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Feature

Some Call It Maze

Farms Take Getting Lost to a Whole New Level

Corn Rows: The figure of Noah's Ark is carved into the cornfield at Cherry-Crest Farm's Amazing Maize Maze in Paradise, Pa.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 9/23/1998

I finally staggered out of Fields of Fun an hour and a half after I'd entered. Corey Simmons, a staffer at the western Howard County corn maze, took one look at my dazed and dusty appearance and said, "We thought you were lost for sure. We were about to call 911 and send in the SWAT Team after you."

"They never would have found me," I replied. "I wound up in some corners of that maze no human being had ever set foot in."

Six years ago, no one had ever heard of a corn maze. Mazes were largely a British thing, created with boxwood shrubbery in the shadow of a castle wall.

But in 1993, the maze was Americanized. That summer in the southern Pennsylvania town of Annville, a maze more than twice as large as the biggest English maze was carved out of a farmer's cornfield. Less tidy and more sprawling, less historic and more temporary, it was homegrown in every way and was given an appropriately American name: the Amazing Maize Maze.

It was such a success that corn mazes are now popping up all over. The Amazing Maize Maze (motto: "Getting people lost since 1993") now runs six sites, from Iowa to North Carolina, including one in Paradise, Pa. (The Annville maze isn't operating this year.) In early September, I walked through that maze and two others close to Baltimore, covering about seven miles of dirt paths through 9-foot corn. I sweated under the broiling sun; I swore every time I ended back at the same old trail junction; I swooned with despair, thinking I'd never see my car again. I loved it.

I loved it because it was an intellectual challenge that physically swallowed you up. When you work a puzzle on paper, you are contesting the game from outside the playing field, as if you're an aloof scientist observing rats in an experiment or Gulliver towering over the Lilliputians. When you enter a maze you're playing from the inside--you are the rat in the labyrinth. It doesn't matter if the maze is made of yew trees in Longleat, England, or of cornstalks in Glenwood Center, Md.; if the walls are high enough, they isolate you in a tiny corner of the larger picture you can't see. (No wonder people compare bureaucracy to a maze.) You can glimpse down one narrow green passage and then another, but eventually you're going to have to guess.

"If you make 35 correct decisions in a row," site manager Rudy Kilgore told us before we entered the Amazing Maize Maze, "the path is 6/10 of a mile long and should take you 15 minutes. If you make some wrong decisions, there are three miles of paths. The longest anyone has been inside is five hours and 25 minutes."

In the parking lot of the Amazing Maize Maze (named for the Annville original) on the Cherry-Crest farm in Paradise, Pa., Amish buggies sit next to Chevys, and the old-fashioned steam engine from the nearby Strasburg Railroad Museum puffs by every 20 minutes. Out front are a petting zoo, gazebo, gift shop, snack bar, and miniature mazes for the kids. But the main attraction is the intimidating wall of corn with one way in and one way out.

The great advantage of corn mazes over their hedged predecessors is the ability to wipe the canvas clean once a year and create a brand new puzzle. This has encouraged the designers to weave pictorial images into the mazes. When the Amazing Maize Maze opened at Cherry-Crest in 1996, the walls and paths formed the shape of a steam locomotive. Last year the image was of an Amish horse and buggy.

This year the picture was Noah's Ark. In aerial photos, you can see the boat's hull, a giraffe, elephant, dove, and Noah himself. There's even a giant rainbow of yellow and orange marigolds and red, purple, and blue petunias arching above the maze and across the railroad tracks.

Having the walls serve as both mind-bogglers and picture lines is just one of the American innovations in maze-making. Another is creating smaller goals within the major goal of getting back out. In the Amazing Maize Maze, there's an incentive to go down many of the dead ends, because that's where you find the green mailboxes that provide 1/15 of a map of the maze. As you tape each little square into the blank map you were given upon entry, the lay of the terrain comes into focus. Collecting all the map pieces soon becomes such an obsession that I've often turned back from the maze exit to go back and collect the last couple of squares.

This year's maze was tougher than last year's. It took me an hour and a half to collect all the map pieces and find my way out. Two bridges add a three-dimensional twist to the puzzle, making it possible for paths to cross without intersecting.

In recognition of the challenge, the maze operators give each group a colorful flag attached to a 10-foot pole so a hopelessly lost contingent can wave the flag and attract the attention of the "Maze Master" in the central scaffolding tower. There are also "tele-stalks," black rubber tubes through which wanderers can communicate with the tower.

