RANTOUL -- It's been said that three's a crowd, but at Hardy's Reindeer Ranch in Rantoul, three was the miraculous number of reindeer born this year to ranch co-owners Mark and Julie Hardy, and for them, it was the perfect number.
"We had three babies born this year in April and May," said Julie Hardy of new arrivals Hallelujah, Blitzen and Hope.
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Watching them walk gingerly with their mothers, Angel, Itty Bitty and Daisy, play with Huckleberry, the Hardys' 1 1/2-year-old golden retriever, and enjoy snacks recently, it's hard to believe that seven and eight months ago, the three calves almost didn't survive.
"They were very weak," said Mark Hardy, noting that Blitzen was particularly ill. "We didn't realize what was wrong with Blitzen until another breeder said he was losing reindeer to tetanus."
Administering a three-day tetanus vaccination to Blitzen, the Hardys were hopeful they could save her.
"She could barely swallow," Mark Hardy recalled, "but we bottle-fed her, and after about a week, we were able to reunite her with her mother (Itty Bitty), and she took over from there."
Hope and Hallelujah were also close calls, said Julie Hardy.
"They were so weak that they couldn't stand to nurse from their mothers," she explained. "I knew they needed the colostrum," which is the first milk a mother produces that not only contains antibodies to protect the newborn against disease, but also has high amounts of protein, "so we began to bottle-feed them almost every three hours."
Hardy said that on the seventh day of bottle-feeding, as she headed out to the reindeer about 3 a.m., she was overjoyed to see Hallelujah nursing on her own.
"I saw her nursing from her mother, and I said, `Hallelujah,' and that's how she got her name," she said, laughing.
Although the three babies were a challenge initially, the Hardys said it was definitely worth it.
"They're our little miracles," Julie Hardy said.
"They're all strong and well-adjusted now," Mark Hardy added.
Julie Hardy said she never could have imagined she'd be raising reindeer when she was a little girl, but after 17 years, she couldn't imagine doing anything else.
"It's a fun job," she said, "and it's a joy to see a healthy baby reindeer born and people's reactions to them. I feel like a proud mom."
Although the reindeer are a large reason why people flock to Hardys' today, the ranch began 17 years ago as a Christmas tree farm, Mark Hardy said.
"I started with Christmas trees," said Hardy, a native of Rantoul, "but Julie wanted to do a whole Christmas experience with a gift shop, trees and animals, so we bought our first pair of reindeer 17 years ago."
"I wanted to find a unique animal to have on the ranch," Julie Hardy said, "and as I was researching, I discovered that reindeer really do exist."
The Hardys purchased their first pair from Michigan in 1995, and two years later, they flew in 13 more from Alaska.
"So I tell people reindeer really do fly," said Mark Hardy, smiling.
Julie Hardy said the original Michigan and Alaska reindeer had a large family, and since then, all of the reindeer have been born on the ranch.
"We love the babies," she continued, noting that they're usually born in April and May, "and we're really proud of all of the reindeer. We spend a lot of time with them."
Visitors to the ranch can enjoy everything from the reindeer and the ranch's gift shop, which is heated by an old-fashioned stove, to the Klondike Café, which serves hot chocolate, sugar cookies, and even nachos on the weekends, fresh-cut Christmas trees, a corn maze, hayrides and Jack Splat, a canon that can launch a pumpkin nearly half a mile.
Amber Saul of Sullivan, who visited the ranch for the first time recently with her 5-year-old son, Caden, 11/2-year old son, Ryder, her parents, sister and nieces, Brianna, 12, and Alexis, 7, said she enjoyed the entire experience.
"We absolutely loved it," she said. "We all had a blast, and Ryder loved feeding the reindeer. He just kept smiling and laughing."
Saul said she appreciated how laid back and noncommercialized the ranch was.
"It was just a fun, relaxing time," she said. "The kids loved the pumpkin launcher and reindeer and played for hours in the hay, and they had cookies and snacks and all got an ornament, too. I think it's going to be our new tradition."
Julie Hardy said there's something about the ranch that appeals to old and young alike.
"There is something that sparks in people out here," she said, "and it's magical."
After 17 years in business, it's still magical for the Hardys, too.
"We're still here, and it's a dream for us," she said. "We hope to get to run this another 15 years."