-story frame house at 218 South Seventh St., located midway between the college and Central School, where Reagan would enroll in the second grade.
As the new kid in town, Dutch befriended a classmate named Laura Hayes. She was the smartest girl in class and he immediately developed a crush on her. She was the one who stood and introduced him to the class at Central School. Dutch immediately made quite an impression on the class, both for his natural good looks and because he had an uncanny memory for names and dates, and was a whiz at math.
Perhaps it was jealousy or childhood antics, but as one of his classmates later recalled, “Six or eight of us from old Central School decided he was too new around here. We chased him all the way home up onto the porch. His mother was a tough old gal and came out on the porch and gave us a red-hot lecture.” When Reagan visited Monmouth during the 1976 presidential campaign, he commented that he vividly recalled the incident and remarked that it was the only time in his life that he’d been truly terrified—scared to death.
Reagan’s memories of life in Monmouth were mostly of the warm and fuzzy variety. In the evenings he remembered his father sitting at one end of the kitchen table reading his newspaper, while Nellie read books of high adventure to Dutch and Neil at the other end. Evening snacks would consist of hot buttered popcorn, apples and salted crackers.
The fall of 1918 when Dutch entered the third grade, however, would prove to be much more dramatic. On the 11th of November, the armistice ending World War I was announced. That evening torchlight parades lit the streets of Monmouth. There was shouting everywhere and on the Public Square they burned a farmer’s buggy along with an effigy of Kaiser Wilhelm. It was a night Dutch would never forget, as he later recalled being filled with a strong sense of excitement and patriotism.
The joy of Armistice Day, however, would soon fade and be replaced by the horrors of the Asian flu. Shortly after Thanksgiving, Central School was forced to close its doors and everyone on the street wore masks for protection. Quarantine signs sprang up on neighbors’ doors. At the Reagan house, Nelle fell deathly ill to the dread disease. When the doctor had finished examining her, Jack told Dutch she would be all right, but Dutch could see from his eyes that he didn’t believe it. Eventually Nelle recovered. It had been a scary time for young Dutch, who later speculated that his mother had been cured by green cheese, prescribed by the doctor in the days before penicillin.
It was not a good year, medically, for the Reagans. Somewhat later, brother Neil had his leg run over by a truck. Luckily, the break was clean and healed quickly. Shortly after Nelle beat the flu, it was Dutch’s turn to experience illness and he caught a case of pneumonia. Recovering at home, he was heartened one day when all the neighborhood kids dropped in to cheer him up, bringing their collections of lead soldiers. Dutch later recalled it was a gray day, but suddenly “the sun streamed through the window and I felt like a king with an army of 500.”
With mounting medical bills and frustration that his family was not sharing in the postwar prosperity, Jack Reagan was elated when his old boss in Tampico offered him an opportunity to become a partner and eventually take over his business. He packed up the family and Dutch sadly said goodbye to the neighborhood. His days in Monmouth, though brief, were burned indelibly into his memory—not just for the end of World War I and the influenza epidemic, but for the many friends he made here and for the leadership qualities which were already beginning to emerge.
For Maple City Memories, I’m Jeff Rankin.