For many of us, getting outside is a sense of vacation. It’s a moment to take a breath away from the everyday hustle and bustle. It’s where you can escape solo to enjoy the quiet, or, where family and friends can roam where inside voices don’t count. Above all, it’s an excuse to set your automatic reply that simply states: Out of Office.
Jon Ellis (Iowa State 84)
While spending days under clouds that suspend like cotton and nights beneath a ceiling of stars brighter than any LED bulb are a getaway for most, these alumni have made it their careers. Not in a nomad sense, but in a way that brings their love for the outdoors to everyone—from putt-putt to paragliding.
Spending time with loved ones is not only encouraged, but a building principal at Paradise Park, an adventure attraction owned by FarmHouse Fraternity member Jon Ellis (Iowa State 84) and his wife, Juli, who have been rethinking family night for 27 years.
Located in Lee’s Summit, Mo., Paradise Park entertains guests of all ages on 15 acres with activities ranging from mini golf and a rock wall to batting cages and go karts. The Ellis’ nearly three decades of building has been driven by the goal of having a destination and gathering place where guests can learn and interact with one another.
“Juli and I identified the need for a well-rounded entertainment destination in our local community,” says Ellis.
“We felt we could build a park over time and develop it into an entertainment center where our guests can enjoy time with each other.”
Beginning with two mini golf courses, a game room and batting cages, Paradise Park has grown into a local hot spot for company picnics, concerts, school field trips and parties.
“We have ended every season by saying ‘what’s next?’ and work to improve, expand and diversify the variety of attractions we offer,” says Ellis. “Now, the park has dozens of attractions, a full scale of food service and a wide variety of event spaces.”
Paradise Park offers indoor activities as well, like laser tag and their most recent addition, escape rooms. Focused on teamwork, guests in the room must work together to follow the clues needed to escape within a set amount of time.
The indoor and outdoor variety of activities helps the park be a location where families and friends can gather year-round and enjoy safe, clean and fun entertainment—a main focus for the Ellis family whose sons, Jonathan (Iowa State 15) and Brenden (Iowa State 18) also work at the family business when not in school.
“We feel it is important to offer entertainment that is always changing and providing experiences that create memories people will appreciate,” says Ellis.
And watching those memories is one of Ellis’ favorite parts.
“We want to share happiness and that feels great.”
Andy Sprague (Illinois 86)
As the youngest of three boys—all of whom, including his father and two uncles, are FarmHouse alumni—Andy Sprague (Illinois 86) grew up on his family’s crop farm in Pike County, Ill.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics, Sprague spent two years with ConAgra before returning to University of Illinois to work for its Foundation. When a member of his family developed health problems, he returned home to lend a hand, but farming with his brother, Mark (Illinois 78), and dad, Merritt (Illinois 53), wasn’t where his passion laid.
“I have always had an interest in hospitality,” says Sprague. “I worked in hotels and restaurants growing up and saw an opportunity for a hunting lodge.”
Pike County sits between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers and is known for its quantity and quality of white-tailed deer. Each year, hunters from all over venture in from October to December, but there was a problem—there’s virtually no lodging in this rural community.
“We had an old farm house that needed a bulldozer or remodeled,” he says. “With the support of my dad and brother, we remodeled it and started out with a seven bedroom, 4,000 square-foot hunting lodge outfitted with a commercial kitchen and dining room.”
The 1848 home, remodeled to preserve its history with a modern flair, was located a few miles from the original homestead Sprague’s ancestors settled in 1836 and became known as Sprague’s Kinderhook Lodge.
While Kinderhook now has staff and a full-time, classically-trained chef, it didn’t start out that way.
“When I came up with the idea, I told my mom, Pat, and she wanted to help out. She didn’t know she was getting a full-time job for nine years,” Sprague jokes. “She poured herself into the business and is the not-so secret to my success.”
Pat prepared meals for guests and gave them the key to hospitality, according to Sprague, through her food—to feel homey and welcome.
It’s clear that Sprague’s hospitable intuition is ingrained into the way he runs his business, but he also gained knowledge for Kinderhook through a family friend and fellow FarmHouse brother, Chris Eckert (Illinois 91).
“Watching the Eckert family operation, I knew my business wouldn’t look like theirs, but I did pull some ideas and inspiration,” says Sprague, who actually developed a business plan for turning the Eckert barn into an event center during an entrepreneurship class in college.
Eckerts’ originally started as an apple orchard in Belleville, Ill. They now offer a variety of produce and have expanded to feature a restaurant, wine tasting and a store. While Sprague is right and their businesses are different models, he too has expanded.
