September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
The 50-cow organic dairy is home to Hidden Trails Corn Maze near West Salem, Wis., in La Crosse County. For 14 years, visitors have wended and winded their way through trails cut through the towering corn.
Besides two mazes geared toward grownups, there's a smaller maze for kids preschool through the elementary grades. And, during the last two weekends of October, the farm's haunted trail delivers chills and thrills after dark.
On a recent sunny autumn afternoon, David Miller said the maze evolved from a tiny pumpkin selling business. "We were lucky if we made a hundred bucks out of it," he said.
After a few years of marketing pumpkins, inspiration hit, and Miller decided to take a chance on carving out a corn maze. Helping him think the venture could work was the almost-steady stream of traffic that zips past the farm buildings on busy Highway 60. The farm lies just a very few miles east of La Crosse, Wis., a community of some 52,000 along the Mississippi River.
Miller wouldn't offer an estimate as to how many folks wander through the mazes each fall. But he did say it's a lot.
These days, Bret, one of the Millers' sons, handles most of the maze business. His brother, Jacob, is the actual farmer now, renting the place from his parents. Jacob's operation goes by the name of Sunset Dairy.
David, Sara and Bret work off the farm. But vacations are typically taken during the main corn maze season - October. While David operates the gift shop, sells tickets and explains the rules of the maze and the various contests, Bret runs errands and works with a company named MazePlay to plan the layouts and themes.
This year's theme revolved around the comic book character Spiderman. The super power-endowed arachnid/human is known to his fans as amazing, so it's to be expected that the 2012 maze is described as a-maze-ing.
Maze work begins in mid-to-late June, when the 13-acre field is planted. The later planting helps ensure that the stalks stay green and upright longer into the fall. It's also planted doubly thick - in 15-inch rows instead of 30-inch rows.
When the corn is well established, MazePlay begins its work. A computer program contains the field's dimensions and the desired design. Using the global positioning system (GPS), stalks are either cut or left alone. Then a smaller tractor towing a rototiller buries the cut stalks.
Come the maze season - Sept. 28 through Nov. 1 at Hidden Trails - the paths have been smoothed and outlined with brightly colored barricade tape. All the mazes together contain more than four miles of trails, with three gaming systems in place.
The two large mazes contain 13 checkpoints. A local business sponsors each point. Find a checkpoint and its uniquely shaped paper punch, mark your game card, and you win a discount off the price of a product or service.
For the youngsters and their smaller maze, a different game is offered. This year it's a takeoff of the television program Crime Scene Investigation. At the maze, it's Farm Scene Investigation.
Young sleuths are asked to help solve this crime: Who swiped Farmer Joe's apple pie? Was it Sylvester the Horse, Boots the Dog, Winford the Turtle, Tiny the Mouse, Chuck the Cat, Slick the Frog, Frank the Pig, Antonio de Llama, Billy the Goat, or Theodore the Bull? Or was it a conspiracy pulled off by Mary, Kary and Shary, the Desperate House Chickens? The evidence the junior detectives seek is tracks.
For grownups, navigating one of the large mazes should take about, 45 minutes or so. Should it take longer or become confusing, participants can call a telephone number that's on the maps they're given.
"I do get calls from inside the maze for help to get out," David said. "Not everybody goes through and figures it out. Some people just simply cannot read a map."
On one occasion, the Millers had to search the cornfield after dark.
"The worst one was during the haunted trail," David said. "They got off the trail. I don't know how, but they got off the trail. We were closed. Everybody was about to leave. It was about 10:30 at night, and we saw a car still out in the parking lot. We all went out and looked, and it was a young guy and a girl."
Another incident stands out in Miller's mind. One year, he said, a strong wind knocked down about a third of the corn to waist high.
"But I did not have one complaint from anybody," he said. "Everybody just understood. You could look right straight across the field and see every single path. But nobody complained."
Most maze visitors travel from roughly a 60-mile radius, Bret Miller figured. But with the interstate just a couple of miles distant, people from each coast also stop by to try their skill at navigating the corn maze. Said Bret, "We've probably had people from all 50 states here."
What do people like about wandering through the corn? David said it probably has something to do with "being outside and doing something before winter. It's pretty and it's a challenge. It's more of a challenge than you might think."
Bret said, "I think a lot of people look for the 'staycation' things that are popular nowadays. They like to be able to travel within an hour and spend three or four hours at an activity or event."
Visiting a corn maze is a good excuse to get out of town or the city on a brisk autumn day. But, Bret said with a laugh, "Growing up on a farm, I probably wouldn't pay anybody to get to walk through a cornfield."
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