Don Frantz, a former producer of live shows for Disney World, hatched the idea for corn mazes in 1991, after reading a newspaper article about English hedge mazes and seeing Field of Dreams, the movie about a farmer who builds a baseball field in his corn crop. Frantz combined the two ideas and imported English maze expert Adrian Fisher to create the first Amazing Maize Maze in 1993.

Fisher, co-author of the book Secrets of the Maze (Barron's, 1997), has designed hedge mazes throughout Europe. For Frantz, Fisher created a dinosaur-shaped maze in Annville and has worked on most of the corn mazes built since.

"We wanted to bring the maze here because it sounded like fun," says Donna Coleman, who owns Cherry-Crest Farm with her husband Jack. "It sounded like a way to bring people back to the family farm and learn something about agriculture.

"But mostly," she acknowledges, "it was a business decision. It's hard to make it as a dairy farm these days, because the middleman takes all the money. The maze has been a money-producer. It costs $150,000 just to get set up, and we hire 20 people a day to run it. But we had 20,000 people come through in '96 and 40,000 in '97."

The success at Cherry-Crest inspired the people at Maple Lawn Farms in New Park, Pa., to create their own corn maze, Maize Quest. This is the second year for the operation, and the new design takes the shape of a 300-foot-tall dragon. At 12 acres (about the size of a football field), it's three times the size of Cherry-Crest's maze and harder to solve as well. One group of teenagers grew so frustrated the afternoon I was there, they started humming the theme from TheBridge on the River Kwai, as if they were prisoners of war on a forced march.

Similar to its predecessor, Maize Quest offers 14 stations where you can collect map pieces (rubber-stamp images rather than squares of paper), a pictorial garden, a maze-master tower, and a bridge. There's also a corrugated iron tunnel into a secret section, and a bubbling fountain.

Hugh McPherson, the producer of Maize Quest, is the 23-year-old heir apparent to Maple Lawn Farms, which has been in the same family for 131 years. "I graduated from Penn State with an agricultural business-management degree," he says, "but I was also in the marching band, the show choir, and the theater productions. I didn't know how I was going to combine my interests in farming and entertainment, but the corn maze allowed me to put them together."

For this year's maze, McPherson offered a $1,500 prize to the student in Penn State's landscape-architecture department who came up with the best design. The winner (out of 13 entries) was Nick Corcoran of Binghamton, N.Y. In early June, when the corn was only 6 inches high, McPherson, Corcoran, and their crew used a Global Positioning System (a highly precise system of measurement that employs satellite technology) to divide the field into 10-foot-by-10-foot grids. Then, working from Corcoran's plans, they staked the paths, pulled out the corn by hand, and rototilled the trails. The corn grew as tall as 12 feet high, forming walls along the trails. When the season is over, they will pull out the tower, bridge, and other fixtures and harvest the corn.

"Entertainment has too often become passive," McPherson complains. "You sit on a ride or in a movie-theater seat and let it happen to you. In a maze, however, you have to be more active. You have to decide whether to stick together or go left or right. Families have to interact. It's not, 'Be quiet and listen to the movie'; it's, 'I think we should go this way.' 'No, this way.'"

A similar goal of creating family entertainment led the Howard County Parks and Recreation Department to create its own corn maze last year and again this year. Fields of Fun is closer to the classic geometric mazes of England: It doesn't form a picture, include bridges, or offer map pieces. You go in, and find your way out. And it's not easy: All the turns form right angles and they all look the same. It's a good idea to take a notebook and sketch out the trails as you travel them. Even with a notebook, I found myself walking down most of the maze's two miles of trails--often more than once.

The Columbia engineering firm of Riemer Muegge & Associates designed the devilishly difficult "answer trail," but they left it up to parks and recreation employees to lay out all the dead ends and closed boxes that frustrate the maze-goer. The workers took to their task with undisguised glee.

"I don't have any special background," Charlie Peregoy says, "but I like puzzles and I have a deviant desire to get people lost."

"When we were out here going through the misery of pulling out the corn," Brian Paulsen adds, "we wanted people to share that misery when they get lost in the trails."

I asked maze supervisor Dan McNamara if the staff has gotten much feedback from visitors. "Oh, yes, they've given us an earful," he says. "But there was a kernel of truth in what they said. They complained a lot about stalkers. But it wasn't all negative: There were some amusing anecdotes, but they were too corny to repeat. "

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