Summer has faded fast in the rearview mirror, and with that comes fall and all its predictable signs: Pumpkin spice lattes at Starbucks, the crunch of dried brown leaves under our feet, and…corn mazes? Yes, corn mazes!
One of the most popular family events of the season, a corn maze is simply a series of pathways cut through a corn field. Unlike a labyrinth, which only has one, non-branching path, and only one entry and exit point, there is more than one way to find the exit out of a maze.
Here in New Jersey there are several farms that create corn mazes as a fall activity for the public: A. Casola Farms in Holmdel, Etsch Farms in Monroe, Bullock Farms in Cream Ridge and K & S Farms in East Windsor. Terhune Orchards in Lawrence has a seasonal corn maze as well.
But one of the most well-known and well-visited corn mazes in Mercer County is at Howell Living History Farm in Hopewell.
“Mazes are historical,” said farm director Pete Watson, who has been with Howell for 35 years. “The earliest mazes were found on the tombs of Byzantine pyramids, and they were also built into the knaves of churches. The Hampton Court Maze in England was created in the 1600s. For a very long time, they have been fun puzzles that people like to create and solve.”
It wasn’t until the early 1990s, however that someone came up with the idea of making a maze from a field of corn. Broadway producer Don Frantz remembers flying over miles of open fields, wondering why no one ever thought of creating a corn maze.
And so, in 1993, Frantz created the world’s first corn maze, in the shape of a dinosaur—for Pennsylvania’s Lebanon Valley College. The proceeds were given to the Red Cross for flood relief for Midwestern farmers, but little did Frantz know that the success of that maze would initiate the outdoor family corn maze craze on farms all over the country.
Howell Living History Farm, which is owned by Mercer County, has been a site for farming since the 1730s, created its first corn maze in 1997, and it has been hugely popular ever since.
”We saw that it was a fun and agriculturally connected activity that our audience would like,” says Watson. This year, Howell Farm offers a four-acre maze with two miles of pathways, with the shape of it being the “Farmer in the Dell,” the famous children’s song/nursery rhyme. “We have a different concept every year,” Watson said. “‘The Farmer in the Dell’ is a part of Mother Goose rhymes, so, in the game we incorporate a history of rhymes, but it is also related to agriculture.”
Creating the maze starts in late June, when the fields are plowed, but before planting, all the pathways are marked with surveyor’s flags. The corn is usually ankle-high by July 4, at which point, farmers walk between the flags and start chopping down the stalks to create the pattern, which becomes the pathways for the maze. “When we first started, we used to do aerial views to make sure we were cutting it right,” remembers Watson. We used stakes, strings, measuring tapes, to match up where flags went with our map. Now, because of technology we have more modern surveying equipment that we can depend on for accuracy; we no longer have to fly overhead to see it.”
Then, eight mailboxes are constructed and placed in various locations along the maze, along with signs leading “maze walkers” to the mailboxes and clues. “The mailboxes are hidden, so you have to find them,” said Watson.
Each maze walker is given a game board at the start of the maze, which is punched in with the time they started. The idea is to find all eight mailboxes, which gives you all eight puzzle pieces. When taped to the maze game board, the puzzle pieces form a map of the maze and show the way out. This year the design on the board turns out to be, of course, the farmer in the dell.
But that’s not all. “Besides finding the mailboxes and puzzle pieces, you have to answer maze questions: 10 of the trivia questions on the game board are tied to a crossword puzzle,” Watson said. “All in all, there are 30 questions on the game board. The idea is to try to answer as many questions as you can correctly, before exiting on a bridge, placed at the end of the maze. When you leave the maze, we punch you out, adding minutes to questions that you didn’t answer.
“It’s a great score competition for families, friends, colleagues: We have a running board that shows top finishers of the day, so for big winners, it’s all about bragging rights.” The entire maze usually takes about an hour to go through, and includes music piped into the field as you walk along on your search for clues.
Finally, nothing from the maze goes the waste at Howell Farm. The corn that gets picked is fed to the farm’s animals, and then, when the stalks are chopped up, they get plowed into the dirt, adding more organic material to the soil. In addition to the maze, visitors can find a courtyard with a pumpkin patch, scheduled hayrides, various farming programs, a food tent and more.
The farm gives guests an authentic example of what farming was like in New Jersey between 1890 and 1910, exhibiting more than 250 years of farming practices. The farm is owned and operated by Mercer County Park Commission and the maze, operated by volunteers, is an annual fundraising event of the Friends of Howell Farm.
Hours of admission to the farm in October are Fridays, 5-8 p.m. for entrance to the maze, with last exit at 9 p.m.; Saturdays noon-8 p.m. for maze entrance, with last exit at 9 pm.; and Sundays noon-4 pm, with last exit at 5 p.m. Admission to the farm is free; admission for the corn maze is as follows: visitors aged 10 and up, $10; ages 5 to 9 $8, and 4 and under are free. All proceeds go to the farm’s educational programs and restoration.