Fun, confusion crop up at corn maze in Carroll

Fun, confusion crop up at maze

Fund-raiser: Tickets to get lost among stalks help a farm board make money for educational attractions.

September 06, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Volunteers have created an old-fashioned maze using a global positioning system to mow familiar farm scenes into a 17-acre cornfield in Westminster.

With flashlights, maps and the promise of rescue, visitors can wend their way through yellowing stalks that give way to patterns of a barn, a silo, a windmill, a steer's horned head and the letters that spell Carroll County.

Few will take time to decipher the corny scenery, preferring to concentrate on finding a way out of the tightly planted rows of maize.

Ticket sales will help the Gesell Farm Board raise funds to create an educational center and tourist attraction on the 102-acre, county-owned property that is home to the maze.

Rustling stalks, towering to 10 feet, line dead-ends and circuitous trails that opened Friday at dusk and continues weekends through Halloween. The occasional critter, the hooting owls and droning crickets add to the eerie ambiance. Numbered guide posts serve as landmarks, but visitors may want to drop bread crumbs to retrace their steps.

"People will actually be in a cornfield and see what it's like," said Bill Knill, a Mount Airy farmer who helped plan the tourist attraction. "And it will be dark on the trails, that's the fun part of it. We've got deliberate dead-ends, with just the right bend, so the unaware won't see. You can always yell, `Help!' if you can't find your way out."

Or guests can hitch a ride on a lawn tractor.

After more than 40 years of farming, Knill said, "I have walked through many a cornfield and I never planned to pay for it, but I hope a lot of other people will."

Popular attractions

Business should be brisk if other mazes are any indication.

In St. Mary's County, the Bowles Farms drew about 20,000 visitors last year to a maze that was only half as high as Carroll's. An early summer storm destroyed the first crop last year and the replanting hit only about 5 feet, said Tina Bowles. The corn is towering again this year in a maze that features a Hornet jet and a salute to the nearby Patuxent Naval Air Station.

"We have jets flying overhead - but not too low - and a jet on the ground," said Bowles. "This gives families a day out on the farm. Lots of people have seen corn, but how many have walked in it and found a way to get out?"

Patrick Rodgers is opening his North Run Farm maze and other attractions to visitors for a third year. A few miles outside the Baltimore Beltway in Stevenson, the farm gives urban families a look at rural life, he said. He has carved a Maryland agriculture license plate into his 5-acre maze.

"Going through it takes about the same time as going to a movie, but you get a lot more out of it," Rodgers said.

Perfect conditions

Knill and eight others who make up the Gesell Farm Board opted for a maze fund-raiser in time for spring planting. With donations of seed and labor, they planted 17 acres in feed corn by mid-May. To crowd the field, they planted rows 15 inches apart - half the separation in normal rows.

The growing season brought enough moisture and sun. The corn looks as good as Maryland has had for many years, Knill said.

"It's maxed out and taller than any visitor," he said stretching his arm above his 6-foot frame but unable to reach near the tasseled tops. "It is amazing for as thick as it was planted that it has eared out so well."

Another volunteer cut the patterns last month, operating a skid steer loader with a hydraulically driven rotary mower. The difficulty in design led to a slight downsizing of the maze.

"There is five days' worth of mowing involved," said Buck Miller, owner of C.J. Miller Co., a local contractor. "The letters were the hardest because of all the different angles. We were going to do GESELL, but that would have taken at least two more days. The next maze will have less letters."

Several entry points lead to three routes, the longest of which is only for the stout-hearted.

"It will take you through every crook and cranny for more than 3.5 miles," Knill said.

`Field of Dreams'

The maze may create interest in the property, whose nearest neighbors are the Carroll County Farm Museum and Agriculture Center. Service clubs are selling refreshments and flashlights to those who come unprepared. Floodlights will also shine on the perimeter of the maze.

"If anybody gets lost, they can use the tower lights, like the North Star," said Miller.

With the lights, a clear count of visitors and spotters on the nearby hilltop, Knill said, no one will be stranded. Volunteers are also taking reservations for groups that want to wind their way through during daylight hours. Weather permitting, the maze may stay open until Thanksgiving.

"If word gets around and this is a success, it could be Carroll County's own Field of Dreams," Knill said.

The Gesell Farm Board, a nonprofit organization, is making long-range plans for the property that the county purchased five years ago for $600,000.

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