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But a miniature sleigh, and 10 tiny reindeer…

by Phil Luciano |
captive reindeer

Meet Mistletoe, Holly, Sparky, Snowball, Griswold, Kringle, Sugar Plum, Marshmallow, Cocoa and Kluger.

The idea seemed almost ludicrous, the kind of offbeat notion that might make sense only in a Hallmark holiday movie.

As a second career, a local couple pondered bringing a pair of reindeer to rural Canton, a place where livestock tends toward cows, pigs and such, not arctic beasties. But they had a twofold vision: As teachers, they could educate children about the animals; as a novelty, the reindeer might boost tourism.

And, to add to the whimsy, it didn’t hurt that their last name carried a particular Christmas twist.

Tracy and Scott Snowman at Snowman’s Reindeer Farm with Sugar Plum, the first reindeer born on the farm in Canton.

So, eight yuletides ago, Tracy and Scott Snowman—yes, that’s their real surname—opened a modest exhibit of two reindeer.

And now? Snowman’s Reindeer Farm brims with a remarkable herd of 10 reindeer—all friendly enough to pet and feed—plus a small zoo that includes mini-donkeys, chickens, ducks and other critters, including a pudgy ol’ pooch named Penny. As artists, the couple have created a festive, North Pole swirl of barns and shops festooned with colorful lights, candy canes, toy soldiers and other yuletide staples. Kids can visit with St. Nick and ride a small train, while visitors of all ages can munch goodies at the Flying Reindeer Snack Bar and buy souvenirs (such as ornaments stuffed with reindeer fur).

reindeer

Amid that bustling kaleidoscope of fun, the fanciful farm has become a seasonal tradition for many visitors. Though open just weekends for two months a year, this year the Snowmans are expecting 14,000 guests, many of them returnees.

“That’s our favorite thing, to see families come back,” said Tracy Snowman. “All the things we’ve done in our lives—as artists and teachers—this brings it all together.”

She smiled, then added playfully, “And we’ve got to do Christmas, because our last name is Snowman.”

Decades back, as a senior at Canton High School, Tracy Dominski took an art class taught by Mr. Snowman—well liked throughout the school and town—and met a classmate who happened to be his son. They started dating, and three years after their 1981 graduation, Scott and Tracy got married. Their partnership would follow multiple paths.

They would serve as art professors at Spoon River College for 30 years before retiring in 2019. Meantime, they opened a Canton art gallery, Snowman Studios. One of their projects was a children’s book, ‘Twas the Night Before a Green Christmas, an eco-friendly take on the yuletide classic. While researching their illustrations-to-be, they realized a paucity of reference material regarding reindeer.

“Maybe,” Scott said, “we should just get our own reindeer, so we have plenty of access to them for making more children’s books.”

Tracy thought he was joking. But Scott pondered the possibilities. After all, the couple lived on 11 acres of rural land adjacent to a 160-acre crop farm tended by relatives. Scott, who had worked with livestock in his younger days, investigated the challenges of raising reindeer.

Scott became fascinated with the animals, which have been domesticated longer than cattle. Real reindeer—the domestic version are called reindeer, while the wild variety are called caribou—look nothing like most storybook versions, which tend to resemble white-tail deer. Reindeer actually have wide noses and velvety antlers, plus clanky ankles (to track one another during blizzards) and furry necks (to trap water while drinking so it doesn’t freeze to their skin).

Scott took Tracy to an Illinois reindeer breeder. One look at the babies, and she was hooked.

So, in 2015, they strung a fence around three acres of land and brought in a male and female. Over time, they began to breed, a trying and sometimes heartbreaking endeavor. Not all the babies survived. One recent arrival made it through delivery only with drastic intervention.

“I gave him mouth-to-mouth (resuscitation),” Scott said.

The on-site breedings, along with purchases from an Alaskan farmer—“They actually flew on Fed Ex. So reindeer do fly,” Tracy said—has boosted the Snowman herd to 10. The roster rundown exceeds Santa’s reindeer call in ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas: Mistletoe, Holly, Sparky, Snowball, Griswold, Kringle, Sugar Plum, Marshmallow, Cocoa and Kluger—of which have bios on the farm’s website.

During tours, guests hear many fun facts about reindeer. For example, they have the largest antler mass of any deer, weighing up to 15 pounds. But for many visitors, the most mind-blowing fact of all is learning that reindeer are not mythical.

“(Many) people think they’re like a unicorn, they’re not real,” Tracy said.

The bills certainly are real. The herd—males weigh more than 400 pounds, while females easily weigh 200—goes through 16 tons of customized feed per year. Area veterinarians—kind enough to study up on reindeer care—are often summoned for help. And the staff has grown to 32 part-timers, many of them teens but some older than 50.

“They’re just Christmas nuts,” Tracy said.

The Snowmans, both 59, get plenty of questions about the reindeer, including, “Can they fly?” The answer: Well, they do get airborne—and play reindeer games.

“Reindeer can run about 50 mph,” Tracy said. “So, when they really get cranked up, they leap, especially if it snows. If you’re here on a snow day, you’ve hit gold. They will do the funniest maneuvers. They will twist, they will spin, they will run, they will jump and leap.

“And people are literally standing there, with their phones, recording, going, ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing!’’’

The couple says they’ve yet to turn a profit on the business, mostly because they keep reinvesting and expanding. But they see it as a true labor of love.

“It’s very rewarding in absolutely every way,” Tracy said. “Yes, it has its challenges and worries. But we’re up to the task. We absolutely love it.”

To visit Snowman Reindeer Farm, tickets must be bought in advance online. Go to www.snowmansreindeer.com.

Phil Luciano

Phil Luciano

is a senior writer/columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP.
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