Plainer Than Plains but Ready to Change, Tampico, Ill. Cheers Her Favorite Son's Election

updated 11/24/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/24/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

Like countless little towns all over America, Tampico, Ill. (pop. 938 and 140 miles west of Chicago) seems more distinguished by its past than its present. It was once a busy agricultural center. Today there is no stoplight to halt the meager flow of traffic on state road 172, passenger trains haven't stopped at the depot since 1948, and the only restaurant was closed down a year ago after fire wiped out several buildings on Main Street. Still, Tampico is proud of its memories, and more optimistic than most towns its size about the future. A new industry has suddenly sprung up called Ronald Reagan. Tampico is the birthplace and childhood home of the man who is scheduled to become the 40th President of the United States next January.

Nearly everyone in town believes that the Republican candidate's landslide victory will be a good thing for Tampico, but agreement on the subject ends there. Already, for example, the location of his birth is in hot dispute. Paul Nicely, 61, and his wife, Helen, 65, say Reagan was born in his parents' apartment over a bakery—a building the Nicelys are sprucing up for the tourist trade. Contesting their claim is Marilyn Hatten, owner of a two-story frame house the Reagans moved to in 1911, the year Ronald was born. The Nicelys cite the affidavit of a 92-year-old woman who was once the President-elect's neighbor as part of the evidence in their behalf. Mrs. Hatten claims she got her information when Reagan visited Tampico and said as far as he knew her house was his birthplace. "He told me himself," she says firmly, "and he ought to know."

Needless to say, Tampico has changed greatly in the ensuing 69 years. Nearly half of Reagan's grade school classmates have died, there is no more skinny-dipping in the local canal, and the general store where his father, Jack, sold shoes has been a tavern since Prohibition ended. Still, the Reagans, who moved away to Dixon, Ill. in 1920, are remembered with widespread affection. Old-timers recall with amusement the family religious schism that sent Ron's brother, Neil, off to the Catholic church with his father, while Ron attended the Christian church with his mother. Sometimes, so the story goes, Jack would sit on the steps of his wife Nellie's church, drinking beer until services ended. Nellie herself, an elocution teacher, is remembered as a public-spirited woman who visited prisoners in the county jail and directed plays at the long-gone local opera house. As for young Ron, his boyhood friend Harold "Monk" Winchell says he was a good student with "an exceptional memory for history, for names and places." Not generally a boy who got into trouble, Ron did cause his family one anxious moment, says Monk, when they were showing off their fathers' shotguns and blew a hole in the Winchells' ceiling.

The rediscovery of Tampico has only begun to be felt. Real estate values are rising on Main Street, and Mayor Howard Batten, for one, is concerned. "We're basically a farming community, and it's really hard to see a lot of people coming here," he says. "I don't mind the attention, but I wouldn't want to see us turned into another Plains." Other Tampicans are intrigued by rumors that a restaurant will be built and a bus company will add the town to one of its tourist routes. Visions of Billy Carter are obviously dancing in some heads. "I think I'll just get me a rocking chair," says one citizen, only half joking, "sit down by the gas station and sell beer."

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