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Meet the Richardsons

This family agritourism business in Spring Grove will “a-maze” you.

What began in the early 1800s as a family dairy farm, five generations later is a business that hosts more than 20,000 guests a year—all coming to conquer the world’s largest corn maze.

Robert Richardson readily admits the first year he opened his farm up to the public was a little scary. After decades of raising cows, pigs and grain, creating a fall-festival atmosphere on part of his 440-acre property and featuring a large corn maze for people to maneuver their way through sounded like fun. Little did he know people wouldn’t stop coming.

“It started out real slow,” he said of the first year he opened the maze. “Then, it got kind of scary. People just kept coming. It was just us [working it]. By October, it was crazy. People were lined up to get in.”

That was in 2001, after Robert—on a whim—decided to attend a seminar on corn mazes in Madison, Wisconsin.

“I had never even heard of a corn maze before,” Robert said.

He went to the seminar alone—the family didn’t want to pay for more than one person to attend.

“At the time, we couldn’t afford to do it,” Robert’s wife Carol said. “We didn’t think it was anything we would really end up doing.”

The seminar was all it took to plant the seed that started Richardson’s World’s Largest Corn Maze.

“We thought this was a good idea,” Robert said. “We already had a cornfield. We thought we’d give it a try. One thing led to another and it’s gotten bigger. People just keep coming.”

Generations Working Together

One look around the Richardson Farm is like a snapshot in a family album.

As Robert’s mom, Margaret, and Carol loop red ribbon through glow sticks for children to wear through the corn maze, Robert’s son-in-law Jim Valsa—a sixth- generation—busies himself with farm duties. Sixth-generation Richardsons are “scattered around” with various responsibilities, Robert said as he takes a moment to sit and rehash family history.

“We have lots of family involved,” Robert said, adding that while his brother George handles public relations for the business, he takes care of things on the farm, Carol books reservations and George’s wife Wendy runs concessions.

The brothers’ great-great grandfather settled the farmstead in 1840. Robert and Carol still live in the original brick house he built in 1863. George lives with his family on another farmstead on the same property.

Their dad, Owen, grew up on the farm, Robert and George grew up there and so did their children.

“Growing up, it was a dairy farm,” Robert said, adding that in 1964 his dad sold the cows.

It was a grain farm for a while, he said, adding that “440 [acres] was not enough to do it just as a grain farm.”

The business morphed into raising pigs, he said, which he and his brother did, but not before each ventured far from home for a while.

“It’s an unwritten rule that after college you go away for a few years,” Robert said. “Then, you come back to the farm.”

Which he did in 1976 and stayed. George came back too.

“You don’t want to get to be 45 and say ‘I’ve been stuck on this farm my whole life,’” Robert said.

The two raised pigs for 25 years until “it got harder and harder making a living at it,” he said. “The price of pigs just has not gone up and everything else has. We couldn’t expand the hog business even if we wanted to. We had to move or quit and we weren’t going to move.”

Real corn and soybean are still grown on the farm as are nine types of Christmas trees, Robert said, adding, “Everyone has their own idea of the perfect Christmas tree.”

A Cornfield Canvas

It all starts with a theme and a sketch. This year’s theme was a no-brainer–Race to D.C. A republican elephant sits on the right, a democratic donkey on the left and the White House at the top of the 28-acre maze. Three 8-foot-high bridges connect the different parts.

“We’re getting pretty good at creating a sketch,” Robert said.

The sketch is sent to a corn maze designer in Idaho who comes to the farm when the corn is knee high and cuts the corn with a rototiller as he studies the design on his computer which is attached to a tractor.

“The rest of the corn grows around it,” Robert said.

The first design depicted Dad Richardson on a tractor and Mom by the Christmas tree barn. Other themes included the 20th anniversary of the Bears Super Bowl victory, a White Sox vs. Cubs maze and the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark’s expedition.

This year, a smaller 5-acre maze depicts a castle. On Halloween night, the smaller maze will be haunted by local firefighters who will get the proceeds from the day.

Entertaining the Masses

A mammoth maze may draw people to Richardson Farm, but a 50-foot-high observation tower, 50-foot tunnel slide, a pedal cart track, a goat house and plenty of private picnic space and campfires keep them there for hours.

The maze opens the first Saturday in August and stays open through October, except Mondays and Tuesdays when it’s closed to the public. At its busiest times, 35 employees, aside from family, work to keep guests happy and safe.

The Richardsons plant sterile corn for the maze, so the cobs are empty and lighter in case kids start throwing them—which they’re not supposed to do, Robert said.

“There aren’t too many rules to follow, but you have to behave yourself,” he said. “If you don’t behave, you have to leave.”

Margaret jokes about some employees acting as “corn cops” to make sure everyone is behaving and safe.

The maze is not lit, and flashlights are recommended when tackling the paths at night. The Richardson’s phone number is on the maps given to everyone who walks the maze.

“If you really get lost, we’ll come and get you,” said Robert. With 24 checkpoints, “there are a number of places you can exit the maze quickly,” he said.

The family runs a snack bar, but guests often bring their own picnics to set up around one of the many campfires blazing on the property.

Always in the middle of a new project, this year’s focus is on converting an old grain bin into a refreshment stand that will have seating, stairs on the outside and windows cut out. Robert said he hopes to open it by October.

Generally, the business has run smoothly over the years, Robert said, with the exception of August 2004. Shortly after the maze opened that year, a windstorm flattened the maze, leaving the family scrambling to cut out a new path.

With rolling green property and dozens of full pines that reach to the sky, a day at Richardson Farm is truly a day in the country.

“We’ve got a nice spot here,” Robert said.

“We’re still kind of country a little bit. You can see the stars.”

When he thinks back on how the farm changed and the new business took off, Robert said, “It’s just hard for us to believe.”

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