Hardy's Reindeer Ranch provides unique autumn activities

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  • A group of tourists, asking for route in the corn maze on Friday, Oct.9

  • Mark Hardy and Julie Hardy, kissing their reindeers on Friday, Oct.9

  • A picture of the Reindeer’s Ranch taken on Friday, October 9, 2015.

  • Reindeer’s Ranch on Friday, October 9, 2015.

  • Reindeer’s Ranch on Friday, October 9, 2015.

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By Lillian Barkley

In Illinois, there’s usually nothing special about a cornfield. But in Rantoul, 10 acres of corn draw crowds every year.

Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch boasts one of the best, largest corn mazes in the area. The busiest time of the season is September through November when the maze is open, though the ranch is open from August until the end of December.

“This is kind of our claim to fame here,” said owner Mark Hardy about the corn maze. “It hasn’t lost its popularity.”

The corn maze has had 14 different designs over the past 17 years. This year it’s a flying eagle with exploding fireworks, which was chosen to honor the military, Mark said.

There are eight checkpoints throughout the maze, each one themed like different aspects of the World War II-era military effort, including the four branches, Rosie the Riveter and the Tuskegee “Red Tails.”

Mark said the Octave Chanute Air Museum donated the photos that decorate the entrance of the maze.

“This year’s design was big with lots of dead ends to get lost in! At least it felt that way,” said Carly Simonaitis, vice president of October Lovers and junior in AHS, in an email.

When he is in the maze, Mark takes time to clear the paths of fallen corn and picks up discarded trash. Even though he created the maze, he still gets lost when trying to navigate the 6-foot-tall stalks. He also tries to direct visitors to the checkpoints and exit.

“Most of the time, people don’t want help,” he said.

It typically takes about a few hours to finish the maze, he said, though some can finish it in about 30 minutes.

The maze is the main draw for students, Mark said.

“It’s always been an October Lovers’ tradition to go to Hardy’s,” Simonaitis said.

Last Thursday, the club brought 300 people to the ranch, Mark said.

“The groups we have out here are very nice. They’re respectful and they don’t tear up my place,” he said.

Many of the students get another surprise when they get to the ranch.

“Most of them don’t realize we have actual reindeer here,” Hardy said. “They think it’s just a gimmick.”

Simonaitis said she never expects the reindeer, even though it’s implicit in the name.

“People are always surprised about the reindeer. Perhaps even more so because it’s tucked behind the little gift shop there,” she said. “Everyone gets a rise out of touching the antlers. They really do feel strange – sturdy but almost hollow.”

Mark said many of the visitors have never seen a real reindeer before they encounter the herd of 12 reindeer.

“We put them on an airline and flew them out here,” said Julie Hardy, Mark’s wife. They keep the shipping container as a decoration in the reindeer pasture.

The reindeer originally came from Alaska, Wisconsin or Michigan, but “the deer you see here have been born on my farm,” Julie said.

Visitors can go on reindeer tours where they can pet the reindeer, feed them graham crackers and do the “reindeer kiss” ­? they hold a graham cracker in their mouth and the reindeer eats up to their lips so it looks like a kiss.

Without Julie, the ranch as it is now would not exist.

“She wanted the shop and the reindeer,” Mark said. “She got the shop and the reindeer.”

The ranch started as a Christmas tree farm before Mark and Julie met 22 years ago.

They added fall-themed attractions, including the corn maze, a few years later. The fall attractions also include peddle cars and a paintball range decorated like a gas station.

“I wanted a filling station, so I had to find a way to make it pay,” Mark said.

All of the buildings on the ranch, including the Hardys’ home, were built by Mark and his family.

Mark also does all of the landscaping on the property.

“That’s my favorite thing to do here,” he said. “Anywhere I can find to put flowers, I put flowers.”

Mark and Julie run everything around the ranch and like to keep the business close to the community.

“We’ve had people who met in the maze and come back here and get married,” Mark said.

The business is in a niche market, but the foundation of the ranch is classic.

“What we are is small farmers and we have to make a living off a small piece of land,” Mark said. “We’re not getting rich at it, but we make a living.”

The ranch draws busloads of people during the season, with 10,000 people coming for the maze alone, Mark said.

“I love Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch,” Simonaitis said. “Maybe it’s the maze or maybe it’s the warm apple cider, but it’s my favorite part of the autumnal season.”

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