Curtis Orchard is part of an Illinois centennial farm founded when the Curtis family settled just southwest of the city of Champaign in 1873. For most of its history the farm sustained the Curtis family through corn, soybeans and hogs, but by 1956, the year Paul married Joyce Day of Bement, the acreage owned by Paul Curtis and his father Eugene had become too small to support two families. Paul decided to farm part-time while pursuing a different full-time career. In the early 1960’s he returned to the University of Illinois and completed a PhD in plant physiology.
After graduating in 1968, Paul joined Champaign-Urbana’s fledgling community college, Parkland. He would stay there for twenty years as an instructor, eventually becoming head of its Business Division. In the early 1970’s Paul experienced a spiritual epiphany and gave his life to Jesus Christ. This event led him to re-evaluate every aspect of his life. Paul wondered why God had given him a farm that was too small to support his family. He knew that less than 2% of the US population still lived on a working farm, and he worried that people were losing touch with agriculture and how their food is produced. Along with his new-found faith, he wanted to do everything possible to put joy into people’s lives and bring families together.
One day, as Paul mulled his options, he savored the satisfying crunch of a juicy apple, and the answer became obvious. He decided to transform the farm into an apple orchard where people could connect with each other and agriculture through apple picking. In 1977, Paul and Joyce took the first small step by planting 700 trees on three acres. The trees looked like sticks in the ground, and didn’t require much care that first year, so Paul and Joyce added another 1700 trees the following year.
In the summer of 1980, Paul and Joyce nurtured their first small crop of apples, and looked forward to opening to the public for the first time. They had converted a small outbuilding into a makeshift store. Then one day a hail storm swept through and damaged much of the crop. Paul and Joyce surveyed the damage and realized they had never considered that not every apple would be sold as a number one – even in a good year. Now they were looking at a crop in which at least two thirds of the apples were seconds at best. Paul still has a saying from that year, “When life gives you lemons you make lemonade, but when life gives you hail damaged apples you make apple cider.” He went out and bought a small cider press that year, and started making apple cider. It has been an award winning Curtis Orchard favorite ever since.
Another event changed the family in 1980. The Curtis’ daughter Debbie met a young man, Randy Graham. He had some Ag experience and started helping at the farm. They married in 1981, and joined the business after Randy graduated from the University of Illinois in 1983, becoming co-owners in 1994. Together, with a shared vision of faith, family and farm fun, the Curtis’ and Graham’s have provided their community and Illinois with one of the most beloved and often visited Agricultural tourism destinations in the state. Furthermore, since Champaign-Urbana serves as a temporary home for thousands of international students at the University of Illinois, Curtis Orchard & Pumpkin Patch has been able to spread a taste of Illinois agriculture around the world. It warms the hearts of Paul & Joyce Curtis and Randy & Debbie Graham to see people of every nation and culture mingling together and enjoying one another’s company on this historic family farm.
The tradition continues! The Curtis’ son Chris joined the orchard over ten years ago, and recently, two of the Graham’s five children and their spouses joined the business full-time. As a fresh energetic team paired with experience they continue what Paul and Joyce Curtis began nearly forty years ago. At the same time, although they grew up in the business, they see opportunities through new eyes, and hope to implement new inventive ways to connect families with one other and agriculture.
From prairie, to farmland, to apple orchard … how this piece of central Illinois changed! Who knew that this land would someday be one of the area’s favorite places for family fun?
Now it’s time to make some history of your own. Start a family tradition here. You have plenty of choices: pick apples & pumpkins, feed goats, celebrate birthdays, and much more. Fresh country air and plenty of memories are waiting for you at Curtis Orchard.