In the magic of Christmas, there are few things more enchanting than eight tiny reindeer.
And while Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch may not be home to Santa’s famous group, owners Mark and Julie Hardy have seen his patrons light up over the sight of their herd.
“They’re just wonderful,” Mark said. “They’re extremely friendly. Wherever I go, they’re just magic. They’re not Santa Clause, but they’re close.”
Hardy said the “cow of the north,” with their big eyes and clicking walk are friendly and curious animals who love graham crackers and being up close to people who take the Reindeer Tour.
Hardy also takes two reindeer to different cities throughout Illinois in the fall and winter months so people can learn about the animals, interact with them and take pictures.
While the reindeer are undoubtedly the main attraction of Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch, the small farm has grown to include seasonal activities such as a corn maze, Jack Splat Pumpkin Cannon, paint ball gallery, pedal race cars, hayrides, and cookouts.
But it was Christmas trees sales that brought the vision for the small farm to life.
Thirty years ago, Mark wanted to supplement his dairy farm business with winter Christmas trees. When the trees were ready to sell, Mark met Julie, who was an Avon sales manager at the time. Julie quit her job to focus on the vision of Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch.
Mark wanted to sell Christmas trees from the garage, while Julie envisioned a small gift shop with reindeer.
“She got her way,” Mark said. “We got two reindeer from a herd of 100 in Michigan in 1995. Julie sent out press releases telling how we had two reindeer and a gift shop with a potbelly stove in the middle. It worked very well.”
The couple went to gift shows, and Julie made items throughout the week.
“They’d clean us out in one weekend,” he said. “Her marketing is very good. Her idea was very good.”
With tour buses coming in, the ranch expanded from being open to the public in Nov. to Dec. to a year-round, full-time business. Mark and Julie hosted up to 150 people on tour buses in their garage until they decided to build a banquet hall for traveling senior groups, company parties, receptions and reunions.
“We thought it might be a good local thing, but really it is more regional,” he said.“Without marking outside of our area, this wouldn’t work.”
The Western Banquet Hall and the gift shop were built by Mark with the help of family members. Concessions are available on the weekends when patrons spend the day at the ranch.
Youth groups, Girl Scouts, Boy Scout troops, and schools also visit the ranch during the week. Hardy’s offers a Weenie Roast which includes the corn maze, carts, and a hayride along with food for groups of 15 or more. Groups of eight to 11 children can also enjoy the Little Buckaroo package which includes a reindeer tour, hayride and a snack.
Hardy’s 5-acre Christmas tree farm also offers 5-acres of cut-your-own Christmas trees, along with Fraser Firs from North Carolina and Douglas Fir, Scotch and White Pines from Indiana. They also have saws, a tree shaker, and a baler.
With a growing demand for cut-your-own Christmas trees, Hardy’s farm is feeling the effect which has taken many Christmas tree farmers out of the business. With high demand, the trees, which take eight to 15 years to grow, are becoming scarce on his farm.
It has always been important to Mark and Julie Hardy that they keep the experience of their farm accessible to everyone. Admission to the farm is free, and for a minimal fee, patrons can experience both fall and winter nostalgic activities.
“We’ve figured out over the years how to survive,” Mark said. “It’s a neat way to take a small farm and make a living. It’s a 60-acre farm that probably wouldn’t produce much.”
Mark, a farmer by trade, fell into his niche by taking care of the landscaping and building maintenance while Julie and the employees take care of the shop.
Over the years, Mark and Julie have enjoyed meeting people from all over the world through their business. Julie travels to trade shows, and the couple went to Alaska to purchase more reindeer. They regularly have visitors who travel all over the country, and have hosted guests from Brazil.
Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch will be open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. until Dec. 23. They will also be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve, and closed Christmas Day. The ranch will reopen until Dec. 28 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.