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Thursday, Aug. 19, 2010 09:13 am

The fair is a family affair

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Since 1948 Braeutigam Orchards has been entering its fruit in competitions at the Illinois State Fair.
PHOTO BY JENNIFER FISHBURN
After more than 150 years, many Illinois State Fair traditions remain. Since its beginning in 1853, the Illinois State Fair has encouraged the production of high-quality agricultural livestock and commodities through the award of cash premiums. Contests include livestock, agriculture and vegetable products, flowers, Christmas trees, culinary products, textiles, hobbies, dairy products, bee culture, arts, talent contests, bocce ball and horseshoe pitching.

To a handful of families the Illinois State Fair is all about family friendly competition. No family exemplifies the tradition more than the Braeutigam-Range clan of Belleville.

In 1948, Lester and Marie Braeutigam brought their first entries of peaches and apples to the Illinois State Fair. Lester caught the fair exhibiting bug after he won his first ribbon showing a neighbor’s sheep. That year Lester, his neighbor and his sheep traveled by train to the fair.

Three generations later, their daughter, Pat, and grandchildren carry on this family tradition. Tom and Pat Range are the owners of Braeutigam Orchards. Their farmstead in Belleville has been in the family since 1831. The orchard was started in the 1930s by Pat’s grandparents, Rollin and Mamie Braeutigam.

Each member of the family has their own role to play when it comes to submitting 60 entries at the Illinois State Fair. Each year Tom and Pat are assisted by their family: son Kurt (wife Jane) Range, daughter Sheila (husband Doug) Lueking, daughter Julie (husband Mick) Covlin, and seven grandchildren, ages 2 to 8. Kurt picks most of the fruit, but everyone helps prepare the entries. Tom estimates that each year they show a total of six bushels of peaches and eight bushels of apples. In addition they also exhibit blackberries, grapes, eggplant, tomatoes and peppers.

The whole family agrees that it’s not all about winning. “It’s a family tradition that’s in our blood,” said Tom Range. “Being together as a family is what keeps us coming back every year. In addition, it’s good promotion for our business.”

Tom added: “The trick to having a winning entry is to raise good quality produce. It takes good cultural practices, pruning and thinning trees properly, fertilizing and following a good pesticide spray schedule.”

This tradition brings back different memories for each member of the family. Pat’s fondest memory of the fair is the year her Dad finished putting together a tray of apples. A man passing by picked up one of the apples from the tray and walked away. Lester chased the man down and made him give back the apple. Tom recalls the year that Lester drove a pickup truck that had an exhaust just behind the cab. The heat from the exhaust cooked the bottom layer of apples in each basket. Kurt remembers the year that they judged watermelon based on taste. They won all four classes of watermelon, including grand champion.

In addition to growing peaches and apples on their 82-acre farm, they also grow and sell blackberries, blueberries, apricots, cherries, plums, pumpkins, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. The remainder of the farm is corn and soybeans.

Their best sellers are apples, pumpkins and peaches. Since it is a great fall family activity, their pick-your-own pumpkins and apples is quickly becoming one of their biggest sellers. “Pick-your-own gives people the opportunity to experience where their food comes from. There is nothing better than eating a peach right off the tree,” Tom said.

Besides operating the orchard, most of the family members have full-time jobs. Tom is an agriculture teacher at Freeburg High School and Kurt is assistant professor of horticulture at Southwestern Illinois College.

Braeutigum Orchard prize-winning produce can be purchased at 2795 Turkey Hill Lane, Belleville.

Contact Jennifer Fishburn at Fishburn@illinois.edu.

All competition results can be viewed on the Illinois State Fair website at http://www.agr.state.il.us/isf/competition/. Agriculture products as well as Illinois’ finest baked goods, textiles and hobby collections are on display in the Hobbies, Arts and Crafts building on the east side of the Illinois State Fairgrounds. Entries will be on display through noon on Sunday, Aug. 22. 
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