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Talking mannequins, sound effects

New, $1.6 million exhibits on Black Hawk, settlers put visitors in middle of battle

DIXON – The Historic Center is putting visitors in the middle of the Black Hawk War.

Don’t be surprised to hear shots firing.

Two new exhibits on the museum’s second floor tell the story of how the first settlers gained the northwest Illinois and southwest Wisconsin region through conflict with the native Sauk.

The $1.6 million exhibits, funded by Ronald Reagan biographer Norman Wymbs in memory of his wife, Harriet, feature life-size, speaking mannequins, detailed sets and sound effects, creating an experience museum Director Bill Jones said is rarely found outside of metropolitan museums.

The first exhibit, “The Unchanged Land,” comes to a crescendo when visitors find themselves caught between the Sauk on one side and the settlers on the other. Arguments are hurled as each side defends its stance, until the first shot is fired.

“It’s incredible,” Jones said. “Everything was done with the greatest attention to detail.”

“The Changing Land” walks visitors through the early settling and farming of the area after the war.

Large murals create the prairie backdrop. Mannequins were crafted to look as realistic as possible, down to the cracks in each character’s hand, and mirrors are used in several spots to maximize the area of the exhibit.

A grasshopper and a few snakes in the grasslands accentuate the prairie feel, and numerous tablets on the wall provide the narrative.

The exhibits were organized by 1220 Exhibits Inc. of Nashville and took 2 years to create.

Local historians and documents were used to ensure accuracy.

“We’ve already had some historians calling up and asking to come out to make sure we’re giving people accurate information,” Jones said. “They left saying it was all right.”

Wymbs funded the exhibits as a tribute to his wife’s great-grandfather, William T. Brasler, who first settled at Saukenek, which is now Rock Island. Harriet wrote a book about her family, among the first settlers to come to the area, Jones said.

“This was for her,” Jones said. “He wanted to have her and her family’s story be told.”

The museum, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute, also features an exhibit called Dutch’s Classroom, which replicates the school Ronald Reagan would have attended as a child. More exhibits on Reagan, along with exhibits on Abraham Lincoln and Charles Walgreen, are on display.

“We’re hoping to get some school kids in the spring on field trips,” Jones said. “This is a great place for students to get a local history lesson.”

About the Wymbs

Harriet and Norman Wymbs, of Delray Beach, Fla., started the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home and Visitors Center when a concerned President Ronald Reagan phoned them to say his childhood residence might be bulldozed.

The Wymbs flew to Dixon, bought the house where Reagan lived during his late childhood – plus three surrounding houses – then started the Boyhood Home Foundation.

Harriet Wymbs had poured about $18 million of her family’s fortune into the Dixon Historic Center and the Boyhood Home before her death Aug. 8, 2009, at the age of 90.

More than the millions she gave to the city during her final 20 years, more than the millions she spent on Reagan’s early political ambitions, and more than the friendship she enjoyed with the Reagans, Wymbs’ legacy will be the selfless devotion to a city she never called home, friends said at the time of her death.

To see the new exhibits

The Dixon Historic Center, 205 W. Fifth St., is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Admission is free.

The new exhibits are open now; a grand opening will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Jan. 20.

Go to or call 815-288-5508 for more information.

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