(In Memoriam) Curtis Orchard: A family for owner Joyce Curtis
September 6, 2016
Editor’s note: This story originally ran Oct. 8, 2014 and is being re-run in memory of Joyce Curtis. She passed away on Sept. 2 at 81 years old.
To most people in the Champaign-Urbana area, the Curtis Orchard is a successful apple orchard and pumpkin patch business.
But to co-owner Joyce Curtis, it is much more than that.
It is a place where she used to raise confined hogs with her husband of 58 years, Paul.
It is a place where she works alongside her children, grandchildren and even in-laws.
It is a place to make her famous secret-recipe apple “doughnuts.”
Simply put, it is her home.
On Friday afternoon, Joyce walked through the orchard’s country store, wearing a crisp red apron with the Curtis Orchard logo and pearl-beaded glasses around her neck. She watched as family members and student employees bustled around, helping customers navigate the sweet-smelling store filled with seasonal antiques, jars of pumpkin butter, dessert mixes, hot and cold cider and of course — apple doughnuts.
In passing, a lady holding a white chihuahua stopped to say hello and continued to the checkout with her fall finds.
With a mischievous smirk, Joyce murmurs, “Dogs are not supposed to be in here.”
October is the busiest season at the Curtis Orchard. The business is now 37 years old and thriving, but Joyce remembers a time when the piece of land was very different.
It all began when she was a student at the University in 1954, when tuition was only $60 a semester.
One summer, Joyce decided to stay on campus to attend summer school, and it was then that she met her husband Paul.
Both her brother and Paul were members of the FarmHouse Fraternity, but Curtis said she met Paul one day in the summer at McBride’s Drug Store.
“But not through my brother, however!” she said matter-of-factly. “He came in there and he said, ‘Aren’t you Jim’s sister?’ And I said yes, and so from then on we just hit it off.”
Joyce and Paul were married in 1956 in her hometown Bement, Illinois, 25 miles south of Champaign.
Joyce said the couple was gifted 80 acres of land (which is now the Curtis Orchard) by Paul’s parents and began married life as farmers of confined hogs, corn and beans. However, this did not last, Joyce said.
“We saw that the subdivision was encroaching on us, and we knew we couldn’t continue that because (the hogs) don’t smell good,” she said.
In addition to farming, Curtis said Paul was a horticulture professor at Parkland Community College for 21 years. While there, she said he had an advisory committee that brought him in contact with the Eckert family who own Eckert’s farm, a business in Southern Illinois with pick-your-own apples and pumpkins.
She said her and Paul visited Eckert’s and two years later, they finally got up the nerve to open their own apple orchard. She said that everything they had from the farm and Parkland was invested into the orchard.
“I remember that first year there was a drought and (Paul) bought rubber hoses and I spent all day out watering every tree and we only lost three,” she said.
Despite the challenges of starting the orchard, Joyce said it was much better than the couple’s previous farm.
“Apples go to sleep. Hogs don’t!” she said.
Joyce said during the first year, they planted a large amount of every kind of apple. They now have a variety to choose from including Red Delicious, Jonathan, Fuji and Golden Delicious.
She said her personal favorite is Fuji because they are sweet. But she said she also likes making applesauce with Golden Delicious apples because they are sweet and make a beautiful sauce without any sugar.
Applesauce is not the only thing Joyce can make. She is known around the area for her apple doughnuts.
After attending meetings in the winter with other orchards, Joyce got the idea to open a bakery and café, where she sells the homemade doughnuts.
While she couldn’t reveal much about the doughnuts because it is a secret recipe, she did say they are made of an apple crisp batter. She said they are hard to make because of the doughnut equipment.
“You have to make the batter, and you can’t have it too soupy,” Joyce said. “The plunger that pushes the doughnut batter out has three connections of three holes in it and these holes have to be filled with batter in order to get a full-sized doughnut out. If not, you have to start all over.”
When the doughnuts are finished, Joyce said, they are dipped in cinnamon sugar. Sometimes they are dipped in icing as well but that takes longer, she said, and they have three fans to cool them.
Joyce said most people, such as teachers and children, like the cinnamon sugar apple doughnuts the best. They are especially popular because they are free of trans fat and do not come in contact with peanuts, she said.
Personally, she said she likes her doughnuts warm and will heat them up in the microwave.
Throughout her career, Joyce has baked the doughnuts and other desserts, like pies, as well as kept track of all of the business’ book work. Now that she is semi-retired, Joyce said her main focus is paying the bills. However, she still helps with baking and overseeing the orchard and store as needed. Joyce said her favorite part is working with family including her son, Chris Curtis.
Chris said the best part of working with his mom is drawing upon both of his parents’ farming experience and business entrepreneurship.
“Obviously, with the crowds here, we are doing something right, and drawing upon their tips (of) how they run things; it’s invaluable,” he said. “It’s almost like a high level internship.”
Chris also said he appreciates the way his mom holds the business together.
“During the fall it can be a little hectic and unnerving with the crowds and can be hard to keep your head above water, but mom does a great job of keeping things organized.”
Joyce said she is looking forward to her family’s annual get-together and potluck after the busy fall season, in addition to seeing parents take pictures of their kids with the orchard’s signs, which say how tall the children are.
Paul said that the orchard is like the television show “Captain Kangaroo,” because it has a different generation coming on all the time.
“Now, we have not only the adults, but they’ve gotten married and have children and bring their children out,” Joyce said.
This fall, people will come and go from the orchard, making memories with their families.
Joyce will be doing the same with hers.