It was an honor and a real treat that the original owner, Dick Little, sat in on the interview with his daughter, Andee. He’s 96-years-old and was a delight. Much of the history of the ranch in the article came from him.
When life gives you lemons
In 1955, a young couple, Dick and Dee Little, with three children at the time, bought a piece of land just outside of Oregon, IL, in Ogle County. Their youngest, Andee, was born on the ranch in 1965 and currently runs it. The original plan was to farm the land and possibly raise some livestock. As luck would have it, the land wasn't prime farming land, but it was beautiful with its rolling hills, meandering streams, and a sandstone canyon. During this time, the Littles noticed a lot of cars driving by on their way to the White Pines State Park.
The ranch is not to be confused with…
White Pines State Park. They are two very separate and different businesses. Many of the ranch’s phone calls are from folks wanting to talk to the state park. “Our phones ring off the hook for Mother’s Day brunch,” laughed Andee.
“I love what White Pines Ranch offers our guests. A quiet, beautiful place in the country to unwind, unplug and make lifelong friends. People need a place like White Pines Ranch more than ever. What a crazy world!” ANDEE BREHM
An idea was born in 1958.
The enterprising couple wondered what if they farmed a portion of the land and used the other land for horseback riding? In the 1950s, the source of “social media” was putting up signs on the property to draw people off the road. Their future customers are already driving by on their way to the state park.
So, the Littles bought eight horses and four ponies, and White Pines Ranch was born. At the time, the town thought they had gone off the deep end. Tourism was just a budding industry at that time, and starting a business like this would be a significant risk and a lot of work. Dick Little was instrumental in getting the idea of tourism off the ground in those early days. Despite everyone’s doubts, the ranch slowly grew.
Daytime hours only at first
The ranch's original hours were “sun-up until the parking lot is empty.” Many of the early attendees were from Rockford and Chicago. They'd ride horses till they ran out of money. Requests to stay overnight to ride the next day flooded in. “The original cost for horseback riding was $1.50 an hour,” mentioned Mr. Little. Many of the riders asked to stay the night and do chores in exchange for more time riding.
Their first formal summer camp for youngsters began in 1968.
The girls stayed in the Little's basement, and the boys stayed in the log cabin just down the hill--photo below. The Little family worked as counselors, cooks, trail guides, and supervisors. As the business continued to grow, it became time to expand. The ranch house, built in 1970, housed about 125 guests and included the rec room, dining room, kitchen, office, and a private apartment.
It’s all in the family.
Presently, the ranch’s owners are sisters Peggy “Gig’ Bellos, Sue Andrew, and Andee Brehm; Dee and Dick Little’s daughters. Gig was the woman behind the business side of the ranch, Andee handled the campers and visitors, while Sue was the main person that took care of the horse end (no pun intended) of the business. Their son, David “Bub” Little, doesn’t work at the ranch. The elder Littles retired in 1993 and sold the ranch to their three daughters. Gig retired in 2016, and Sue retired in 2018.
“Sue and Gig are both supposed to be retired, but with the horrible hiring crunch during 2021, they both came out of retirement to cook 2-3 days or nights per week,” said Brehm. “I’m not sure how they feel, but I love when they are here. It feels like the team is back together again.”
You don’t have to be a blood relative to be considered family at the White Pines Ranch. Tracie and Jessie have been working at the ranch since they were teens. They love the ranch like it’s their own.
“We have the best staff in the world, but it doesn’t take our guests long to figure that out. Every time I get a compliment on anything regarding the ranch, I have to give credit where credit is due. Our staff is amazing. They make going to work an absolute joy,” said Brehm.
Hiring tip from Dad
Brehm sits in on many of the interviews for new hires on the ranch. She mentioned that she could tell within two minutes if a particular individual would be a good hire in most instances. Her dad, Dick, always said, “Set the interview for 7 a.m, and you’ll see right away if they would work out,” said Brehm.
A place to unplug–literally
Parents are informed in the registration literature that the kids are not allowed to have any electronic devices–phones, screens, et al. If they bring a phone, it is kept in the office for the duration of the camp.
