- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2006

THOMPSON, Conn. — For many, fall in New England means the crunch of red autumn leaves and the sight of bright orange pumpkins along the sides of back roads.

But for Kristin and Peter Orr, fall is when thousands visit their Fort Hill Farms to navigate a 7-acre corn maze. This year’s theme is Freedom Trail, highlighting various landmarks along Boston’s three-mile walking trail with facts and clues scattered throughout the maze.

The maze, shaped like a bald eagle and designed using Global Positioning System technology, is one of a few in Connecticut and more than 500 across the country cut from cornfields. Columbus, Neb., could have the largest, a 19-acre behemoth that requires at least an hour to weave through more than three miles of twists and turns. It was designed to celebrate the city’s 150th birthday.

The popularity of corn mazes has grown sharply since the early 1990s as efforts to find alternative sources of income for farmers continue to increase. Farmers say the mazes are a creative way to educate people about agriculture.

“Getting that connection is so important when we do not live in an agrarian society anymore,” said Hugh McPherson, a Pennsylvania farmer and president of Maize Quest, a corn maze design company. “This is a way to bring people to a real farm and show the kids how that apple gets onto that school lunch tray.”

Maize Quest has designed 31 corn mazes nationwide this year, including the one on Fort Hill Farms, a 1,200-acre farm in northeastern Connecticut. The Orrs started cultivating corn mazes in 2002 to complement their other farming enterprises, which include selling milk, growing organic strawberries and blueberries, and tending to 65 gardens.

On a recent afternoon, more than 60 students from the Rectory School, a boarding school for fifth- through ninth-graders in Pomfret, piled out of buses and stood outside the entrance to the corn maze, where Mrs. Orr laid down some rules: No leaving garbage. No straying off the path. And no running.

Visitors are given a crayon and game sheet to be filled out at checkpoints throughout the maze. The checkpoints offer clues to lead them out of the maze, and facts about stops on the Freedom Trail such as the Boston Common, one of the oldest public parks in the nation, and King’s Chapel, the country’s first Unitarian Christian church.

A few minutes after 13-year-old Greg Berchuck and his two Rectory School classmates entered the maze, the three met their first split in the path.

“Hey, let’s go this way,” said Greg, of Birmingham, Ala., turning right.

His two friends had begun down the left path but, after a few seconds, changed their minds and followed him. After numerous twists and turns, it was clear the group was lost.

“Did we just go in circles?” asked Zach Harris, 12, of Sutton, Mass.

The journey is about 1 hours long, but after 45 minutes, the three decided they had enough and opted, instead, to pet the farm goat on the outskirts of the maze.

The maze is so complicated that even Mrs. Orr needed a map to get around. She came up with the idea for this year’s theme after recalling her visit as a child to Paul Revere House, one of 16 sites on the Freedom Trail.

“I said to myself, ‘This is so cool, this is so old,’” she said.

Next year, she and her husband plan to design their cornfield in the shape of a fly fisherman, a tribute to the National Park system.

The maze is open through Nov. 5, after which the cornstalks will be cut down and used as cow feed.

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