DIXON – When Norman Wymbs bought the old South Central School building for $500, he told his friend Ronald Reagan, “you’re going to be my Mickey Mouse.”
The former U.S. president replied with a laugh: “I’ve been called a lot of things, but that’s a first.”
Wymbs envisioned Reagan’s boyhood school drawing visitors. Once he had them inside, he could tell the story of how Northwest Illinois settled, a story line shared by his wife Harriet’s family, who were among the first settlers in the area.
Wymbs had the vision to tell Harriet’s story from the beginning.
“That’s how Walt Disney did it,” said Wymbs, who lives in California. “Mickey Mouse was out front waving to people, but then he gave you Epcot when you got in.”
In all, Wymbs spent more than $20 million making the Dixon Historic Center a museum of the quality rarely seen outside a large metropolitan area, despite never holding a permanent residence in Dixon.
The museum, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute, also features exhibits on Abraham Lincoln and Charles Walgreen.
Wymbs, who made his fortune in grocery distribution in Chicago, first came to Dixon when Reagan asked him to save this boyhood home from demolition. He bought the home and three others, leading to the creation of the Boyhood Home Foundation.
When the South Central School at 205 W. Fifth St. faced demolition, Wymbs saw more opportunity, turning the dilapidated school into a state-of-the-art museum.
The latest $1.6 million exhibits, “An Unchanged Land” and “The Changing Land,” which were finished last month and chronicle the first settlers of Northwest Illinois and the Blackhawk War, are a tribute to his late wife.
Growing up in Fredericksburg, Va., known as the home of George Washington’s family, Wymbs walked past many historical markers to get to school.
“History was everywhere, we all knew it,” Wymbs said.
When Norm visited his wife’s hometown in Moline, he was surprised at the lack of historical markers.
“Don’t they tell any of the history around here?” he asked her.
She told him the area’s history was rooted in farming.
Harriet’s family, the Braziers, were the second settlers in Saukenuk, which is present-day Rock Island.
Norm said Brazier unknowingly settled on Blackhawk’s land, while he was away on a trip. When Blackhawk returned, he planned to kill the Brazier family in the middle of the night, but some Sauk natives told the Braziers of Blackhawk’s plan in time for an escape.
“Blackhawk got mad and went on to kill other settlers, and that started the conflict,” Wymbs said.
“The plan for the museum was to get that history in here, where everybody can see it.”
The new exhibits tell a story from Blackhawk’s boyhood, to the first settlers, the conflict that ensued, the capture of Blackhawk and the rich farming that took off in the area afterward.
Harriet was 90 when she died in 2009, 2 years after Wymbs bought the old school but well before the exhibits came to fruition. She authored “Black Hawk: The Elusive Warrior,” telling her family’s story.
A portrait of Harriet hangs near the entrance of “An Unchanged Land.”
Norm, who visits often from his home thousands of miles away, shuffled slowly past the dedication with his walking cane on his latest visit, stopped and looked up at the painting.
“We were married 60 years,” Wymbs said. “No ... 64. I still count them.”
Dixon Historic Center, 205 W. Fifth St., is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Admission is free.
Go to www.dixonhistoriccenter.org or call 815-288-5508 for more information.