Rustic But New – A Unique Destination for Meetings, Rest and Relaxation

September 1, 2006

RUSTIC BUT NEW: A Unique Destination for Meetings, Rest and Relaxation

By Bill Beggs Jr.

Nebo, Ill. — The cinnamon rolls are big as your head, The Three Bears could sleep in the bed, and a Bass boat could be launched in the bathtub.

Okay, not really. That would be exaggerating. Wanda Harpole and her son Gary Harpole II, owners and operators of Harpole’s Heartland Lodge, aren’t that kind of people. But they’ve put up, and put up with, folks who are prone to that sort of thing. Dozens of framed articles hanging from the knotty pine walls illustrate that quite a few writers have been impressed with the lodge’s food, range of activities, meeting space and other amenities. Many articles are from outdoorsmen’s magazines, but one of the front-page newspaper features isn’t regional—it appeared in none other than The Wall Street Journal.

“Instead of taking people on the golf course, nowadays folks are doing business in the duck blind,” Gary says, highlighting a main point of the Journal article. Traditional hunting trips, or engaging in a round of sporting clays—moving from station to station, each of which presents the shooter with a different challenge, a bit like golf but with guns—provides an alternative getaway for companies and other organizations. Since the first of the two main buildings opened for business in 1995, Harpole’s has hosted meetings for plenty of small businesses and dozens of Fortune 500s: Anheuser-Busch, Monsanto, Maritz, Nestlé, Boeing and Caterpillar, to name just a handful. “Often hunting has nothing to do with it,” Gary says of his corporate clients. “They don’t have a lot of distractions.”

Some prefer a lodge buyout. “No one else is here, which is very attractive to companies, knowing they have our staff’s full attention,” says Gary. And since day one, his mother— to whom many staff and guests refer affectionately as “Miss Wanda”—has made sure all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed.

“Mom just came down to help me the first night,” says Gary, “and she hasn’t gone back since.”

Mother and son have made great business partners. His dream of embarking on such an enterprise way off the beaten path in Pike County, Illinois, has benefited from her pragmatism, developed from a hardscrabble upbringing as one of six kids in a close-knit farm family. In the early going, of course, skeptics wondered what Gary was thinking when he started his “pink elephant in the middle of nowhere.” Wanda has helped keep him focused.

“She’s very detail-oriented. She gets together with the meeting planners and makes sure everything is exactly the way they want,” says Gary.

Mother and son share an enthusiasm, a genuine joie de vivre that’s contagious. Since they’re in God’s country, He’s invited to the table for each meal, served family-style, before which Wanda offers a simple, heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving. Diners pass the butter, salt and pepper, and people who are strangers at the beginning of a meal often exchange phone numbers and e-mail addresses by the time they’re full.

“We feel like they’re a part of our family, and we’re a part of theirs,” says Gary. Personal histories, anecdotes, small talk and laughs are shared over a breakfast of plump cinnamon rolls, sausage gravy and biscuits, egg soufflé, pancakes and fresh orange juice.

“We cook like my mother,” says Wanda. “That was her gift.”

The humongous cinnamon rolls are prepared each morning from scratch… a three-hour process.

The beds in the suites are rough-hewn timber, made in the Rocky Mountains in Jackson, Wyoming. Abundant with pillows and blankets, sofas fold out into a king-size “hide-a-bed” for families or for corporate groups that desire double occupancy. Smaller rooms have bunk beds. Some suites feature a gas fireplace.

Views are across a patio area or deck into the woods; the new lodge, completed in 2005, features porches that wrap completely around the building on two levels. From the back of the new lodge… the Harpoles have yet to come up with just the right name for the building, which is the case for some of the suites, as well… you can look across a grassy area big enough for a pro football game or any number of team-building activities. Off to one side is a newly planted wildflower garden that will be a haven for butterflies. Patient bird-watchers may also see rare species.

There are fishing and four-wheeling, and on most evenings a hayride just before dinner that may treat guests to a breathtaking vista of the Mississippi River at sunset. Instead, guests may just stretch out in an Adirondack chair to read, reflect, or do nothing but relax.

“One thing that’s been very popular to do is nothing,” says Gary, with a chuckle.

But some come here to work. Meetings can be as high-tech or low-key as a group may wish. The 1,500-square-foot main conference room in the new lodge can be set up boardroom-style, with ergonomic swivel chairs for 40 or so at 8-foot tables, or it can accommodate as many as 100 theater-style. Smaller spaces for break-outs or smaller group sessions include the “boardroom” in the original lodge. On a recent visit it was set up for about 20 guests with chairs that would have been right at home in the dining room at Grandmother’s farmhouse.

Wi-Fi is available, and cellular reception is good. A tower that’s visible in the distance just poking over the treeline is one of few reminders that modern civilization is somewhere out there.

But much of the communication at Heartland Lodge is of the strong, silent type, which comes courtesy of homey hand-painted sayings on signs and placards in rooms and common areas. Just beneath the office window hangs this warning: “There will be a $5 charge for whining.”

And near a door to the outside: “Life is full of choices… remove your shoes or scrub the floor.”

The first part of that saying is expected of each and every guest, from a CEO to minimum-wage employee. Hunters know to leave their muddy boots out of the living quarters, but slippers or stocking feet is one of many unique expectations of a Heartland Lodge guest. Yes, the Harpoles love their hardwood floors, but it also serves as an equalizer, pure and simple.

“It puts everyone on the same level,” Gary says, whether it’s a green employee from an area high school, an intern from the city, or a celebrity. St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols has cooled his heels at the lodge, as have prominent players in other sports from other big cities, whether hunters or not. Ted Nugent, outrageous 1970s rock star and today an avid bow hunter, has dropped in to check out the place.

Wanda hasn’t known most of them from Adam, not that she would have treated them any differently than a bride in one of the weddings she helps coordinate,  or someone at the Jones family reunion. Folks that anyone would recognize on the sidewalk appreciate the space they’re afforded by other guests; up here they’re just folks, too.

You don’t get a room key. You can lock your door from the inside, but won’t need a key to get in. There hasn’t been a single problem in Heartland’s 11 years of operation, Gary says matter-of-factly. The fridge outside the main conference room is on the honor system; if beverages aren’t part of your contract, put 50 cents in the piggy bank for your bottled water or soda. You won’t find wine or beer; it’s not frowned upon, it’s just that groups have to provide it themselves. Heartland can provide the bartender, if need be.

If integrity, accountability and honesty are character traits that companies want to instill in their employees, it’s abundant on the 1,000 or so acres that the Harpole spread comprises. Whether spending a weekend with loved ones or overnight for a business meeting, you’ll return home or to the office feeling like you’ve been on a retreat.

As Gary puts it: “From the bed linens to the meals, we try to make everything an experience, a one-of-a-kind experience.”

Getting there is best approached with one of the road maps in your glove compartment, or the alternate routes provided
on the Web site ( Travelers who frequent Mapquest or some other directional site may be frustrated by roads that aren’t labeled or towns that disappear from the screen upon moving out to a broader view.

If you’re directionally challenged, a call to 800-717-4868 or 217-734-2526 will connect you to Gary, Miss Wanda or one of the other Heartland folks who’ll make you feel like you’re coming home.

(Bill Beggs Jr. is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.)


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