Driving into Edgerton on Highway 51, Tom Dickinson saw lights on in the basement of the T.W. Dickinson Warehouse.
It was about 10 p.m. He walked into the warehouse to find his father—also named Tom Dickinson—working on tobacco clippings in the waning years of the family’s 100-year tobacco venture.
That scenario played out many times before his father died. Many of the memories Dickinson has of his father and grandfather—the original Tom Dickinson—are connected to that building.
The building is not just a time capsule for his family, but for Edgerton’s entire tobacco industry, Dickinson said.
That’s why he wants to transform the first floor of his family’s warehouse into a museum, a space that would pay homage to the history of agricultural and industrial tobacco production in Edgerton.
In 1918, at the peak of tobacco production, Edgerton farmers harvested 62.4 million pounds of tobacco, according to a previous report in The Gazette. The city is proud of its reputation as the region’s first home of commercial tobacco.
But Dickinson needs help to create the museum. He said he hopes to find one big donor or investor to help finance the project.
Dickinson estimates renovations will cost $350,000 to $400,000. The building is structurally sound, but many updates are needed to bring it up to code.
His dream is for the warehouse to be part of a museum campus, complete with indoor and outdoor displays stretching from his building to the former Pauline Pottery factory.
The 12,000-square-foot building has served as storage space for Dickinson and his family for 100 years. It was packed to the brim with furniture, tobacco equipment, uniforms from various wars, trunks and other personal belongings.
An auction was held last month to clean it out, Dickinson said. Many items were sold, including historic tobacco artifacts he wished could have stayed with the building.
Some items were sold to people who support the museum idea and plan to donate the items back, Dickinson said. He believes he has plenty of artifacts to start the museum.
He is currently working with local backers to spread word of the project. But getting the money to make improvements is the most urgent next step.
City Administrator Ramona Flanigan thinks the city would support a tobacco museum in the warehouse.
First, Dickinson needs to present a plan detailing upfront capital costs for renovation and ongoing operating costs, Flanigan said.
Building plans also need to be submitted for approval, she said.
“We would love to see the building utilized and whatever Tom’s dream is, if there is a way to get it done, we will work very hard to see that that can happen,” she said.
Over the last 10 years, the city has worked hard to revitalize other former tobacco warehouses, particularly those in the downtown area, Flanigan said.
Dickinson’s building stands three stories tall, but he said the museum likely will use only the first floor. That rest can be redeveloped for other commercial businesses, he said.
City Councilman Matt McIntyre said a tobacco museum could bring hundreds of tourists to Edgerton. The building is visible to those traveling through the city at highways 51 and 59.
“It is a very exciting concept to get something multi-user inside the historic building,” he said.
McIntyre said he gets around town every day and has heard multiple people express interest in the museum.
Keith Anderson’s family raised tobacco in Edgerton for decades until about 10 years ago.
The history of the industry needs to be preserved, and the city currently has no site that does that, he said.
Anderson started a Facebook group called the Dickinson Warehouse Project, which now has dozens of members interested in the project.
However, one of Dickinson’s biggest personal obstacles is distance. He still lives in Washington, D.C., and needs help from Edgerton residents to get the ball rolling.
Dickinson acknowledges tobacco’s link to multiple health problems. But without tobacco, Edgerton wouldn’t exist, and that should be honored, he said.
“It was the economic driver, the economic engine, for decades and decades,” Dickinson said. “It put bread on the table, food on the table and clothes on the backs of multiple generations of people who lived in Edgerton.”
He hopes a museum could help people create memories for others, like the ones he had growing up, Dickinson said.
As a kid, Dickinson would spend Saturday mornings hanging out in the warehouse basement, where 20 or so women worked at the tobacco grading tables.
He remembers eating doughnuts and listening to the women laugh and tell jokes. It’s one of his fondest memories.
“They all knew me, knew me as the boss’s grandson, and they were always nice to me,” Dickinson said.
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif.
