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Fall on the Farm

Photo by Charles R. Plohn

The Old-Fashioned Way

By Anne Levin

When Inez Howell donated her Hopewell Township farm to Mercer County in 1974, she requested that its 126 acres be used to teach future generations about early 19th century rural life. “Milking a cow, gathering eggs in a homemade basket, helping to shear sheep, carding wool, spinning and weaving,” she wrote in her letter to the county. “A farm has always been a great place for exploring.”

Nearly five decades later, Howell Living History Farm is all that, and more. The benefactor, who donated the farm in memory of her husband, would undoubtedly be pleased to see visitors, especially young ones, not just observing the plowing, planting, and harvesting of the hay, wheat, rye, clover, corn, and potatoes grown in the fields — but taking an active role in the process. The original tract of donated farmland is now a 267-acre historical park that attracts more than 55,000 visitors a year, and some 10,000 school children.

One aspect of the farm’s operations that Howell is unlikely to have imagined is the corn maze, an innovation that has become one of its most popular fall attractions. For the past 25 years, visitors have been challenged to make their way through the maze’s two miles of corn stalk-shrouded pathways, carved into four acres of cornfields. Along the way, they discover clues to help them answer questions posed on a game board. Overseeing it all is a maze master in a tower, who sends out rescuers to help those who can’t find their way out.

Each maze has a theme which, if viewed from above, forms a giant picture. This year’s version takes its inspiration from a vintage carousel that is currently being restored at the farm.

Photos courtesy of Howell Farm

“The guy who operates the engine we use to thresh wheat had a merry-go-round from the 1930s in his barn. It used to be part of a traveling amusement park,” says Pete Watson, Howell Farm’s director since 1984. “He gave it to us. We are restoring it to tell the story of traveling amusement places in Mercer County, and the part they played in local fairs.”

The process of turning the cornfield into a maze with a carousel design began when the corn was planted at the end of June. It was cut the second week of July. All will be ready for the opening on September 17 (the maze remains open on weekends through November 5).

Maze-making at Howell Farm dates from a day in 1997 when Don Franz, a Walt Disney Company musician/producer and corn maze inventor, happened to be driving by. Franz had started the American Maze Company four years earlier. The company has since built hundreds of mazes.

“He was driving from New York City, where he was getting ready to open The Lion King on Broadway, to Hershey, Pa., and he happened to see our sign,” Watson recalls. “He stopped in and said, ‘What are you?’ We told him the whole story of this place. And he said, ‘Wouldn’t you like some cash flow to help with your projects?’ We said ‘Yes,’ and he showed us how to do it. The first one was The Amazing Barn-Raising Maze, which was a cornfield that was a picture of a barn. The money it raised paid for our horse barn.”

Watson and his colleagues thought they would continue creating corn mazes for three years. But the idea was a hit with the public — and a lucrative one. The maze became a much-anticipated, annual attraction that has raised more than $350,000 since it opened.

“People really loved it that first year,” Watson says. “So the next year, we decided to pick another thing we wanted to restore, and make that the focus. In the ensuing years, we did the windmill, the ice house, and the school house.”

After a decade, the staff had run out of restoration projects to depict. It was decided to switch the focus to programs being offered at the farm.

“It became a matter of creating images that showed some of the programs and things we do,” says Watson. “Our Farmer in the Dell maze won an award in 2019. We chose different themes each year. It was always fun to figure out what it would be, and create a game board that told a story linking the maze to the farm. We always try to have that connection.”

Photo by Charles R. Plohn

Inez Howell’s vision of Howell Living History Farm was embraced by the Mercer County Park Commission from the beginning. And there was help from people who had farmed in the past.

“What was different about this was that it came with a whole community of farmers who gave the county what was left of their farm equipment and their memories,” says Watson. “They really wanted us to learn how they farmed. The result was that instead of doing what most people would do, which was to restore all the buildings first and then create programs, what we did was start farming. We discovered that having done that — almost accidentally — we created the foundation for programs that would be very different from if we were just demonstrating.

We were really farming on a scale similar to what people did a century-plus or so ago.

“The place smacked of reality. There was manure everywhere. There were crops half-harvested. We treated visitors as neighbors who happened by, and recruited them to help us with whatever we were doing. So we’ve captured a bit of the spirit that, in the past, made real communities work.”

Nearly four decades in, almost all the staff from Howell Farm’s beginnings are still employed at the site. “It has grown in such an interesting and organic way,” says Watson. “It has kept all of us so engaged and fascinated that almost all of us have made careers out of it. It has grown in ways that have challenged us to find new and additional ways to let visitors help with farming operations.”
When the farm needed a barn in 2005, children and families assisted with the task.

We saved a Mercer County barn in the process,” says Watson. “All the pegs that hold that thing together were made by school kids, using old tools. They signed the pegs and drove them in. Brian Hughes [Mercer County Executive] was there to hand out certificates to all 300 of them, saying that they helped save a Mercer County barn. So we began to think of as many ways as possible to have families help us. It was the M.O. then, and it still is.”

Photo courtesy of Howell Farm

Children who visit the farm are nearly always drawn to the animals who live there. “One thing they really love is to be invited into the henhouse and collect eggs,” says Watson. “During the last couple of years, there was an additional lesson, which was that all those eggs were going to be given to food pantries and food banks where they could be shared. After all, that’s what farmers have always done. And the kids loved the fact that they were helping with that.”

During the past two years of COVID-19, visitors anxious for outdoor activities helped pick the corn in the farm’s 3.5-acre field. It was the first time the field was picked in its entirety.

“People who helped were so intrigued by the idea that all of the corn would be processed for local food pantries, because flour and grain products were hard to get during the pandemic,” Watson says.

While the farm is active year-round, fall is an especially vibrant season. Visitors are encouraged to join in everything from cider making to manure spreading. They can help plant wheat, cut firewood, make sausage and bacon, or compete in apple-peeling contests.

“Having a chance to experience a little bit about our past, and think about the value it holds for the present and future, is a rare opportunity,” says Watson. “The farm is here in perpetuity. People learn how crops and animals are raised, and they get to actually help with the process. I sometimes read Inez Howell’s letter, just to remind myself. She remembered what it was like to reach under a hen and get a warm egg. She remembered the feeling of walking through a field. She wanted people to have those experiences, and so do we.”

For more information about Howell Living History Farm, its corn maze, and other activities, visit howellfarm.org.

Photo courtesy of Howell Farm

Other area farms and centers for fall activities include:

  • Terhune Orchards, 330 Cold Soil Road, Princeton. Pick your own pumpkins and gourds at Terhune’s pumpkin patch starting the third weekend in September. The farm also has a corn maze, apple picking, pumpkin painting, and much more. Visit terhuneorchards.com.
  • K&S Farms Sunshine Acres, 831 Perrineville Road, East Windsor. Pumpkin picking, nighttime hayrides, fall decorations, and a Field of Terror haunted attraction (for adults). Visit farmfun.com.
  • Lee Turkey Farm, 201 Hickory Corner Road, East Windsor. The farm has a Pick Your Own Club to pick pumpkins in the fall, and fruits and vegetables in spring and summer. Visit leeturkeyfarm.com.
  • Shady Brook Farm, 931 Stony Hill Road, Yardley, Pa. Pick your own pumpkins, apples, and sunflowers. There are wagon rides, children’s activities, a Halloween light show, and more. Visit shadybrookfarm.com.

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