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Stone's changes with the seasons

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Jan Hofle

Vincent Ston Bull of Stone's Apple Orchard, 16115 Hubbard Road, East Moline, feeds apples to one of the resident reindeer. People like to visit Stones before Christmas to pick out their tree, feed the reindeer and buy apples and cider.

PORT BYRON -- A rush of cold air stirred the heavy apple smell as Vince Stone Bull entered the sales room at Stone's Apple Orchard through the back door.

Looking more like a professional football player than a farmer, Mr. Bull smiled to welcome customers to the showroom.

The orchard business is much more than growing apples. It's about tradition, he said. It's about creating memories and bringing smiles to people's faces.

The Stone family has been doing that for 65 years.

``This business is about memories,'' Mr. Bull said. ``This place has been built on tradition. Our No. 1 priority is to have top-of-the-line fruit ... producing a quality product, and developing a personal relationship with customers, and creating a family atmosphere.''

Family atmosphere isn't hard to create when it's made by a family. The orchard has been run by the Stones since it was started by Dorothy and the late Lester Stone years ago.

Mr. Bull, the Stones' grandson, who manages the farm for Mrs. Stone, came to farm about 19 years ago. He had been playing football for Washington State University and planned to become a Navy pilot, like his father. His wife, however, didn't think the Navy life was for her, and together they chose to move to the farm.

There were several reasons they chose the farm, Mr. Bull said. The most important was the closeness he felt to his grandparents, who had named him. He always had a special interest in agriculture and wanted his children to grow up in that atmosphere.

He took some ag courses in college. After graduation from Washington State, he went to work at the orchard. His professors told him experience would teach him more.

``You could say I've gotten my master's and doctorate at Stone's University,'' he said.

The degree is similar to the one his grandfather, Lester R. Stone, received in a scenario much like his.

Mr. Stone was playing professional football for the Chicago Bears and was traded to a St. Louis team. His wife, Dorothy, decided the life wasn't for her.

``She basically said, `Play football alone or farm with me,'|'' Mr. Bull said. ``They started farming.''

Dispatch/Argus Photo By John J. Kim

Kim Hengi of Hampton grades apples as they roll onto a conveyor belt. She has been employed at the rural east moline orchard for seven months.

The Stones were astute business people and diversified almost immediately. They planted apples and pine trees on the dairy farm they bought. They raised cattle, soybeans and corn while waiting for the fruit crop to mature. The family still raises those crops on the farm.

In the early years, the apples were kept in the garage, and the yard was filled with Christmas trees. New things were added with the passing of the years. Eventually the milking parlor was turned into a sales room for the fruit.

The yard, however, still is used for Christmas trees and more. Bunnies, peacocks, geese, calves and reindeer make up the barnyard managerie.

The reindeer are one of the biggest attractions on the farm, Mr. Bull said. Mr. Stone bought the English fallow reindeer in the 1950s. He spotted them in Europe while touring with an agricultural committee during the Eisenhower administration.

Mr. Stone bought a breeding pair, and there have been reindeer on the Stone farm since. The reindeer are a special treat for customers, especially during the holiday season.

There are many special offerings at Stone's Orchard. Hayrack rides take customers on tours of the farm. Visitors can explore pumpkin patches or admire and choose one of the fir trees for Christmas, according to Mr. Bull.

``Pick-your-own is a huge thing in the Quad-Cities area,'' he said. ``We try to accommodate people as much as possible. For those who want the experience of cutting down their tree, we let them.

``But most of our customers choose their tree ahead of time and let us know when they want it. They don't have to labor. That's my job. Their job is to enjoy the moment.''

Enjoyment -- whether it is the fruit, Christmas trees or the atmosphere -- is the main objective, Mr. Bull said. Without customer satisfaction, the orchard would not exist.

``Just like one bad apple can spoil the whole bushel, one bad customer can spoil our business,'' he said. ``We have 50 varieties of apples, and it can be confusing, so we welcome people to sample. Of course, we want to sell apples, but we also want a top-notch product.''

He pointed to a frame on the wall. A poem, written by a long-time customer, described his family's experiences throughout the years at Stone's, Mr. Bull said.

``From generation to generation,'' one line reads.

``That says it best,'' Mr. Bull said. ``That's what we're about -- something adults can do, something that children also enjoy. Parents look for places like ours.''

-- By Pam Berenger (January 26, 1998)

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