While central Illinois may not be home to the most famous reindeer of all, it is home to Vixen and Blitzen, as well as other reindeer you may not have heard of including Shazam, Hallelujah, Sugar Plum, Snowball and Griswold.
“You don’t know how many adults think reindeer are fictional,” says Julie Hardy of Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch. “They’re domesticated caribou … they do exist.”
“There is truly no bigger thrill in the world than seeing a person, big, small and anything in between, meet a reindeer for the first ti
me,” says Tracy Snowman of Snowman’s Reindeer Farm. “To see their reaction, I never would have dreamed how much fun that is.”
Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch
What started out as a marketing effort 25 years ago for a small Christmas tree farm outside of Rantoul has turned into an attraction. Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch is home to a herd of 18 reindeer that bring thousands of tourists every year from all over the nation.
“I was a city girl with a marketing background when I married him,” Julie Hardy says, who owns Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch with husband Mark. “He knew he wanted to sell Christmas trees, but didn’t know anything about marketing. I didn’t know anything about living in the country or Christmas trees, so it was a match made in heaven. It was just an idea that if we got reindeer, it would attract people to come to our farm, and it did 10 times more than we ever expected.”
Their first pair of reindeer came from a farm in Michigan, and later they lived on a reindeer farm in Alaska for a week. It was there they purchased a herd of 13 reindeer and flew them to Illinois. “There’s not many reindeer raised in the lower 48 states,” Julie says. “We sort of pioneered reindeer farming because not many folks do it.” What works in Alaska doesn’t necessarily work in Illinois.
In Alaska, a reindeer’s diet would be moss and lichen.
“That would be what they normally eat on the tundra,” Julie explains. “I do not have moss and lichen, so we have a simulated diet for reindeer here. It has taken a while to get the balance right with the fiber and minerals.”
Additionally, she says there are different diseases and parasites in Illinois than there are in Alaska. If a reindeer dies, the Hardys make sure there is a thorough examination in hopes of preventing it from happening again. “It has been a labor of love,” Julie says.
The Hardys work closely with the University of Illinois’ veterinary program. “They actually use us as a teaching instrument for the students because reindeer are exotic animals,” she explains. “Over the years, I learned from the U of I, and they learned from me.”
Once a year, U of I veterinary students give the herd vaccinations and “pedicures.” “We have to prune their big hooves because they get these great big feet that make good snowshoes,” Julie says.
She recalls a snow drift that blew up to the tip of the fence and the whole herd walked up and out. “Guess how I got them back … graham crackers,” Julie says with a laugh. “All I have to do is rattle a package of graham crackers and they come running. They’re just like pets … they’re like big babies.”
These “babies” start getting familiarized with people at birth. “Some people will treat them like livestock and halter break them, but I train them with love,” Julie explains. “I pick them up the first day they’re born and give them their birthday hug, and from that point on I spend so much time with them. If they want a treat, they’ll have to kiss me for it.”
She says visitors are often surprised by how friendly the reindeer are. “I’m going to pat myself on the back for that,” Julie says. “Some are more friendly than others, but I created monsters out there. They’re just obnoxiously friendly.”
Ever wonder how to train a reindeer? Julie explains that it is with lots of treats, and reindeer love the aforementioned graham crackers. Another fun fact, reindeer predict snowfall. “They know a snow is coming,” she says. “They do a reindeer dance, and it is the goofiest looking thing. They’ve got this sideways gallop they will do an hour before the first snowfall. They get so excited. They predict the weather for me.”
Starting November, all hooves are on deck. “At Christmastime, reindeer tours are more than we can handle,” Julie says. Reindeer tours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are purchased upon arrival, and tours are first come, first served. She recommends visitors come during the week. “Weekdays are so much nicer to enjoy a reindeer tour. Weekends, there’s huge numbers of people. Come weekdays to get a much more personal experience.”
Julie says this fall has been off the charts being almost twice as busy as normal. Because of COVID-19, she says visitors feel a little safer because almost all activities are outdoors. In addition to the reindeer tour, Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch also offers hayrides, pedal race carts and paintball. There’s food available on weekends and, in the fall, there’s always an intricate corn maze. Of course, there are Christmas trees for sale.
“I can’t stress enough how delighted the whole family will be with the reindeer tour,” Julie says. “Everybody thinks this is a kiddie attraction, but it’s not just for kids. Adults enjoy this more so for the educational part. … I think it does amaze people.”
Snowman’s Reindeer Farm
Scott and Tracy Snowman, yes that’s their real name, say visitors oftentimes describe Snowman’s Reindeer Farm as being in a Hallmark movie. “All the lights are on, and you’ve got the hustle of people,” Scott says. “People are walking around with their hot cocoa and cookies,” Tracy adds.