Kinderhook has evolved from a hunting lodge to a beautiful retreat that also hosts company meetings, craft gatherings, family reunions and a handful of weddings.
The property has expanded as well—now featuring three buildings with multiple rooms and suites.
“Relax, renew, rejuvenate, rest—we use a lot of R’s around here!” says Sprague. “I’m still dreaming and planning on expansion, but at the end of the day, we want to create rustic elegance—from the food to the atmosphere.”
Todd Weigand (Idaho 97)
There are two types of people in the world: those who choose window seats on an airplane and those who choose the aisle. You may make an argument for the middle seat, but we all know it wasn’t their choice.
The aisle folks tend to seem more scheduled and routine. They’re organized and methodical with what goes in the overhead bin and snugly under the seat, and are up immediately when you touch down. Those who opt for the window, however, seem to be less concerned with the minutes between gates and more in awe of the magic that lies outside the window—puffs of clouds and seas of blue.
When it comes to Todd Weigand’s (Idaho 97) career, he picks the window seat.
“Paragliding is as close as I can get to flying free like a bird,” says Weigand. “It is the greatest thing that has happened to me in my life!”
One of the simplest ways to describe Weigand, a man with many titles and business ventures within his industry, is: paragliding pilot, instructor and international guide.
“Due to the seasonal nature of paragliding, I have been traveling and migrating with the winds since I graduated in 2000,” he says.
His 22 years of experience has translated into becoming a strong pilot and businessman, but contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t born with a set of wings—he earned them.
“I started flying paragliders in 1996, my first year at the University of Idaho,” says Weigand. “I grew up on a family farm in Madras, Ore., and had dreams of flying around the potato cellar like the barn owl that lived there. It wasn’t until the University where I found an instructor who taught hang gliding and paragliding in the area, and soon took the basic paragliding introduction course. I have been an active pilot ever since.”
After graduating, Weigand spent five years traveling to become a higher-skilled pilot before turning full-time in 2005. Those years of mastery to gain sponsorship and recognition in the industry took him to nearly 20 countries—from Bolivia to Slovenia.
“Working and starting a business came naturally with the progression in the sport. I wanted to become a good pilot, and was infatuated with flying for many years. Once I became a highly skilled pilot, working and starting a business in the field just fell in my lap,” says Weigand of his three companies focused on tandem flights, instruction, specalized gear and more: Wallowa Paragliding LLC, Gradient USA and GForce Paragliding.
“I have personally flown over 5,000 commercial passengers, and have never had any accidents,” he says.
Nerves and a fear of heights are a common response when there’s even a mention of diving off a cliff and feeling the wind beneath your wings, but Weigand’s calm nature and flying skills help him be comfortable flying in very strong conditions.
“This involved learning aerobatics, practicing very technical spot landing skills and being comfortable flying and thermaling in high altitudes, up to 18,000 feet,” he says. “We use thermals (rising columns of warm air) to take us up high, then glide in the direction we would like to fly until we either find another thermal or land. The idea is to continue riding these thermals all day long so we can fly long distances.”
His experience all laddered up to fulfilling a dream no one had ever attempted—flying over Hell’s Canyon. He gained familiarity of the 10-mile wide canyon located in northeast Oregon while working for the Forest Service as a river ranger for two summers in college. Living just west of the canyon now, he finally felt prepared enough to paraglide over the canyon—something just the glimmer of an idea a few years earlier.
“To cross Hell’s Canyon, I needed to be at a very high altitude at the edge of the canyon in order to make sure I could glide all the way across,” he says. “Landing in the canyon could be very dangerous with the strong winds funneling through and making the air very turbulent.”
Turbulence wasn’t an issue—he made it.
“I didn’t really have to compete for the title, as nobody else was attempting to try it! I was the first person to attempt to cross it, and who knows when the next person will try it.
I have broken many site, state and regional distance records, and crossing Hell’s Canyon was a perfect challenge I was qualified for and familiar with.”
When Weigand isn’t gliding atop his personal launch pad in Oregon, he’s spending several months a year at his other residence in Queenstown, New Zealand. Escaping across the world may seem like time off, but you can still catch Weigand doing what he loves.
“I fly tandem passengers during the ‘southern hemisphere summer,’” he says. “With residency in New Zealand, I became a part-owner in GForce Paragliding, where I have been flying for the last ten southern seasons.”
So, if you need to get ahold of Weigand, there’s chance you can find him soaring through open skies always catching the window seat—rolled down, of course.