You can still pet a chicken and get a hayride at Eberly Farm. But it sure doesn’t look like it did 50 years ago when Merl and Dixie Eberly opened a day camp on their farm on West 21st Street between 119th and 135th streets.
What’s changed most in 50 years is the sheer amount of stuff to do there, but underlying that is a profound change in how people have fun outdoors.
Longtime owners Sam and Judy Eberly are now semi-retired, but still active in the business. Their son, Chad, and his wife, Susan, run it day to day.
What started as an open-air building and a swimming pool has become a large air-conditioned conference center with kitchen and offices, several open buildings, porches, a corral, a petting zoo, plus a new swimming pool.
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Everything is clean and modern, even polished, although still rustic in look.
The family operation offers food, hayrides, swimming, zip lines, a putting green, a paintball shooting range, an inflatable for jumping, nature walks, and spaces for meeting, eating, mingling, dancing to a band and playing volleyball.
The Eberly family says it has evolved from providing a place for people to create their own fun to providing specific fun activities. It’s now up to the Eberlys to provide the “experience,” instead of providing the venue for that experience.
“You have to change with the times,” Sam Eberly said. “And the things you did in the ’60s and ’70s and even the ’80s, some of those things we still do, but some things you have to change.”
And it turns out that a lot of city people don’t relate to the country well.
They paved some of their gravel walkways because people prefer them. They offer Guitar Hero for kids who want video games.
Parents and, by extension, the employers who bring them there have to be convinced that the location is safe and clean. The Eberlys only have one group on the grounds at one time, and they spend a lot of time monitoring activities.
“Companies want controlled activities, but they want them outside,” Susan Eberly said. “You got to be careful because people aren’t used to being outside anymore.”
Eberly Farm has also adapted to better accommodate adults-only corporate meetings and retreats. It has space, technology, food and plenty of peace and quiet.
But there is still a place for the old stuff.
“We still have bingo; bingo will never go out of style,” Susan Eberly said.
The family farm
Eberly Farm started in 1962, but the Eberlys’ farm started in 1883 when brothers Samuel and Henry Eberly and their families moved from Ohio.
Samuel Eberly was Sam Eberly’s great-grandfather.
Merl Eberly farmed, and Dixie Eberly taught school. They were the only farm family at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Wichita. So when the time for the church picnic rolled around, the Eberlys were always asked to host the event.
Then a friend involved in the Girl Scouts asked to come out, and then the Boy Scouts.
In 1962, when Sam came back from college spring break, his parents had started putting up a building and swimming pool.
For years, it was school trips and day camps. Dixie spearheaded the business, while Merl focused on farming. Although he generally didn’t mind pulling a wagonload of kids, occasionally there was a conflict.
“When it was harvest time and Mother booked a hayride in the afternoon, it was like, ‘I’m cutting wheat,’ ” Sam said.
Sam and Judy took over the farm in 1980. After five years, they decided to go year-round, which meant a new building equipped with a commercial kitchen.
“We had to quit real jobs and take the leap,” Judy Eberly said.
They continued to expand over years with the goal of bulking up their year-round event traffic.
In 2002, they sold nine acres along 21st for a medical park. Every year, they continue to tweak the facilities.
Running Eberly Farm is a lot of work. Just five people over the age of 26 work there. The other 20 are part-time or seasonal employees.
It means keeping an eye on a zillion operational details, while looking to stay relevant for the future.
“I was informed early on that this was a lifestyle,” Susan said, laughing. “You will never work harder than when you take on the Eberly name.”