Reindeer are real… and you can visit them right here in central Illinois.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! And this season, families can create some special holiday magic with a visit to a pair of reindeer farms not far from home.
For Scott and Tracy Snowman (yes, that is their last name!), it all began with a children’s book. Both Snowmans are art instructors at Spoon River College, so the idea to write and illustrate a Christmas book about reindeer made perfect sense—until they discovered they couldn’t find any real-life examples of reindeer to photograph and sketch from. “Reindeer are different from their white-tailed cousins,” Tracy explains, “and we wanted the reindeer in the book to look right.”
After some lengthy research, the couple released Twas the Night Before a Green Christmas in 2011. Once the book was finished, Scott made the comment—jokingly, Tracy thought—that with a name like Snowman, they should have reindeer. Then he started researching them in earnest.
“A lot of people don’t know that reindeer are real. They think they’re fictional, like unicorns,” Tracy says. “We both grew up in Canton, so we thought it would be a great way to bring attention to Fulton County. Plus, it was a way for us to combine our love of children, teaching, art and Christmas. Scott has always loved Christmas—he keeps a tree up in his office year-round, so it was not odd that he wanted to connect more deeply with the holiday season. Now, since we have reindeer, it’s Christmas here every day.”
Growing the Herd
“It isn’t as simple as just deciding to buy a couple of reindeer and start a business,” Tracy explains. “Illinois has very strict laws regarding owning and breeding reindeer. It took us two years, but finally all the paperwork was done and we received our USDA certification as a zoo—that’s our status in Illinois.” On November 25, 2015, two adorable reindeer arrived at the Snowman farm in Canton. Nutmeg, a cow, was about a year-and-a-half old, while Klaus, a bull, was a tiny calf, just four months old. (Reindeer are described in cattle terms, she notes.)
“It was magical,” Tracy recalls. “We put a post on Facebook to come out and see the reindeer a couple weeks later, expecting maybe 15 or 20 people. That first morning, we went out to the barn and were getting things ready, when one of our kids came in and said, ‘You’ve got to see this!’
“People were lined up from the front of the barn all the way down the drive, out onto the road,” she continues. “Cars were parked along both sides of the road as far as you could see, and more were trying to find places to stop. We estimated around 1,000 people that first day! … And in just two years, our holiday reindeer visits have become so popular that we need 12 helpers during the season.”
The Snowmans currently have a herd of four reindeer for visitors to meet. “Sven is the three-year-old bull in charge,” Tracy notes. “He weighs 300 pounds; he has another hundred pounds to gain before he’s done growing. We also have Mistletoe, a cow, and Snowball, a bull, that are both a year old. And then there’s Kringle, our six-month-old boy, born on the farm last spring. He’s our baby.” (Sadly, the Snowmans lost Klaus and Nutmeg earlier this year to Lyme disease.)
Reindeer come in various sizes, and the Snowman family raises the smaller breed just like the “eight tiny reindeer” described in Clement Clark Moore’s famous poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” “So are these some of Santa’s special reindeer?” I ask.
“Absolutely,” Tracy replies with a twinkle in her eye. “Santa checks on our reindeer each year, and as Christmas approaches, he’ll consider asking one of them to fly his sleigh over Iowa, Illinois and Indiana while one of his main reindeer takes a short break. Last year, Sven got the honor of that flight. This year, it may be Snowball.”
She chuckles, holding up a bronze bell. “Santa always lets you know by leaving a note in the barn telling which reindeer helped on that three-state flight,” she adds. “And he always gives them a bronze bell for helping pull his sleigh. You never know which reindeer Santa will choose, and you don’t find out until Christmas morning that one of your reindeer flew with Santa to deliver toys for Christmas.”
A reindeer visit is an amazing experience. The Snowmans start by telling guests about the reindeer. “And we take time to answer questions,” Tracy adds. “People are always curious as to what reindeer eat. That one’s easy: maple leaves, willow leaves, alfalfa hay, clover and reindeer chow are some of their favorite foods, along with graham crackers.”
After learning some fun reindeer facts, guests can check out the barn and feed the reindeer. “We encourage families to take all of the photos they’d like,” Tracy says. “We also have an activity zone with craft projects for the kids.” There’s also the Flying Reindeer Snack Bar and the Jolly Old Elf Gift Shoppe for unique, Illinois-made and Midwestern holiday gifts. (The Snowmans’ first book, as well as their latest, Reindeer Kisses, are available at the shop and online.) In addition, Santa himself stops by to check on his reindeer and visit with all of the children.
