Hunting, outdoor resort grew from farm dream
Sunday, December 02, 2012 7:22 AM
NEBO, Ill. — Gary Harpole grew Harpole’s Heartland Lodge from what he calls his “field of dreams.”
That 500-acre field now has grown to include not only the hunters who flock to the rural Pike County property for deer, quail, duck, pheasant and turkey, but a large and varied group of vacationers, honeymooners and conference goers seeking the unique blend of luxury, outdoor activities and rural atmosphere that Heartland Lodge offers.
“My best memories are the ones I have with my grandfather, my dad and my uncle hunting,” Harpole said. “Now I’m watching people create new memories here.”
Harpole’s Heartland Lodge’s formal address is in Nebo in Pike County, a few miles outside of Pittsfield.
Driving to the resort, one definitely knows this is roughing it, from the non-interstate roads to the scenic views of tracts of timber and grasslands and farm fields. Upon entering the lodges, the guest immediately senses that this is anything but “roughing it.”
“There’s nothing like us, that I know of in Illinois, that combines everything in one place,” Harpole said.
Guests may be greeted by Wanda Harpole, Gary’s mother, who serves as the lodge manager and wedding planner.
The inside of the two log-cabin-style lodges combines rustic charm with luxury, hardy enough to withstand the rigors of hunting season and hunters, but elegant enough to serve as the venues for weddings and getaway romantic weekends.
Heartland Lodge has seen a boom in business in both of those clientele, as well as conference business and family outdoor weekends.
“Now, our business is one-third non-hunting, one third deer hunting and one third pheasant and quail hunting. Eventually, I think it’ll be one-half non-hunting because the resort business is growing,” Gary Harpole said.
The busiest hunting season for the lodge is October, November and December, when the lodge exclusively serves those coming from Illinois and from locations throughout the U.S. and even from international locations to hunt the game-rich 5,000 acres. Harpole’s Heartland Lodge is one of only 26 Orvis-endorsed wingshooting lodges in the U.S.
“We sell out all of our hunts,” said Harpole, who said he’s watched the hunting business boom since he opened the first lodge in 1995. “It’s really booming. When I first started, it was nonexistent, and now it’s this whole big industry.”
Harpole and his employees work to make sure that hunters aren’t disappointed. They carefully tend the acres and the wildlife on them.
“We try to manage the wildlife. We want to make sure that the quality of the herd and the birds is always good as far as it’s within our control,” he said.
Conservation efforts include habitat restoration programs that has included restoring native Illinois prairie grasses.
“For the bird hunting, we put in native prairie grasses which were native to Illinois before we were here. Those grasses are conducive to pheasants and quail,” Harpole said.
Habitat and food also is the key to the success of the non-hunting side of Heartland Lodge. The sweeping lawn of the newest lodge, built in 2004, hosts weddings and wedding receptions.
“Every weekend in September, we were sold out with weddings,” Harpole said.
The new lodge has seven luxury suites and a large dining room where guests are served homemade brunches and dinners.
“Our meals are family-style and home-cooked,” Harpole said.
Guests have a variety of activities to choose from. The resort is within an easy drive of the Mark Twain historical sites, other historical sites and shopping in Quincy and antique shopping in Clarksville, Mo., and the Lincoln sites in Springfield are just an hour and 15 minutes away.
If they want to stay put, there’s plenty to do on the property.
“During the day, they can go horseback riding, ride ATVs, shoot sporting clays. They can go hiking or bike riding,” Harpole said.
Guests also can just sit and relax on the large porches that ring both lodges on each floor.
After a delicious dinner that might finish up with the lodge’s famous chocolate cheesecake, guests can relax until it’s time for a Harpole’s tradition — the nightly hayride.
“People are disappointed if we don’t do it. Every night, we have a hayride. It’s an hour long, and it overlooks the Mississippi River bluffs. It’s absolutely beautiful,” Harpole said.
Returning from the hayride, guests are greeted with another Harpole’s tradition.
“After they hayride, they come back and they do s’mores and marshmallows over the bonfire,” Harpole said.
For conference guests — companies can buy out the entire resort for the length of a conference — the agenda can be tailored to whatever the company wants.
“We do chuckwagon cookouts, paintball if they want. We can do as many or as few activities as they want,” Harpole said.
He said business is booming for all aspects of the lodge, from hunting to the resort and conference end of the business. “We’re having the best year we’ve ever had,” he said.
Part of the reason for that he credits to social media. Harpole’s Heartland Lodge has an active and constantly updated website — www. heartlandlodge.com — and social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
“Our Website is very strong. We’ll soon have over 50,000 followers on Facebook, we have a Pinterest account and we have a Twitter account. So social media and the website have all been a major avenue,” Harpole said.
“But word of mouth and repeat business is by far our best advertising. It’s a combination of all those things coming together, and then we just have a great staff and a great team.”
The only days the lodge is closed are Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and Harpole said that the winter months are popular with guests.
“That’s one of the best times to be here. You’re in the lodge or one of the rooms and you’ve got the fireplace going and it’s snowing outside and cozy and warm inside. The winters are a very popular time with our guests,” he said.
Having the successful business that is Harpole’s Heartland Lodge was Harpole’s dream when he purchased the 500 acres next to his grandfather’s farm in 1995. That was the end of one journey, that had taken him from Quincy, where he was born and raised, to college in Missouri, then to Australia and back to Pike County.
He spent as much time as he could on the family farm with his grandfather.
“I used to come down here as a kid and go hunting and fishing. I loved the country. As much time as I could spend down here, I absolutely loved,” Harpole said.
He also spent a memorable summer “roughing it,” working an internship and living in a trailer near his grandfather’s house.
“I lived in a 23-foot camping trailer on the farm. I ran a garden hose — it was probably a thousand feet of garden hose — to my grandfather’s water spigot. Every morning to take a shower, I had to go down and turn the water on,” Harpole said.
After graduating from Westminster College in Missouri, he was offered a job in Australia. He also was eying a piece of land next to his grandparents’ farm.
It was during the trip that he thought of a way to make the land a career.
“I traveled with people from all over the world and people all wanted to come to the United States. They’d seen the cowboy shows, and they wanted to come and see rural America. I got to thinking that if this job in Australia doesn’t work out, I’ll build a lodge and maybe do some hunting and make it a year-round resort as well,” Harpole said.
He returned and bought the land next to his grandfather’s farm and built the first lodge.
“From the very beginning, it was more than a hunting lodge for me. It was a year-round thing. I built this huge lodge out in the middle of nowhere. I was only 25. People thought I was completely nuts. They thought it will not last. I was bound and determined to make sure I lasted. For that first five years, I did not take a day off,” he said.
A few years later, Harpole was able to fulfill another dream.
“My grandfather passed, and the farm was put up for auction,” he said.
He bid for it — and ended up in a bidding war with a member of the rock band Foghat.
“I had to bid against a rock star. He wanted to buy the family farm,” he said. “I ended up paying more for the family farm than I did for any other piece of property I owned at that time. But I was able to keep the family farm, and that’s where I live now.”
For more information on Harpole’s Heartland Lodge, go to www.heartlandlodge.com.