For awhile, all I hear is the rustling of dry corn stalks in the wind. Then, I hear the laughter of a child somewhere toward the west. I can’t see anyone, but I know they are wandering like me through this maze of maize.
It’s a sunny Monday afternoon at Jacob’s corn maze, located about three and a half miles west of Traverse City. From the corn, I can see the giant Traverse City Light & Power windmill and the line of cars headed home on M-72.
I look down at my map and realize I’m standing next to the giant ‘B’ of ‘JACOB’S’ that is cut into the 10 acres of corn, visible only to those in flight.
POPULARITY OF THE MAIZE
Corn mazes date back to the time of the Romans, when mazes appeared in everything from artwork and gardens to streets and public buildings. They’ve been used for rituals and processions, for meditation and for—well, to get lost.
For years, we’ve seen mysterious crop circles appear overnight and with the help of technology, intricate and accurate designs can be created in a matter of hours.
It’s hard to count the number of corn mazes in the United States, since many are privately owned; however, by 1998, there were hundreds popping up across the country.
In Northern Michigan, alone, there are at least 10 mazes—both corn and baled hay— to explore. Mazes vary by size, difficulty and design.
At Jacob’s Corn Maze, the goal is to find checkpoints within the maze. There are also no dead-ends. However, that doesn’t make it any less challenging.
“Some people say, ‘this is not a walk in the stalks,’” laughed Michael Witkop, owner of Jacob’s.
HISTORY AND DESIGN
The farm has been in the Witkop family since its start in 1892, making it 120 years old today. When Witkop and his wife Laverna purchased the farm from his parents 20 years ago, it was for the sole purpose of not letting it leave the family. However, Witkop didn’t have a plan for what to do with it until 10 years later.
“Around this time, agro-tourism started becoming a buzz word and I was looking for someone with—and this is a technical term— stupid money,” laughed Witkop. “Basically, I was looking for someone who wanted to live in Traverse City by putting their money into something that doesn’t make a lot in return.”
Witkop looked at wineries, cheese production and tea until he stumbled across something else.
“I was going through some materials and landed on a package about corn mazes. Three years before, it didn’t make sense, but I spent nine months researching corn mazes.”
Jacob’s Corn Maze has since become the focus point of the Jacob Farm, featuring intricately designed mazes on their 10-acres of field corn, the type of corn that is used for producing corn syrup, ethanol and other products.
The farm uses no chemicals, along with a “no till” process. Each spring, the corn is planted and grows until late June when Shawn Stolworthy—an Idaho artist who designs about 100 mazes a year—comes in and cuts the knee-high corn into a computer-aided design created by Witkop and himself.
“The process only takes about six hours,” said Witkop, noting Stolworthy can cut at night since he is guided by reading a monitor controlled by GPS satellite.
“It’s just a five-foot rototiller on the back of a tractor creating a dirt path,” said Wiktop. “In August we just go through with a tractor and mow down any weeds and grass.”
Each year features a new design, including the “Cow and Barn” in 2008, the “Double Eagles” in 2009, the “Dinosaur” in 2010 and “Pirates” in 2011.
IN THE MAZE
This year’s maze is the “Bronco Bustin Roundup,” featuring two horses and a bull. There are a total of three mazes—including one children’s maze—with five and a half miles of trails.
Participants find check-points scattered throughout each maze using a map.
“It’s easy to get a bit disoriented at times, but we’ve never not had anyone not make it out,” said Witkop. “The first year, we brought a bunch of folks out from our church and, ironically, the people who had the most difficulty were two engineers. They were over-thinking the process.”
Although I wasn’t over-thinking the process, I did get disoriented as Witkop said. Thankfully, all I had to do was match my map to the silo and place my finger where I was. From then on, my finger never left the map as I traced my way through the loop, punching my card at each check-point.
I finished around 20 minutes, the average time it takes to traverse the maze.
“Some people will time themselves to see how fast they can get through,” said Witkop, who added families can spend up to two hours at the farm.
Other amenities include a Farm Scene Investigation Game for the kids (think “Clue”), a bonfire pit, apple chucking, tractor rides, farm market and concession stand, which—as I repeatedly said aloud while licking my fingers—offers the best donuts I’ve ever had.
“It takes time for the donuts to cool after coming out of the fryer, but folks won’t wait. They want them now,” said Steve Fouch, who along with his wife Lisa, co-own Jacob’s Farm with the Witkops.
I may have found my way successfully through the maze, but I’ll be coming back for the donuts.
Jacob’s Farm is located at 7100 E. Traverse Highway, Traverse City. Hours are Mon., Tues. & Thurs., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, noon-7 p.m.; and Wed., Fri. & Sat., from 10 a.m.-9 p.m., with a flashlight maze offered those days. Admission, $8 for adults; $6 for ages 3-11 and free for children under three years of age. Visit Jacobs-corn-maze. com or call 231-632-6293.