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This article by Phyllis B. Maguire was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on September 2, 1998. All rights reserved.
Down on the Farm, a Modern maze
Nestled in Titusville’s Pleasant Valley, rimmed by
snake fences and rolling hills, the Howell Living History Farm presents
a beautifully bucolic, circa-1900 tableau of farm life. Cultivated
for over 250 years, the farm’s last private owners were Charles and
Inez Howell, and it was Inez who gave the land in 1974 to the Mercer
County Park Commission, which opened the farm to the public in 1984.
Its calendar crammed with ice harvests and maple sugaring, quilting
bees and potato plantings, blacksmith workshops and scrapple-making,
the farm is a haven for schools, families, and weekenders to enjoy
the sights and skills of days gone by.
Yet despite its strict historical interpretation, the Howell Farm
has launched itself on a very 1990s fundraising tack. Just down Hunter
Road, for the second year in a row, Howell Farm is playing weekend
host to a three-acre corn maze, adding contemporary agri-tourism to
its long line of rural expertise.
Cut into the three acres of silage corn is almost two miles of paths
that trace the contours of a huge fiddle. If you make 19 correct turns,
you travel a mere four-tenths of a mile before finding yourself crossing
the maze’s final leg, a wooden bridge built over the "bridge"
of the corn fiddle. Or, like the hapless party who holds this year’s
record for the most confounded, you may spend over three hours wandering
through this sea of green, yelling to the maze maestro atop the bridge
or to the maze wizards in the 20-foot high tower at the maze’s western
corner for clues and moral support.
Fortunately, there are water stations within and an emergency way
out for those who decide to call it a day. There are also 10 mailboxes
scattered through the alleys, each one containing a diagram of one
section of the maze. If you can find all 10 sections — no easy
feat, I discovered — to tape together on the maze map you’re handed
as you set off, the complete diagram presumably enables you to navigate
the twists and turns.
Even the dead ends offer rewards: wrong turns are graced with signs
dubbed "Kernels of Knowledge," each one presenting a corn
factoid — such as, wind is needed to pollinate corn, or that popcorn
was served at the first Thanksgiving meal. The design is ingenious,
with just enough clues and corn lore to hold your interest, even as
you’re hemmed in by the seven-foot high stalks. With children sharing
tips, and the easy camaraderie that develops between people who keep
passing each other at every wrong turn, it’s a lovely place to get
lost on a weekend afternoon.
Open weekends through October 25, the Howell maze is the product of
nine months’ collaboration between Howell Farm, one of 15 recreational
facilities operated by the County Park Commission, and the Harrisburg,
Pennsylvania-based American Maze Company. Organizers convened before
Christmas to come up with this summer’s theme: "Silks and Strings,"
silks for the green strands near the tip of the corn’s ear (the plant’s
female part, a Kernel of Knowledge points out, each strand fertilized
by pollen blown from the tassel and forming one individual corn kernel),
and strings for fiddles — which regale the crowd with live music
on Sunday afternoons from now to October.
The fiddle motif was chosen not only because it makes
a great aerial photograph, but also because the money being raised
will be added to the $250,000 required to restore the farm’s 200-year-old
barn. A fiddle also suggests barn dances, a popular turn-of-the-century
social pastime — though having a corn maze open to the public
is an historical inaccuracy the farm resolved by situating the maze
a mile away from the farmstead itself.
"It’s not the way we’d plant corn historically," Peter Watson,
the farm administrator, points out. "For the maze, we used a tractor
to prepare the field and plant the corn, but all our planting at the
farm is done with horses and restored equipment." Last year’s
maze netted Howell Farm over $27,000, while this year administrators
hope for another $30,000 to begin the first phase of the barn’s restoration.
"Since the farm is operated as a public park and all of its activities
are free, we needed a program specifically to raise funds," Watson
says. Farm attendance, which has hovered over 40,000 visitors a year
for most of the past decade, has been boosted by the maze; last year,
says Watson, there were 47,000 farm visitors and another 17,000 sojourning
through the corn.
Mazes, of course, have an old pedigree, along with their architectural
cousin, the labyrinth. (The difference between them, reportedly, is
that a labyrinth does not have a separate way out, forcing you to
retrace your steps to leave. Mazes have separate entrances and exits.)
Traces of a great labyrinth have been found in Egypt, while Greek
myth describes the labyrinth built on Crete for King Minos’ deadly
Minotaur, to whom youths were sacrificed every year. While some mazes
undoubtedly were grisly settings, others served as prisons, and some
as solders’ training grounds in the art of escape.
