By Charlyn Fargo
Lee Roy Rendleman’s nickname as a kid was Leepy. When he was 8 or 10 years old, he remembers his dad and grandpa working on a threshing machine and steam engine. When the engine shut down, Rendleman would hop across a couple of mud holes to get supplies.
“First thing I knew, they were calling me leaper, then leap frog and finally ‘leepy.’ It stuck. I’ve been called that ever since,” says Rendleman, 84.
The nickname has given Rendleman direction. After farming for 50 years – raising corn, soybeans and wheat on his Southern Illinois farm – he had to quit when a drought in 1983 took all of his crops. He took it in stride, working out with the banks what he owed, selling some of his farmland, and leaping to a new career as county commissioner and raising produce from his garden to sell at local farmers’ markets.
At a young age, his mother taught him how to can produce from the family garden.
“Canning was a way of life on the farm growing up,” Rendleman says. “We canned enough to keep the family fed through the winter.”
So it was only natural for Rendleman to carry on the tradition. He and his wife, Marla, would can produce from their garden, often having an extra 1,000 jars to give away to friends and family. Their specialty was their pickles, canned from cucumbers raised in their garden. They also grew peppers and tomatoes for salsa.
“One of the boys says to me one day, ‘You know, I believe you could sell this stuff,’ ” Rendleman says. “That rang a bell with me. I went from there.”
The idea grew into Leepy’s Country Gourmet Foods, a business located next to the Trail of Tears State Forest in Jonesboro, located in Union County, Illinois (along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail). He offers a wide variety of canned products including several varieties of pickles, relishes, salsa, pickled vegetables, sauerkraut, applesauce, apple butter, jellies and jams. He raises some of the produce and purchases the rest from area farmers’ markets in Carbondale, Cape Girardeau, Mo., and occasionally St. Louis.
“Our best seller is the medium salsa,” Rendleman says. “We often have to go to two farmers’ markets a week to get all our produce.”
Rendleman converted one of his farm sheds into a kitchen. His grandson, Zachary, 25, joined the business after returning from multiple tours of duty in Iraq for the U.S. Air Force.
“He came back and decided to help Pa Pa while he went to school,” Rendleman says. “I’m so glad.”
Editor’s note (Jan. 6, 2015): A new owner, Joe Baker, has taken over for Rendleman. For more information on the business and how to order Leepy’s products, please visit www.leepysfoods.com.