Montgomery residents can access — within a 20-minute drive — at least a half dozen festivals every weekend in October, including at the Hillsboro, Norz-Hill, Snyders, Suydam, Terhune, and Von Thun farms.
While harvest celebrations are a centuries-old tradition, one popular feature today — the corn maze — is just a quarter-century old, according to Pete Watson, Director of the Howell Living History Farm in Hopewell. He should know because Howell has the oldest, continuously running corn maze in New Jersey, dating back to 1997.
The Howell Farm Corn Maze runs until the end of October.
Corn mazes involve cutting ephemeral pathways through large cornfields, creating challenging games of navigation, scavenger hunting, and puzzle-solving for children and adults alike. The paths are cut early in the year, just after the corn sprouts are a few inches high.
Watson and Howell Farm staff have been engaged producing an elaborate corn maze for 22 consecutive years, this year based on the theme, “The Farmer and the Dell,” the classic nursery rhyme that supports Howell’s mission to educate the public about historic agriculture methods and traditions.
Howell Farm Director Pete Watson
“This year’s maze will appeal to the broadest audience ever because all people can appreciate the history of rhymes and poetry,” Watson said in an interview with The Montgomery News.
According to Watson, who is well acquainted with the history of corn mazes, a man named Don Frantz, who was a commercial airline passenger on a flight over Pennsylvania farming country in 1992, is responsible for America’s first corn maze.
Frantz was reading a book about mazes and labyrinths of the ancient world while on the flight.
“He looked down at the cornfields from the air, wondering if he could see his brother’s cornfields near Hershey, Pennsylvania, and it occurred to him,” Watson says. “Why can’t you make a maze out of corn?”
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The first corn maze was designed by Frantz the following year, in 1993, on his brother’s Pennsylvania farm. It served as a fundraiser for Frantz’ alma mater, Lebanon Valley College.
In addition to a carefully designed maze, the concept included a theatrical game, with clues and a puzzle to solve, all hallmarks of the best mazes available today.
The result was tremendous public interest, participation, and publicity, including feature stories on ABC’s Good Morning America and The Today Show on NBC.
Almost immediately, corn mazes were cropping up around the country, some designed by Frantz’s new company the Amazing Maize Company, and others inspired by the idea.
Howell Farm was the second farm in New Jersey to have a corn maze — the first was at Doyle’s Farm in Hillsborough — but Howell is the only one continuing to run after so many years.
The first three Howell mazes were designed by Frantz’s company, the Amazing Maize Maze Company. Since then, Watson, his wife Mary, and Matt Miller of the Friends of Howell board of directors, have taken the lead in designing elaborate maze puzzles in the same theatrical tradition.
Howell’s mazes have been around so long, Watson says he says there are couples who visited the maze as a “first date” two decades ago and now return married, to share the maze with their children.
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Another farm with a long-running corn maze is Terhune Orchards, located on the Princeton/Lawrence Township border.
“Our corn maze is family-friendly and easy to navigate. We are celebrating our 43rd fall festival weekends and this year we have a hay bale maze for younger kids as well as a corn maze. We also have a scavenger hunt around the farm for visitors,” said Reuwai Hanewald, daughter of the Terhune founders Pam and Gary Mount. They also have live music, U-pick apples and pumpkins, and more.
The corn maze at Norz-Hill Farm, north of town in Hillsborough, is another of the very elaborate mazes in the region, designed for the true maze enthusiast. They claim two miles of pathways through their cornfield. The Norz-Hill fall festivals include lots of pumpkin picking and “Scare Farm,” a Halloween-themed walking trail that is described as “creepy” and “spooky.”
Hillsboro Farm Country Market, just north of town, kicks the season off with an antique tractor show on October 5. They also have a simple maze for children, along with hayrides, face-painting, and pumpkin picking and decorating.
Snyders Farm on South Middlebush Road to the east of Montgomery offers one of the newer harvest festivals, including a corn maze, hayrides, a pumpkin “moon bounce,” and pumpkin picking. They have two “corn boxes,” which are similar to sandboxes except with corn kernels.
Suydam Farms, further east in Somerset, doesn’t have a corn maze, but they offer free hayrides with stories of farming history, often led by owner Ryck Suydam, a twelfth-generation farm who leads the New Jersey Farm Bureau. They also have pumpkin-picking, cider, and cider-donuts.
Von Thun Farm, southeast of town in South Brunswick, has a six-acre corn maze, plus apple- and pumpkin-picking, a moon bounce, a singing chicken show, rubber duck races, and 35+ other games and activities.
Farms offering extensive activities generally charge for admission, somewhere between $8 and $13 per person. Farm Markets with just a few activities are free. U-picking, food and beverages available everywhere for additional cost. ■