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This autumn, as has been the case for years now, area families by the score will head a few miles west to Yellow River Farms, at 8535 East State Road 8. Fall pumpkins are easy enough to find just about anywhere fresh produce is sold, but a full fall family experience like that at Yellow River is unique to the area.
The farm not only boasts pumpkin patches which would make Linus' Great Pumpkin proud, but a fun hay maze, constructed of several layers of straw bales into a tunnel configuration whose darkness inexplicably fails to frighten most youngsters.
The hay maze, and those beloved hayrides out to the "u-pick" pumpkin patch, began about 18 years ago, say Rose Ann Eichelberg and daughter Gina Scherf, whose family has farmed the land there for over 100 years.
With the 2006 passing of Wayne Eichelberg, who helped found the operation, the family began to expand the autumn offerings, first to include a corn maze with "In memory of Wayne" cut into the corn to be visible from above. That corn maze continues (and it's tougher than ever this year, they note, though diligent participants who answer all nine quiz questions scattered throughout are eligible to win a $100 gift certificate to Five Star Grocery in Knox), but it also launched a trend of adding a new attraction each October.
These have included an 80-foot "tube slide," uber-popular with kids, a shelled corn bin (think old fashioned sandbox, but filled with corn!), a kiddie train made of brightly-decorated barrels, a tunnel for tots, tube swing, and tire swing.
Not so new are the ever-popular assortment of fenced animals, including miniature donkeys, miniature horses, goats, ducks, rabbits, peacocks, cats, chickens, and "Teddy," the llama. This year's addition may be as much fun for the goats as visiting children who enjoy watching it: a "goat walk," an elaborate board walkway ramping high above the goats' pen, on which they can play up and down.
The Eichelbergs -- along with Gina and her husband Bill -- opened Yellow River Farms in the summer of 1990. Initially, it was just a small table set up in the front yard. Then as now, the farm typically opened in May with sweet corn sales (corn and green beans are the main crops grown in the family fields). They outgrew the table and moved the operation into the family's garage (close to the family home, which was first occupied in 1904). Once that was outgrown, they moved into the present store, the more than century-old barn Rose's grandfather built.
"He used to keep cows in here!" she says, surveying the store's array of offerings, from 50-pound bags of onions and potatoes for the winter, to squash and apples, Indian corn, gourds, apple cider, candies, and painted pumpkins. That's in addition to the pie pumpkins, and of course jack-o-lantern pumpkins, which are available for purchase in the store for those uninterested in the hayride and pumpkin patch experience.
There are also caramel apples.
"By the end of October, I will have made probably 600 caramel apples," laughs Gina. "By then, I hate apples and I hate caramel!"
More recently, the family has added an adjacent concession stand where families can purchase hot dogs, brats, popcorn, pizza, hot pretzels, funnel cakes, and chili.
"It helps people stay longer, that we've got food here," Gina points out.
Through the spring and summer seasons, Yellow River Farms picks and sorts some 20 to 25 bushels of corn and beans, which are also sold to wholesale customers in the area.
"Everybody says our sweet corn is the best around," says Rose. "We get a lot of Chicago people, and Bass Lake, Warsaw, and Indianapolis."
On any given weekend, hundreds of people of all ages stream to the property and take advantage of the many activities there. During the week, a steady stream of groups -- schools including Wesley as well as Culver Academies, nursing homes, and more -- schedule visits. The family plants a special pie pumpkin field for younger children to pick from; that's where Wesley Preschool and similar groups will make their choice later this month.
Each fall, Bill plants some 15 acres of pumpkins in anticipation of the October rush (which technically starts the last weekend of September; by Oct. 31, says Rose, "We're done!").
During weekends this month, Rose notes, 18 to 20 people -- including Bill and Gina's sons Evan and Ryan -- are at work keeping everything going. One regular worker is Culver's own Warren Bickel, a friend of the late Wayne Eichelberg, who drives one of the two tractors running out to the pumpkin patch all day starting at 11 a.m. eastern time (that's 10 for the family's central time neighbors). One of these is a 1936 tractor Wayne used in childhood, which Bill Scherf restored.
In addition, a popular horse-drawn wagon also traverses the path to the pumpkin fields and corn maze.
This year's pumpkin crop, they note, is eye-poppingly robust.
"This year's are such huge and pretty pumpkins," says Gina. "I don't think we can top this year with pumpkins. We just got enough rain when they needed it, and not too much to rot them."
Yellow River Farms, which is a half-mile west of State Road 23 on State Road 8, may be reached at 574-772-2581 or 574-772-3438. They're also online at www.yellowriverfarms.com, and have now added a Facebook page (facebook.com and search for "Yellow River Farms").