While the Snowmans have only been in business a couple of years, Tracy already has fond memories of their visitors. “I think I have a new favorite memory each year,” she notes, smiling. “Last year, we had a school group visit, and I noticed one little boy standing by himself at the fence… I could hear him whispering ‘Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!’ to one of the reindeer. After all of the kids were on the bus, the teacher came back and told me that something amazing had just happened… [That] child doesn’t talk, she told me. ‘Merry Christmas’ were the first words she had ever heard him say! Moments like that are what make this so special.”
Will more reindeer be added to the Snowman herd? “I hope so,” Tracy replies. “They’ve become a part of our family. And I love the fact that we get a front-row seat to watch the children when they see reindeer for the first time. It’s magical.”
Kathy Adams, longtime employee at Hardy's Reindeer Ranch in Rantoul, Illinois
Reindeer Take Flight
Mark and Julie Hardy of Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch married in the early 1990s; Mark farmed and tended the Christmas trees while Julie, who had just graduated with a marketing degree, worked on ideas to draw more people for the holiday tree season. She came up with several, and then hit on the possibility of having reindeer on the farm. According to long-time family friend and 11-year ranch employee, Kathy Adams, it was an immediate success.
“They brought in two Alaskan reindeer in 1995 and have had them ever since,” she explains. Two years later, the couple traveled to Alaska and purchased another 13 reindeer for the ranch. But how do you get all of those reindeer from Alaska to central Illinois? Why, let them fly, of course! Once loaded on a Boeing 747, the rest was easy… or at least manageable. Today the ranch has a herd of 18 Alaskan reindeer, including two babies born this past spring. “We had a girl and a boy,” Kathy says proudly. “This is only the second male born here, so Julie named him Prince. And the name fits—he is so spoiled.” Other reindeer go by names like Black Jack, Star, Daisy, Comet and Halleluiah. They weigh between eight and 10 pounds at birth, just like human babies, but reindeer grow very quickly. Come November, Prince will be ready to take his place in the herd, greeting visitors, and getting petted and fed.
‘Tis the Season
“We start getting ready for the season in September,” Kathy notes. “We have a corn maze and events for the autumn, and then it’s time for Christmas visitors. Our guests love to feed graham crackers and oats to the deer, and a few brave ones will ask for a reindeer kiss.” This is achieved by placing a graham cracker between your lips and letting a reindeer remove it. Don’t worry about being accidentally bitten: reindeer do not have upper teeth. “Of course, they love to show off for visitors, so you never know what you’ll see,” Kathy laughs.
No doubt, this is one business where you get repeat customers—generations of them. “We have lots of families that return year after year for their holiday tree and a visit with the reindeer,” she notes. “They bring their kids, and then those kids grow up and bring their kids… We even had a couple that met here as teenagers… about a dozen years ago. When they decided to get married, they asked if they could have their ceremony here. They both love the reindeer; it was really sweet.”
Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch also boasts the Klondike Café for tasty respites and hot drinks on chilly holiday weekends, as well as a western-style banquet hall available for events year-round. The Country Barn Gift Shop is filled with delightful presents, while the Christmas tree farm has five acres of White and Scotch pine, Douglas fir, blue spruce and concolor fir—for those who like the storybook adventure of cutting their own tree.
But you don’t have to be a lumberjack to find the perfect tree; pre-cut trees are also available, along with fresh wreaths and other holiday swag. After a visit to Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch, you can leave with the perfect tree, unique holiday gifts, and beautiful reindeer memories—enough to last until next year. a&s
Located at 25599 East Middle Lake Road in Canton, Illinois, Snowman’s Reindeer Farm kicks off its reindeer season on November 22, 2017, from 6 to 8pm, and will be open every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Christmas. For more information, call (309) 647-0569. Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch, 1356 County Road 2900 N in Rantoul, Illinois, will be open in November from 10am to 7pm, Wednesdays through Saturdays, and 1 to 7pm on Sundays. In December, the ranch is open daily from 10am to 7pm. For more information, call (217) 893-3407.