Located outside of Canton on Spoon River Electric Cooperative lines, Snowman’s Reindeer Farm first opened in 2015. It started with an exhibit in their attached garage and two reindeer. “We thought nobody was going to come,” Tracy says. “We’re out here in the middle of nowhere, but the first weekend we were opened, people were lined up to the road.”
“This vision has grown,” Scott adds. “It started as a hobby, and it still is. A lot of people don’t realize this is our home. We wanted a quaint little village.”
“We started out just the two of us and our kids helping,” Tracy says. “Now we have 25 employees. It has grown to a point that we can’t handle it just the two of us. That’s a good problem. We can be an employer, we can be part of our community, and we’re bringing tourism into Fulton County.”
The idea to bring reindeer to their farm started when the Snowmans were writing and illustrating their first children’s book, “’Twas the Night Before a Green Christmas,” a reimagined version of the classic story with an environmental twist. While illustrating Santa’s reindeer, they ran into a problem – they couldn’t find good resource material.
“We kept thinking, where can we find some reindeer so we can take pictures?” Tracy says. “That was the point where Scott said, ‘Well if we had our own reindeer, this would not be a problem.’ … I thought ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. That is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.’”
“Well our last name is Snowman. I think we should have reindeer!” Scott says with a laugh.
“He hit me in my weak spot,” Tracy recalls. “My weak spot is babies. He took me to see a little herd of baby reindeer, and I admit the argument was over the second I saw them.”
The Snowmans currently have eight reindeer, including three babies recently flown in from Fairbanks, Alaska in the beginning of November. These reindeer will be separated from the original herd of five, which is a strategy many reindeer owners use for disease control.
With these new reindeer will come a new educational exhibit featuring Inuit people. “These are some of the first people that used reindeer as part of their culture. We’re trying to educate and help others learn about indigenous people,” Tracy explains.
A big component to the farm is education. That makes sense because both Scott and Tracy are retired art teachers with 67 years of combined experience. “And we’re still teaching,” Scott adds.
“We’ve owned a family farm since 1986 and raised all kinds of livestock,” Tracy says. “We’ve farmed a long time and we’ve taught art a long time. This venture pulls all that together. It keeps our creative side moving.”
Each animal is showcased in its own way, and there’s information and learning material inside the visitor’s center. “We both maintained our K-12 certifications,” Tracy says. “That’s what makes us different than other places because this is all based around education.”
“We spend a lot of time learning about the animals, and that’s a critical part of managing any farm,” Scott says. “You must understand the environment, the nutrition and the medical side of how to care for the animals. Reindeer are the most complex farm animals you could own. They are susceptible to parasites, and they’re good at hiding and masking symptoms since they are a prey animal.”
Each reindeer has a microchip implant so the Snowmans can easily check temperature and look out for and prevent health problems.
“We are lucky to have our veterinarians. If we had a problem, they’d be here within a half hour at the latest,” Scott says. “They’ve learned right along with us,” Tracy adds. “We couldn’t do what we do without our vet and our staff.”
Tracy says Scott is the only person she knows who has given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a reindeer. “Our Sugar Plum’s blood sugar plummeted, and she passed out and stopped breathing. He gave her mouth-to-mouth. This venture is not for the faint of heart.”
In the past, visitors were allowed to feed and pet the reindeer. Because of COVID-19, this year is a little different. There will be no feeding, but visitors can still pet behind the antlers.
“We don’t force our animals to do anything they don’t want to do,” Tracy explains. “If our animals come up and want to interact, visitors can reach out and touch an antler. We won’t grab an animal and drag them over to be touched.”
Snowman’s Reindeer Farm has always had a biosecurity check before entering, which includes sanitizing hands and shoes. This year, they are requiring face masks and social distancing for all visitors and employees.
“We worked hard this year to prepare,” Tracy says. “We are following the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines to the letter.”
“We’ve always used hand sanitizer,” Scott adds. “We have step baths to come in, so everybody walks through that before coming onto the property.”
Additionally, visitors must order tickets ahead of time for a staggered entry to control the capacity and allow for social distancing. In addition to the reindeer, visitors can play holiday-themed games, take advantage of the many photo opportunities, visit the mini donkeys, visit Santa and much more.
“Why in the world would people come here in the middle of nowhere?” Tracy asks. “I think the answer to that is simple. I think people are craving simplicity. … There is something different about reindeer that has this calming effect on people. People just instantly fall for them.”
Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch
1356 County Rd 2900 N
Rantoul, IL 61866
Open daily in December
10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Reindeer tours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Arrive by 4 p.m. to ensure a spot on the tour.
Admission: No gate admission or reservations. Purchase tickets for activities upon arrival.
*Face masks required indoors and if unable to social distance outdoors
Snowman’s Reindeer Farm
25599 East Middle Lake Rd
Canton, IL 61520
Admission: Online reservations only for 2020. Go to website for reservations. Open through Christmas Eve.
*Face masks required