As a refugee, Lynn Le landed at Camp Pendleton among thousands of mothers and fathers clutching their children, desperately searching for a sign that at last they would be safe in America, far from Communist persecution at the end of the Vietnam War.
Her father, Phong Le, held her close to his side. A barracks door opened and a man walked toward them, saying words they didn’t understand. But when the stranger extended both arms to tickle the 7-year-old, they both knew they were on friendly ground.
The year was 1975 and Le, the youngest of three, never forgot how the Marines quickly came to their aid with clothing “with sleeves so long we thought we would never grow into them,” she said.
“Boy, we were freezing and grateful to have both the jacket and the camp enclosing us. Whenever anyone mentions Pendleton, I get these soft, warm feelings,” the San Jose business consultant said.
With the fall of South Vietnam, Camp Pendleton became a refugee camp for thousands of Vietnamese families who made it to America. The camp is considered one of the starting points of Vietnamese American life, a place where successful communities across the nation got their start. Refugees still look back with appreciation to the welcome the American government offered.
Now, Camp Pendleton is one of several military installations that until recently were under review for a temporary detention center for migrants—many flowing out of Mexico and Central America because of economic hardship and violence.
Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, spokesman for the office of the secretary of defense, said Friday that Pendleton was considered but has not been chosen to house one of the detention facilities. Instead, officials designated two in Texas, Fort Bliss and Goodfellow Air Force Base, he said.
The immigration politics are much different now than in 1975, with President Donald Trump pushing a hard-line policy that included for a while separating refugee parents from their children.
And news that Camp Pendleton could have been used as part of an effort that separated refugee families troubled some Vietnamese immigrants who started their new lives at the San Diego County base. They said their experience was of great generosity by the American government, one that fought to keep families together and give them the tools for new lives.
“This is where we had our first taste of what it meant to be warm and safe in our new home. We have amazing memories of camp that we can keep in our hearts forever,” added Le, whose family lived in coastal Nha Trang before their exodus when she was in grade school.
“All these decades, we’ve looked at it as a symbol of freedom, not fear,” said Huy Ba Dang, a retired aerospace draft technician from Westminster.
More than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees fled to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon in 1975. The tent city at Camp Pendleton was the largest refugee city in the U.S., with about 50,000 mostly Vietnamese immigrants passing through.
Many went on to work in the Little Saigon district in Orange County.
President Gerald Ford’s decision to welcome the refugees was not popular. A Gallup poll in May 1975 showed that only 36 percent of Americans questioned were in favor of Vietnamese immigration. Many feared job losses and increased public welfare. Gov. Jerry Brown expressed concerns.
Ford argued that accepting them into America was essential because the refugees had been war allies.
But those who went through the tent city said they were grateful. Though the circumstances are in many ways different, some said they feel a certain kinship with Central American refugees fleeing violence and other hardships.
Tony Lam, former camp leader at Pendleton and the first Vietnamese American elected to political office in the U.S. in 1992, said he considers many migrants “economic refugees searching for a more stable life.”
“For the Vietnamese, some people left behind a wife, or husband, or everything they ever owned to seek freedom in America. For some of the new populations coming in, they’re also seeking a measure of freedom,” said the Westminster resident, who owns a sandwich shop.
In 1975, Lam stayed at Pendleton with his friend Dang, who was barracks leader. Both worked among thousands of fellow refugees, “and I remember grown men crying when they saw how the military cared for us and nurtured us,” Lam said.
Dang and others said they associate Camp Pendleton with how America can be welcoming.
“I truly thank the citizens who opened their arms and their generosity to us,” said Dang, who traveled to America with about 40 members of his extended family. “I am not biased or partisan to any government, but I would hope that the place—this camp—remains a respected symbol.”
TOWN OF DARIEN
Four months after a string of drug busts implicated employees at a town of Darien strip club, the Darien Town Board looks to tighten its regulation of sexually oriented businesses.
Vegas Gentlemen’s Club is an unassuming building nestled at the edge of a sprawling corn field where Highway 14 splits from Highway 11.
