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Maybe I’m Amazed

Corn mazes confound – and thrive — in central Illinois
by Steve Tarter | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Eight-year old Justin Jeffries and his parents, Gina and Justin, find the exit after walking through the corn maze at Ackerman Family Farms in Morton
Eight-year old Justin Jeffries and his parents, Gina and Justin, find the exit after walking through the corn maze at Ackerman Family Farms in Morton

Welcome to autumn, a time of falling leaves, pumpkins and corn mazes.

Those mazes have become an integral part of the harvest scene in Illinois, a state with a lot of corn. The twists and turns may confound young visitors but not the farmers who now employ modern technology to create the attractions.

An aerial view of a Tanner’s Orchard maze design from 2014.

There are even businesses to help set up corn mazes, said Craig Tanner, vice president in charge of growing operations at Tanner’s Orchard in Speer. A member of the fourth generation of Tanners now operating the bustling farm market, which for two months out of the year is undoubtedly the busiest spot in Stark County, Tanner said the corn maze took its place at the market 20 years ago alongside apples, cider, doughnuts, pumpkins, farm animals and all those jams and jellies.

“We always had a different design. The first time it took 12 hours just to plant it,” he said.

Now Tanner uses Maze Play, a company out of Idaho that helps set up some 150 corn mazes across the country, providing designs, planting the seed as well as step-by-step directions for creating a specialty maze along with supplying marketing support.

Shawn Stolworthy, founder of Maze Play, started the business with the help of his brother just over 20 years ago. “We had to put our life savings into the business and took a chance that we could make the business work,” he said.

Along the way, Stolworthy created a maze manual as well as designing the Farm Scene Investigation corn maze game. As for the designs, he notes, “I consider myself an artist and I paint with a John Deere tractor.”

The corn maze tradition also started 20 years ago at the Ackerman Family Farm in Morton. As for the design selected each year, “we usually follow the theme of the Morton Pumpkin Festival. This year it’s a 1980s theme,” he said.

“After my wife and I decide on the theme, we draw it out and use GPS planting to put it in the ground,” said owner John Ackerman.

“The corn maze is a pretty popular activity. Ours is family-friendly, not a three-hour ordeal to get through. Ours takes 45 minutes to an hour for most people. It’s relatively easy to get out but people play it differently. Some like to solve the puzzle,” he said.

‘I CONSIDER MYSELF AN ARTIST AND I PAINT
WITH A JOHN DEERE TRACTOR’

— Shawn Stolworthy

“There are clues within the corn maze that spell a corn maze message. If you get it right, you get a Smartie candy. If you don’t, you get a Dum Dum sucker,” said Ackerman.

At Rader Family Farms in Normal where they call it “agritainment,” the corn maze takes up 12 acres. “We divide it into two phases, the first being shorter and easier,” said Chuck Blystone, activities manager at Rader farm.

Just like Tanner’s, the Rader operation uses a specialist to assist in maze creation. “We send our ideas to the Maize Company, a Utah company that designs mazes around the world. They convert our ideas into a workable design. That design is then sent in digital form to Precision Planting,” said Blystone, referring to the Tremont agricultural giant.

“The maze is planted late in the planting season—generally in mid-June—because we want the corn to stay green as long as possible while guests are enjoying the maze,” he said.

“We do several things to broaden the maze experience. The first phase of our maze has six checkpoints. At each checkpoint is a crayon and a medallion bearing an animal paw print. Kids are given a game sheet and trace the paw print at each checkpoint,” said Blystone.

The second phase has 10 checkpoints that call for various actions by those passing through.

The Rader also features two flashlight night mazes this month: Oct. 15 and Oct. 29, Blystone noted.

Gina and Justin Jeffries and their son Justin, 8, walk through the corn maze at Ackerman Family Farms in Morton.

Tanner’s used to offer a night maze, as well, said Craig Tanner. It doesn’t anymore, though groups of 20 or more can call to arrange special maze nights, he said.

“Our first year we were doing mazes at night and we thought everyone had come out of the maze. We later found out that two couples had remained,” said Tanner. “They finally got out around 2 a.m. When they called the next day, needless to say, they were a little annoyed.”

The Rader maze is probably the most elaborate in the area but if maze fans want to poke around in what ‘s reported to be the world’s largest maze, they’ll find it in Spring Grove, just north of Chicago, where a 28-acre field has been converted this year to a corn maze commemorating 60 years of James Bond movies. 

IF YOU GO

Ackerman’s Family Farm
Morton, Illinois

Farm hours: 

  • Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., 
  • Sunday, noon to
    5 p.m.
  • Corn Maze open through Halloween.

Admission:

  • $5 Adults
  • $4 for teens
  • $3 for children
  • (two and under, free)

Rader Family Farm
Normal, Illinois

Farm hours: 

  • Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday
    and Columbus Day
  • Friday and Saturday
    10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
  • Corn Maze open through Oct. 30

Admission:

  • $8
  • $10 Night maze
    Oct. 15. and Oct. 29
    6:30 to 10 p.m.

Tanner’s Orchard
Speer, Illinois

Farm hours: 

  • Monday to Sunday
    8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; 

Corn maze hours::

  • Monday to Sunday
    Monday to Sunday
  • Corn Maze open through
    Halloween

Admission:

  • $8
  • Group pricing available
Steve Tarter

Steve Tarter

is a Peoria Magazine contributor who was born in England, raised in Boston, moved to Peoria to attend Bradley University and decided to stay. He has spent a career in journalism and public relations.
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