Relleke Farm is deserted most of the year, except for a few family members growing sweet corn, horseradish and pumpkins in rural Pontoon Beach.
But on Saturdays and Sundays in October, it takes on a Disneyland-like quality.
Thousands of people come to buy pumpkins, gourds, Indian corn and apple cider. They climb pyramids made of hay bales, walk through a corn maze and haunted barn, shoot pumpkins out of a cannon, ride camels and pet goats.
“Our boys love it,” said Ashley Laux, 30, of Wood River. “This is truly the perfect family event. My birthday is Oct. 29, so we love Halloween.”
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Last weekend, Ashley’s sons, Blake, 3, and Logan, 1, were running around with spiders and pumpkins painted on their cheeks.
Ashley and her husband, Bob, had just weighed their three pumpkins, which they were pushing in a double stroller.
It basically started out with a wagon full of pumpkins, a card table and a cash box.
Rob Relleke on the Fall Festival
“We’re making the kids walk, and it’s nice because it wears them out,” Ashley said.
The event is called Relleke Pumpkin Patch Fall Festival. Manager Deb Tracy brings in carnival rides, inflatables, craft vendors and live music.
Rob Relleke, 45, who helps his parents with the farm year-round, estimates they sell 50,000 pumpkins, including 20 different varieties and all shapes and sizes.
“We grow all our own pumpkins,” said Deb, 62, of Marine. “They’re picked fresh. They’re picked daily. Some of the pumpkins in stores come from out of state. They could be sitting on trucks for a while.”
One exception is Dierbergs Markets, which sell Relleke pumpkins.
The festival is a tradition for Sarah Niesporek, 38, of Granite City. Last weekend, she brought her grandchildren, Hannah Cathey, 10, and Donnie Cathey, 7, of Hartford.
“My pumpkin looks like a green apple!” Donnie said, excitedly.
The three were sitting at a picnic table, sharing a funnel cake and giant lemon shake-up and listening to a Willie Nelson set by Paul Jarvis and the Old Barn Boys.
You get the normal pumpkin questions, like ‘Can you make a pie out of this pumpkin?’ or ‘Which ones have seeds in them?’
Kenny Gray on helping customers
The annual fall outing is about more than pumpkins, music or activities for Sarah.
“I like to support family businesses, and the Rellekes always do stuff for the community,” she said. “They’re nice people.”
Many festival vendors are non-profit civic and school groups, raising money by selling fish sandwiches, baked goods and other treats.
Granite City High School Honor Society operates the haunted house in a metal pole barn, using proceeds to take needy kids on shopping sprees at Christmas.
Students come up with different themes. This year, visitors walk through a wooded campground and stumble on a cabin where a cannibalistic family lives.
“They try to make it scary all the way through,” said co-sponsor Amy Heath. “(Students dressed as park rangers) are their tour guides, and they pretend to get lost.”
Family patriarch John Relleke grew up on a sweet-corn, grain and horseradish farm down the road. He and his wife, Carol, bought the pumpkin farm in 1980. They had never grown pumpkins but learned quickly and sold to local grocers and to the public from their decorated barn in the fall.
“It basically started out with a wagon full of pumpkins, a card table and a cash box,” son Rob said.
A few years later, Madison County Farm Bureau asked the family to participate in a Holiday Harvest charity fundraiser. They agreed, even though Carol was in the hospital having a baby.
That evolved into a one-weekend Pumpkin Fest and eventually the month-long Fall Festival.
Today, the Rellekes go all out, cutting paths through a cornfield to create a maze and filling a giant “sandbox” with corn kernels where kids can dig and play.
“It gets kind of hectic,” said John, 66. “Besides this on the weekends, we have school groups come during the week.”
John and Carol get help from their three sons, including Rob, his wife, Jennifer, son Rhett and daughter Lily; Rich, his wife, Patty, and daughter Ava; and Ryan, his wife, Jill, son Tyler and daughter Hadley.
Deb switches from managing to face-painting with her daughter, Kelly, offering 60 designs.
Assistance also comes from cousins and friends, such as Kenny Gray, 46, who went to school with Rob and Rich. Last weekend, he was stationed at the scale, weighing pumpkins.
“You get the normal pumpkin questions,” he said. “Like ‘Can you make a pie out of this pumpkin?’ or ‘Which ones have seeds in them?’”
Most pumpkins cost between $5 and $10. Rhett Relleke, 15, is among those who ring up customers at the counter.
The high-school student is more into computers than pumpkins, and he can’t imagine himself working long hours on the farm like his father.
Rhett is willing to bag sweet corn in the summer and work at the Fall Festival. Sister Lily helps children with pumpkin painting.
“They need to get involved,” John said, grinning at his grandson. “I’m getting older. I’m 66. If we’re going to keep this going, they’re going to have to get involved.”
At a glance
- What: Relleke Pumpkin Patch Fall Festival
- Where: 473 Sand Prairie Road in Pontoon Beach
- Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays in October with activities from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Music: Beaucoup Bottom Band from noon to 5 p.m. and Babaloo Music & Fun for kids at 1 p.m. Oct. 23; Buffalo Road from noon to 5 p.m. Oct. 29; and Smokin’ Oldies from noon to 5 p.m. Oct. 30
- Admission and parking: Free
- Activity tickets: 50 cents each (rides and other activities take one or more tickets)
- Information: Call 618-797-6858 or email to email@example.com