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Dixon Illinois where history is personal

Playing in the cemetery

Playing in the neighborhood cemetery was a normal part of my childhood, a wooded place where my best friend Barbie and I played with our dollies among fabulous castles. Adults knew them as headstones and stately family crypts though to us they were exotic places for imaginary play. From time to time we were chased away by workers in the interests of decorum but most days we participated in the respectful quiet of the place. Summers were too-short seasons of playing with ball and jacks, jumping rope, hide-n-seek, swinging and sliding and teeter-totters, running through the sprinkler, outdoor activities that started early and ended only when called to supper.

My career in the theater ends early

At eight years old we weren’t yet insecure about our talents. Barbie and I wrote a play, costumed it from our attics, sold hand-stamped tickets to the neighbors—a dollar’s worth at a nickel a piece, a princely sum to us. On the appointed Saturday only one ticket holder arrived to sit in the grass at the foot of the cement slab that was our stage. Burr Tillstrom (1917-1985), creator of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, lived four houses away and was generous and genuine in his encouragement of future thespians. My character was an Indian princess who was struck suddenly stage-frighted and mute. Barbie was a pirate similarly afflicted. Were we inspired by having just seen the Disney moviePeter Pan? Perhaps, but specifics are lost to the years. Our parents required us to return all of the money we’d collected, embarrassed of course, but our biggest disappointment was that motherly Fran Allison didn’t come along with Mr. Tillstrom.

A childhood of freedom and choice

It was a different world for a child then, with freedom to explore, make independent decisions, live the consequences, and where anyone’s parent was a trusted caretaker. At the age of eight we knew about violence, even death, and that bad things occasionally happened, but it didn’t color our basic perception of a benevolent world full of good people. And we knew whose mother made the best cookies! Those of a certain age will remember.

As grownups we set our own fieldtrips! Thus last weekend at the Oakwood cemetery in Dixon Illinois memories of childhood adventures came flooding back. Hover for slideshow controls:

Finding family in Dixon Illinois

We’d been meaning to make the trip, a bucket list item, for years. Paul and I flew the Husky to Dixon Illinois, on a mission to locate the family plot of Aunt Allie and Uncle Albert Richardson and their daughter Alice where personal memories mixed with family history and associations to a larger world. Paul Albert was named for great Uncle Al who served in Puerto Rico during the Spanish American War and whose grave is marked with the honor. A graduate of the first electrical engineering class at the University of Michigan, he made his career at the Rock River hydroelectric plant on River Street, built in 1925 with five generators producing all the power the town of Dixon needed. Cousin Alice was a first year teacher when young Ronald Reagan was in her study hall class at the South Central School. The Reagan family home is four blocks south. Years later Alice was asked about her famous student and recalled only that he was a quiet boy.

Walgreen drugstores began in Dixon

Small Midwestern towns have historic charm, typically wide streets to match generous attitudes, neatly maintained centennial houses, clean cafes and friendly people. We came and went from the Dixon airport and were given a City of Dixon official vehicle to drive for the day. The airport was renamed in 1964 Charles R. Walgreen Field and dedicated by Merrill C. Meigs to honor the Dixon pharmacist/entrepreneur who was first to carry household goods alongside prescription drugs in his stores, to serve good, inexpensive food at lunch-counters, and invented the malted milkshake made with ice cream from their own factory. From the first tiny store in 1901 Dixon, Walgreens grew by 1927 to 110 successful stores across the Midwest and became the standard by which retail drugstores are still judged.

Repurposing iron trolley tracks into an airport hangar

Back at the airport the barrel-roofed Reinhard Schnell Memorial Hangar has its own unique history which you will recognize once you know the story. Near the Dixon airport in the roaring twenties there was a dance hall at the end of a trolley track that brought customers from town center. When the dance hall era ended the brick road was pulled up along with the iron tracks and, as we’d now say, the materials were repurposed. The exterior buttresses and interior roof trusses of the airport hangar are the actual trolley tracks and the walls are built from the street bricks! And as always seems to happen we talked with pilots from other places with missions of their own. This time it was a light sport Remos G-3/600 Mirage with instructor and student practicing crosswind landings. We wished each other good flying and CAVU (pilot shorthand for ceiling and visibility unlimited) as both airplanes prepared to depart.

The summer sky is a wondrous place. Respect its power and it can safely become your magic carpet.