It’s one of two strip clubs in the town of Darien. The other, Show Palace, is south of Interstate 43 on the town’s southern edge.
In February, Vegas Gentlemen’s Club was tied up in a string of drug busts that played out across southern Wisconsin. Several people associated with the club, including a bartender and a dancer, were arrested on charges of delivering cocaine, according to a criminal complaint filed Feb. 28. Some of the transactions took place at the club, according to the complaint.
New ordinances being considered by the town board were suggested by the Walworth County Sheriff’s Office, which has said updating ordinances regulating sexually oriented business could help deputies.
Walworth County sheriff’s Capt. Dave Gerber said the sheriff’s office recently has seen an uptick in calls to Vegas Gentlemen’s Club. The arrests in February, which were the result of a months-long operation that involved the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, pushed the sheriff’s office into discussions with the town regarding ordinance changes.
“We saw quite a few calls for service. It’s draining,” Gerber said. “When we’re continually going to the same place over and over again, it’s a drain on our services.”
Attorneys with the town still are crafting the new ordinances, and the town board will take them up at its July 10 board meeting. Based on suggestions from the sheriff’s office, the changes could include requirements to improve outdoor lighting and to maintain identification records of all employees, particularly dancers and bouncers.
Current ordinances do not require strip clubs to keep identification records of dancers, bouncers or servers. Town Chairman Cecil Logterman said the town performs its own background checks on bartenders but not for other strip club employees.
Gerber said requiring clubs to retain employee identification, such as photo copies of driver’s licenses and Social Security cards, would help the sheriff’s office follow up with witness including dancers, some of whom are known only by their stage names or other aliases.
“A lot of times when we show up, there may be dancers that have already left,” Gerber said. “That makes it difficult to try to do follow-up if we have no idea who these people are. I think it’s reasonable to expect an employer to be able to have identification on their employees, even contracted ones.”
Another suggestion pitched by the sheriff’s office is brighter lighting in the clubs’ parking lots, Gerber said. Illuminating the parking lots could curtail criminal activity, which could reduce the number of calls to the sheriff’s office, he said.
“The things we’re trying to pass … I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing,” town board member Kevin Schutt said. “They’ll know exactly who they have working there. Hopefully, it will help. Little things won’t hurt. It’d be easier.”
The Gazette was not able to reach the owners of the Show Palace for comment.
Jason Schuster, who owns Vegas Gentlemen’s Club, said he would not comment on the proposed ordinances “until the discussion has been had” by the town board.
So far, Gerber and town board members have said Schuster and the Show Palace owners have been respectfully working with law enforcement agencies and participating in the process.
At a Darien Town Board meeting March 6, just weeks after the drug bust, Vegas Gentlemen’s Club sexually oriented business license was up for its annual renewal by a board vote. During the meeting, considerable discussion on sexually oriented businesses ensued among board members and Walworth County sheriff’s Sgt. Ken Brand.
The board voted 3-1 to renew the license.
At the meeting, Brand floated the idea of requiring background checks and fingerprints for all employees of strip clubs, a move that could possibly deter applicants, some board members said. But last week, Gerber and Logterman said the backgrounds checks and fingerprints probably would not be part of the new ordinances.
“We briefly discussed that in our meetings,” Gerber said. “But it’s not something the sheriff’s department wants to be conducting. We don’t have the resources.”
Logterman said if the town required fingerprints on dancers and bouncers, it would need to implement a similar policy for other employees throughout the town.
No matter the final result, Schutt said he hopes the ordinance updates will be enough to prevent a situation such as the drug bust in February. He said requiring backgrounds checks on all strip club employees probably won’t be considered, and he hopes the idea stays off the table for now.
“If they keep having problems, it might come to that,” Schutt said.
“(Hopefully) both of them (the clubs) keep their stuff straight and they don’t have problems (so) you don’t have to think about deciding what direction we may or may not go.”
Jess L. Louison
David “Dave” L. Peters
Mary Jane Vultaggio
Eileen J. Walker