One Tank Trips: Dixon Petunia Fest

June 29, 2011 (DIXON, Ill.)

Welcome to Dixon, Illinois! This quaint town, dating back to 1828, is nestled along the scenic Rock River. Dixon is best known as the boyhood home of President Ronald Reagan. A statue of our 40th president graces the new riverwalk - quite appropriate, as Reagan was a lifeguard along the banks of the river in his teen years.

This time of year, the focus is on petunias - the 47th Annual Petunia Fest, to be exact. It all started in the late 1950s, when dutch elm disease, along with highway expansion, wiped out the trees along Galena Avenue, the main road through town.

"So a local men's garden group decided to start planting some petunias on the side of the road, and that grew, and after a few years... some of the local people said, 'you know what, let's start a festival in honor of the petunias,' and that started in 1965," said Dixon Petunia Festival Corporation President Dave Johnson.

"I can remember when this started out in the 1960s and all it had was a couple tractors, and I think one manure spreader, and it was a very small parade," said Dixon Mayor Jim Burke.

Now, the town with a population of 16,000 and attracts 40,000 visitors to a festival that features over 30 events. The riverfront across from the high school is transformed into a carnival! In front of the high school, a 15-ton sand sculpture of Ronald Reagan will be created over the next few days. There is an arts and crafts show, an antique show, lots of food, and four stages of entertainment over the weekend, all against the backdrop of the pink magic petunias, prompting the Illinois General Assembly to designate Dixon as the petunia capital of the state.

The festival is so popular, it has earned its own place in pop-culture history, for instance, petunia wine - and, a trip to Dixon, Illinois, for the petunia festival was the grand prize on a very famous game show.

"In the early '70's the game show 'The Dating Game,' the Dixon Petunia Festival, a trip to the Festival, was the grand prize for that couple," said Johnson. "They were the grand marshals of the parade that year and the town went out and showed them a good time!"

Speaking of which, the parade this year is part of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration, as are many other festival events. There will be screenings of two famous Reagan movies at the historic Dixon Theatre: Bedtime for Bonzo, and of course, Knute Rockne, All-American. The 5K walk and run will step off Sunday morning from the Ronald Reagan boyhood home.

The festival continues into Monday evening, the 4th of July. If you're missing the big fireworks display that the city will not be putting on this year - check this out!

"The area's been known for one of the best fireworks [shows], and actually, it's the same company that did the Chicago fireworks show, and they do an outstanding show for us," said Johnson. "It's a solid half hour of fireworks and it's also synchronized to music!"

Sounds like the perfect Fourth of July weekend - add a little pink to your red, white and blue!

Dixon is about a two-hour drive from Chicago, straight down I-88, the Reagan Tollway. You can go for the day or stay at one of the local hotels or bed and breakfasts and make a long weekend out of it!

Dixon Petunia Festival Website

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