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Fall on the Farm | By Jason Brady


On an unusually warm recent October afternoon, the front porch of the Gillis Hill Farm Ice Cream parlor was filled to capacity with customers enjoying scoops of homemade banana, pecan, strawberry, vanilla and pumpkin ice cream served in cups or ladled into large sugar cones. The parlor’s rear and side wrap-around porches, complete with rows of white rocking chairs, were also a popular place for relaxing. Most of those indulging in the cool refreshment had just completed a self-guided walking tour of Gillis Hill Farm. John Gillis and his wife, Renee, are part of a family farm enterprise that operates 2,500 acres of farmland stretching from Gillis Hill Road to Parkton and Grays Creek. Corn, cotton, soybeans and vegetables are the staple crops, but the farm also engages in a relatively new source of income: “agritourism,” a new growth industry emerging in the United States. John and Renee realized in 2003 that some aspects of traditional farming may not pay the bills. “We could see the writing on the wall that tobacco was out,” John said. The couple, with two young sons, wanted to do something they enjoyed and the farm played a key role in that venture. They joined the North American Farmer’s Direct Marketing Association (NAFDM), a networking and resource association for farmers who want to market their products directly to the public or want to try their hands at agritourism. They also took a NAFDM-sponsored bus trip around the Charlotte area, visiting farms already engaged in agritourism. “The little bit I heard about agritourism sparked my interest, but after the bus tour, I was hooked,” John said. John returned to the farm that his family has operated since Malcolm Gillis immigrated to North Carolina in the early 1700s, and began his journey into agritourism. He started with a vacant house, formerly occupied by his late uncle Gene. He stripped the floors to expose the original wooden floors, added a wood-burning cook stove, dry sink, and water bucket near the door. Photographs depicting early life on the Gillis Farm adorn an adjacent room that serves as a small movie theater. Among the photographs are ones of Col. Davis Gillis, who owned two sawmills that provided lumber for the Fayetteville Arsenal, and of Catherine Ann McNatt, who married into the Gillis family and whose property became the railway’s Gillis Station, today known as Parkton. Another room serves as a small gathering place for ice cream socials or catered affairs. The remaining house consists of an office and, of course, the ice cream parlor and bakery that — in addition to ice cream — serves one of the tastiest pound cakes in Cumberland County. Behind the house and just off the screened-in back porch, there are display stations lining the pathway for the tour. The displays include washing clothes by hand, an 1800s horse buggy, a saw mill and a tobacco barn. There are also livestock associated with early farming practices: oxen, plow horses, mule, goats, rabbits and chickens. As you might expect, the animals are a favorite attraction of the many children who visit the farm. Children can walk or opt for a wagon ride through the rolling pastures, pine forests and the farm pond and picnic area, where there is an amphitheater for weddings, bluegrass music and sunrise services. Adjacent to the amphitheater is a replica of the Old Gillis Gristmill with its 32-bucket water wheel that took nine weeks to build. The mill contains authentic grinding stones quarried in Moore County as well as a water-powered cotton gin. “I plan to demonstrate grinding in the future, now it’s more of a museum,” he said. Currently, four generations of Gillis’ operate the farm. John and his brother David are partners while their sister Beth contributes her services as secretary. Their father, Johnny, is retired but still plays a key role in operating the farm. John’s sons, William who is 25, and Andrew who is 23, now work the farm but will eventually become partners with their father and uncle. The farm offers self-guided tours, guided public tours in either tractor- or horse-drawn wagons, school group tours in tractor-drawn wagons and senior citizen tours. School tours include complimentary homemade ice cream and small pumpkins in the fall or seed kits in the spring. The tour season starts in March and runs through November. “Fall season is the busy season. Everyone wants to come to the farm in the fall,” John said. He estimates that about 300 children come through the farm each day during the fall months. The tour starts with 15-minute video of John’s son Andrew, then age five, living the farm life: performing typical farm chores, swimming in the creek or fishing in the pond. Today, Andrew performs a puppet show where he introduces the live animals to the school groups. John seems especially proud of how the program is organized. It allows 150 children to move through the tour at a time. “Teachers tell us they like the tour because it’s well organized, entertaining and educational,” John said. For more information about Gillis Hill Farm, see www.gillishillfarm.com or Gillis Hill Farm on Facebook.