“I've always thought it was the greatest thing about this place, but now, especially with the pandemic, this is the place to truly unplug. Kids aren't allowed phones or anything with a screen, especially during summer,” said Brehm. “We tell worried parents that if anything happens, we will call them.”
Hmmm. It sounds like what was done before the advent of cell phones.
I was introduced to Petunia, the ranch’s 9-year-old bulldog. She’s a big girl and a well-loved member of the family. “Whenever we have a homesick child, we bring Petunia over to keep them company," commented Brehm. "Works every time.”
Winter is a magical time at White Pines Ranch. The scenery is breathtaking when snow covers the landscape. Just because it’s cold and snowy doesn’t mean the ranch closes down completely.
“There is a weekend for kids in December and a crafters’ weekend in January. We also open up one weekend a month for youth groups during the colder months of December through March,” said Brehm.
The ranch’s website has a page titled “Winter Fun,” with descriptions of the activities and programs.
CLICK HERE for Winter Fun information.
Summer brings many adventures.
The day before I visited the ranch, summer camp registration opened, and Brehm had over 180 emails already waiting on her computer.
Kids especially enjoy the ranch’s Summer Camp. The ages accepted are 8 to 15 years. Most of White Pines Ranch’s customers come from Chicago and its suburbs, with the largest age group being 10-12 years old.
Camp duration is one or two weeks. Or, if mom and dad need a break, they can sign them up for the entire summer program–late June through early August!
Those horses are pretty popular.
The most popular reason customers come to the ranch is horseback riding, where 54 horses are ready for duty. “Our horses are sweet and slow because our rides are for the novice rider,” said Brehm.
Although, summer camp is not just about horseback riding. There are many activities the kids participate in during their time at the ranch. Daytime activities include horseback riding, swimming, archery, arts and crafts, capture the flag, orienteering, swim games, and more. Evening activities include night hikes, ranch bingo, making s’mores by the campfire, skits, talent shows, and THE BIG DANCE on Friday night.
A lifetime of experiences–both day and night
- Many horsemanship experiences are available– from grooming and saddling to feeding and equine health.
- Hunting for fossils in the natural limestone quarry provides a look into rocks formed a long, long time ago and a possible souvenir.
- Hiking in the naturally formed sandstone canyon provides excellent photos of different plants and trees.
- The kids enjoy the Critter Corral with pigs, goats, calves, and more to learn feeding and care skills. The ranch’s donkey, Chubs, is a very popular animal--see his photo below.
CLICK HERE for Summer Camp information.
- Public horseback riding
- Adults only weekend – Nov. 4-6, 2022
- Family weekends – Labor Day weekend
- Facility rentals | company or holiday dinners
The ranch has fairly strict COVID measures that will be continued in 2022 because of the rise of the Omicron variant. “Our parents were extremely comfortable with our COVID procedures (listed below) last year,” remarked Brehm.
According to Brehm, the enrollment limit for weekend programs is 100. The facilities are approved for 260 people. Therefore, it will be easy to socially distance while inside.
- All groups have their own dorm and bathroom facilities.
- All adults and children are required to wear masks inside the buildings at all times unless they are eating.
- Mask-wearing is up to the discretion of White Pines Ranch staff. Masks are not required outside when social distancing from others is possible. For example, all unvaccinated people are asked to wear their masks on the hayride.
- All groups have assigned tables to eat and meet. No other groups will be allowed to sit there.
Meals included for overnight guests.
The ranch always has a vegetarian option for meals for overnight guests. Guests are also welcome to bring their own food if the menu doesn’t fit their needs.
The future requires being flexible.
Going into 2022 and beyond, Brehm remarks that they plan to learn to adapt to this new world.
“It’s obvious we will never go back to normal. We take seriously the idea that the wilderness does not adapt to you–you adapt to it. It’s going to take some rearranging, thinking, and a few mistakes, but we’ll make it through this,” said Brehm. “This pandemic has made us think outside of the box!”
That’s not always a bad thing.
White Pines Ranch
3581 W. Pines Road
Oregon, IL 61061