Mazes made from plants — like privet, boxwood, and other hedge
materials — came into vogue during the Middle Ages, and maze games
became a feature of harvest festivals, with maze patterns made by
turning up sod into a design or by laying down sheaves of wheat. Maze
games became such a fad in England that Puritans banned them, a futile
effort to suppress "those foolyshe ceremonies." Now mazes
are staple of agri-tainment, a word Don Frantz, the president and
creative director of the American Maze Company, takes credit for coining.
Frantz, 47, who is spending the summer in Lambertville
while his company operates the Howell maze, did not grow up on a farm,
but just down the road from one. A native of Hershey, Pennsylvania,
he was one of five boys living near a farmer who had five girls. "We
could use their pond to go swimming or to ice skate in the winter,
as long as we spent our summers baling their hay," he now recalls.
But after graduating from Lebanon Valley College nearby, it was the
roar of the crowd, not the rippling hayfield, that called.
Frantz took a job at Hersheypark and began a 15-year stint working
with magician Mark Wilson, serving as producer, director, and sometimes
fellow performer. Eventually, he traveled with Wilson to Los Angeles
where he later earned a master’s in theater management from UCLA.
The degree "set me on the course to do theater, instead of variety,"
and Frantz landed in Orlando’s Disney World to produce and direct
It was around this time — 1991 — that Frantz had his corn
epiphany, a confluence of three observations over the course of one
day. First, he says, "I read a three-sentence newspaper item about
how popular mazes had become in England, all made from hedgerows cut
short." That evening, he saw the movie "Field of Dreams,"
which "not only strengthened my desire to be back near my family
in Pennsylvania, but threw the image of corn right in my face."
And then flying the next day from Orlando to Los Angeles, "I looked
down, and saw the maze of all the crop patterns. I thought, I don’t
have to wait years for a hedge to grow — I can just cut through
some corn!" Shortly thereafter, visiting his alma mater for his
20th reunion, he was asked what he’d like to try next in his career.
When he replied he’d like to build a corn maze, a farmer in nearby
Annville offered Frantz a four-acre field and the college provided
financial support. Thus the American Maze Company, with its Amazing
Maize Maze, was born.
"I tried to tackle the logistical problems with several Broadway
set designers," Frantz says. "One suggested I transfer the
maze design by covering the field with graph paper. Another thought
we should enter each stalk on the computer. Eventually, I realized
we had to get primitive and art-like, so we marked key points in the
field and started cutting. At the time, the world’s largest maze was
in Leeds, England, but our maze in 1993 was twice as large. We made
the Guinness Book of World Records — a record we’ve broken twice
Frantz was on the Great White Way in 1994 instead of the green one,
moving to New York to work as associate producer for Disney’s "The
Beauty and the Beast." The next year found him back in Pennsylvania,
designing a maze for the Shippensburg Corn Festival, and in 1996,
Frantz was approached by a family who lived in Lancaster. "They
were trying to hold onto their family farm and wanted to broaden their
revenue base," he says. That same year, he did another design
for Lincoln Mercury, which commissioned a maze in Detroit to celebrate
the 100th anniversary of the American automobile.
It was through his experiences in Lancaster and Detroit that Frantz
saw mazes enjoying a much longer lifespan as entertainment. Expecting
them to be popular only in late summer, he realized instead that as
they "bleached white," they became the centerpiece for harvest
festivals, pumpkin picking, and Halloween fairs. Inadvertently, Frantz
was moving agri-tourism to center stage.
The American Maze Company was back again in Shippensburg in 1997,
the same year Frantz called Peter Watson of Howell Farm. "I told
him I was a fan of Howell Farm and that I thought it would make a
good home for a maze. They decided they wanted to host one that year,
but I was scheduled to work on Broadway with `The Lion King.’ I didn’t
think we could pull it together that quickly, but we did." This
year, there are six Amazing Maize Mazes throughout the country, as
far south as North Carolina and west to Iowa.
And next year? "We’re talking to people in Williamsburg about
building one for their 300th anniversary, and the Bob Evans family
from Ohio has shown interest — as has the Ontario Agricultural
Museum." There will also be a return to Howell Farm, and more
attention paid to formalizing group programs. The Detroit maze was
used by the canine squad of the Detroit police to help train their
rescue dogs (shades of old maze military training), while the SWAT
team showed up at night, threading through the corn with infrared
equipment. But at a less intense level (perhaps), corporate groups
reserve the mazes for team-building exercises and school groups are
learning different types of skills.
"Elementary classes learn about map reading, while junior high
students come for math exercises in probability, data collection,
and graphing," Frantz says. "For high school students, we
have a history and world culture program on the art of the maze —
which never really took root in America before. But now we have our
own maze tradition, just like the English, the French, the Mediterranean,
and the ancients."
