GALENA, Ill. — There is a slice of land just outside Galena’s shopping district and through the winding hills of Devil’s Ladder Road where the hustle and bustle of the world is absorbed by tall trees, rolling mounds of earth and the conversations of nearby animals.
To Christina Eisbach, it’s heaven on earth. It’s also home.
“I was born and raised here,” Eisbach said of the property that has been in her family for four generations and where she now resides with her husband, David Rury, and two daughters, Sami and Sydney Rury.
It’s also a place that the family generously shares with visitors to the area. For a fee, those trekking through can explore the trails that wind among native woodland and prairie — with goats.
For the past two years, the family has owned and operated Hoof It — Goat Treks on the property. Among the treks people can book include public and private tours, as well as those that culminate with a glass of wine, a slice of pizza from a local eatery, a bonfire with s’mores or live music, all while goats walk alongside visitors, nibbling on hand-fed treats.
Treks last approximately one hour and are 1.25 miles in length among its assortment of trails. There also is pen play time for those unable to walk the trails, in addition to a summer camp for kids.
A long and winding history
Prior to launching Hoof It — Goat Treks, Eisbach, 50, worked in graphic design and marketing. An opportunity to generate a little side income presented itself by looking no further than, literally, her vast backyard.
It originally was home to a saw mill, with the surrounding 300-plus acres purchased by her family in 1950 to develop naturally.
Eisbach’s grandfather developed cancer from exposure to chemical pesticides and died when her father was young. As the land was passed down — Eisbach’s father continuing to operate the saw mill to harvest local timber for the next 50-plus years — the commitment to growing natural remained strong.
“There was a strong will that the land never use any chemicals,” Eisbach said. “So, everything done here has always been 100% organic and has always had animals. My grandma had goats when I was a little girl, as well as horses, dogs, cats, chickens, geese. I would hike and ride horses on the trails.”
The “light bulb” flickered one day, when Eisbach went for a walk with her daughters and decided to bring their goats along.
“They just followed us wherever we would go,” she said. “I saw an opportunity to invite people to experience what we experience every day. For us, this was our normal. But for other people, I realized that it might not be.”
Eisbach established the business’ marketing and branding within approximately six months, blanketing Galena’s local businesses, hotels and bed and breakfasts with rack cards, hoping to lure a few guests. Hoof It — Goat Treks welcomed its first visitors during the Fourth of July in 2019.
“We had about 20 people, which was more than what we had expected,” Eisbach said.
From there, the momentum only continued.
“We’d laugh because we’d look outside the windows of our house and find people in our yard,” Eisbach said. “2019 ended up being a great year for us.”
The COVID-19 impact
While COVID-19 disrupted business early in the pandemic, by Memorial Day 2020, Hoof It — Goat Treks was given the green light to re-open. Since then, Eisbach said it consistently has continued to draw visitors, enabling the business to shift from a part-time, seasonal operation to full-time and year-round — winter included, depending on weather conditions.
“We assumed it would be a seasonal deal and would slow down enough for us to catch up,” Eisbach said. “But the phone kept ringing. We also ended up having great weather through the end of January, and the goats did well. So, we took a snowmobile and rowed the trails. If this weather is decent, we’ll gauge it from day to day.”
Hoof It — Goat Treks also completed a merchandise hut and a newly expanded parking area, in addition to bringing on employees from outside of the family.
“We have visitors coming from all over, but many come from Chicago, and I think the perception is that Galena is smaller, so it’s safer,” she said. “There were times when Galena actually was busier than it usually was throughout parts of the year because people were traveling a little closer to home. And, of course, because we provided an activity you could do outdoors in masks and remain spaced out, it gave people something different to do if they were anxious and felt the need to get out of their homes to spend some time in nature.”
With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifting mask mandates, face coverings can be worn at visitors’ discretion while on the treks. Employees, who must pass a health check prior to working a shift, continue to clean and sanitize the grounds. Hand-washing and sanitizing stations are available as well. Animals and their enclosures also are well-maintained.
“There is something interesting about goats,” Eisbach said, acknowledging that from treks to nearby goat yoga, the animal is enjoying a moment in the limelight for their docile ways. “Goats are very social animals that love to interact with each other and with people. They’re very gentle, super friendly and not hyperactive, so they do great with little kids. They’re also very funny.”
Keeping it in the family
While a relatively new venture for Eisbach and her family, she sees the potential for the land and the business to remain in the family.
While Sydney is studying at St. Louis University to become a dietitian and helps with the family business when she is home, Sami — 17, and a student at Wahlert Catholic High School in Dubuque — has started to express an interest in perhaps one day taking it over. Before that, she hopes to study to become a veterinary technician, continuing her family’s long love for animals.
“At first, I didn’t really know why this was such a big deal for people to hang out with goats,” Sami said, with a laugh. “But it has been interesting meeting new people who have never been around goats or chickens and don’t even have a backyard. It has been fun to share what we have. We’re pretty blessed that we can just go out anytime we want and explore. I like the idea of that staying in the family.”
Eisbach said she hopes Sami will “go and do her own thing” after high school and, if the interest remains, loves the idea of her coming back to continue the lineage of the land.
“It’s a unique thing,” Eisbach said. “It was never the goal to make this what it has become, but we love that we are able to share what we have here.”
Megan Gloss writes for the Telegraph Herald.