POPLAR GROVE, ILL. — This is the season of bounty in the Midwest. Soybeans have been harvested. Silos are filling with feed corn. Golden cylinders of hay dot pastures, while harvest fairs, pumpkin festivals, and church suppers celebrate the end of another growing cycle. It may be rural America's finest hour.
Nowhere is the festive mood more evident than at Edwards Orchard in Poplar Grove, Ill., a dot on the map 15 miles from Wisconsin. From late August until Thanksgiving, families flock here for a taste of rural America.
They come for apples - bushel baskets filled with Empire, Granny Smith, Jonathan, and Golden Delicious. They wait patiently in line for hot cider doughnuts. They listen as a six-piece band twangs country music through an amplifier, and watch contentedly as children romp in a hayloft, wander through a barnyard maze, and "drive" tractors in the Big Apple Corral.
In a small barn, the feathered and furred population includes two turkeys, Linda and Monica, a pair of noisy geese named Hiss and Miss, and Matilda the nanny goat, busy nuzzling her two-week-old kid. For 25 cents, children can buy a handful of goat feed, although a sign warns, "Animals have teeth or beaks and may nip at tiny fingers." One mother gently tells her young daughter, "Brianna, don't tease the animals," while a father asks his sons, "You wanna see the chickens?"
Hokey? Sure. A refreshing change from city life? You bet. Think of this as a rustic theme park of sorts for children whose only other contact with farm life might be on television. So popular is the orchard that one weekend alone it drew 20,000 people, according to a cashier, with the season's total estimated at 250,000.
Nor is this the only rural entertainment. A few miles away, signs for a "Children's Farm" promise scarecrows, harvest games, and pig races. And several miles beyond that, another farm has been transformed into a seasonal "Pumpkin Patch," complete with pony and wagon rides ($1.50), a snack bar, and a Bones & Groans Gift Shoppe.
But anyone inclined to romanticize farming based on this tourist's-eye view can get a reality check by driving along country roads. Here, simple painted signs tell a fuller, more realistic story: "Holstein dairy cattle. All ages bought and sold." "Slim's Tractor Service." "Fat lambs 4 sale." "Acreage available."
Sophisticates on both coasts regard the Midwest as flyover country, best seen from the window of a plane at 35,000 feet. Playing on stereotypes, they disdainfully cast the urban-rural divide in terms of city slicker versus country bumpkin. The perceived differences are as old as Aesop, who captured the conflict in his fable of the country mouse and the city mouse. As the two mice exchange hospitality, each gets a window on the other's world.
On a crisp autumn Saturday, that window on a rural setting can become the stuff of memories. In a high-tech age, this stylized view of farm life offers one more valuable connection with the country's agricultural roots, and one more important reminder that not all the best things in life exist in cities.
As families head home after their outing - adults' arms laden with cider and doughnuts, children's chubby hands clutching pumpkins and apples - the scene could be straight out of Aesop.
Like the city mouse convinced that his luxurious life is better than that of the country mouse with his simpler ways, late-20th-century urbanites will probably find their rural nostalgia short-lived. But for a few days at least, city children in Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirts and Disney World T-shirts may dream of goats and tractors, a calf named Billy Bull, and a pumpkin they picked themselves. October weekends don't come much better than that.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society