The very garrulous Frantz becomes comically laconic when asked about
American Maze revenues — a testimonial, perhaps, to his tight-lipped
farming neighbors. "It’s been good, and we’re hoping the weather
holds next year," is all he’ll volunteer, much more forthcoming
about the testimonials he’s received.
"We’ve had families who come wearing T-shirts from five different
mazes we’ve built," he says. "For kids, the maze is just like
playing a computer game, except they’re inside the game walls. And
for parents, it’s a way to spend time with their children and accomplish
a goal together."
And for Frantz? "A corn maze is theater. I think
of it as an empty stage and then figure out how to entertain people
while they’re in it."
Agri-tainment may be a term Frantz coined, but it is
a way of life for the Doyle family in Hillsborough, near Neshanic,
off Amwell Road. Jim and Kathy Doyle live with several of their four
children on 175 acres that have been in the Doyle family for five
generations. A section of their house, insulated with mud and straw,
dates back to the early 1700s, while right across the country road
lives Jim’s father, Richard Doyle, who is now 84. In 1929, Richard
Doyle, then a teenager, found his first Indian spear points and arrowheads
in the plowed fields, devoting himself not only to farming but also
to the study of the Unami Indians, the Lenni Lenape tribe that once
lived in central New Jersey. He has collected over 20,000 artifacts,
served as president of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey, and
named the family land Unami Farms. This year’s 6.7-acre maze, the
Doyles’ third, is in the image of a native American chief. Inside
wanderers find posted facts about different Indian chiefs that help
them decide which way to turn.
At the barn next to the farmhouse, there are plenty of animals in
pens for the kids to enjoy. Throughout the fall there will be a festival
air, with hayrides and tables of honey, pies, and squash for sale,
as well as acres of pumpkins waiting to be picked. But instead of
hosting the haunted hayrides, complete with chainsaw-swinging ghouls,
that other farms popularize around Halloween, the Doyles host school
groups for "agri-cation," teaching them about the Indians
who once lived here at the foot of Sourland Mountain. Patiently Jim
Doyle shows suburban children how to plant the "three sisters"
— corn, beans, and squash — and how to turn a sycamore log
into a canoe.
Inspiration for the Doyles’ first maze came from the American Maze
company’s 1995 Shippensburg creation. One of the Doyle sons read about
it and the family decided to create its own, designing it over the
winter, crisscross planting the seed — for extra thickness —
in May, and cutting the paths in July. Thanks to the crowds generated
by press and television coverage, the Doyles were able to invest money
back into the farm and Jim quit his part-time job driving a tractor
trailer. Last year’s maze, with a Charlotte’s Web theme, featured
a Wilbur who now weighs 450 pounds.
This year, Doyle says, is critical for the farm. "The costs involved
in farming are always increasing, while the price you get for products
just stays the same." Standing in the midst of the Doyles’ 6.7-acre
patch of serendipity, with corns leaves rustling overhead and the
sound of cowbells drifting on the breeze, the prospect of such a beautiful
expanse being carved into designer plots with driveways — each
house seasonally decorated in the fall with cornstalks lashed to the
mailbox — is just unthinkable. Whether you call it tourism, entertainment,
nostalgia, education, or just plain fun, it’s in a place that’s worth
paying to save.
— Phyllis B. Maguire
Titusville, 609-397-2555. Open weekends through October 25, Saturdays
10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sundays noon to 6 p.m. Open Labor Day (September
7) and Columbus Day (October 12), 10 a.m. to 6 p. m. Moonlight Mazes
from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., on September 4 and 5, and October 2 and 3.
Tickets $6 for adults, $4 for children 5 through 12, and children
4 and under are free. Private functions may reserve the maze Monday
through Friday, and discounts are available for groups of 20 or more.
Road) in Hillsborough (near Neshanic), 908-369-3187. Open Monday through
Saturday, 10 a.m. until dusk, and Sundays noon until dusk. Adult admission
(12 and over) is $8; children 6 to 11 is $7. Admission price includes
corn maze, hayrides and face painting, and farm experiences that include
goat and cow milking.
Stony Hill Road, Yardley, Pennsylvania, 215-968-1670. A six-acre maze
and fair takes place September 4 to 7, 11 to 13, and 18 to 20. $6
admission; $12 admission and activity package.
Road, off Route 29, Titusville, 609-737-3299. Free music Sundays,
from 1 to 4 p.m.
and reels. Sunday, September 13.
Jugtown Memorial String Band. Sunday, October 25.
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