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Today, the Davis Mega Maze is one of central Massachusetts’ top attractions, a world-renowned destination for casual weekend adventurers and harcore puzzle solvers alike. The elaborate labyrinth, which changes structure and theme from year to year, is the heart of a fall tradition at Davis Farmland. This year’s maze opened on Oct. 1.
While corn mazes are now a staple of the season, this was not always the case. In 1996, when the Sterling farm first experimented with mazemaking, co-owner Larry Davis and his colleagues were heading into uncharted water.
“Fall is now the time for apples, pumpkin picking and mazes. Sometimes I think to myself ‘wow, where did that come from?’” Davis said.
For more than 150 years, the Davis family has been farming on Redstone Hill Road. Bolstered by the popularity of rare highland cattle gifted to the family after a fire destroyed most of its dairy farm, the Davis’ were operating a petting zoo in the mid-90s. It became a home for other endangered farm animals, drawing more visitors. The family decided to expand their operations to include a corn maze for kids. Little did they know it would go on to become the eight-acre behemoth that exists on farmland today.
The first year, Davis recalls welcoming a group of schoolchildren to the maze’s ribbon cutting. As soon as the children entered, he said, they trampled corn stalks to the ground, ignoring the pathways diligently carved by farm staff. The kids were not familiar with the concept of a corn maze, and for that matter many in Massachusetts weren’t either, Davis said.
Help was needed. A friend suggested that Davis contact Adrian Fisher, a British man known as the world’s leading maze designer. Fisher was the best in the business, but Davis was reluctant.
“I didn’t call Adrian,” Davis said. “It had failed so badly, it was just like ‘why would I ever do this again?’”
Fate intervened, and a mutual acquaintance connected Fisher and Davis a few months later. Fisher was immediately excited about the project, Davis said, and the two hashed out an initial plan in just 20 minutes on the phone.
The idea of farm-based corn mazes was very new at the time, with the country’s first believed to have been created in Annville, Pa. by Fisher and members of Lebanon Valley College in 1993. It was formulated as a fundraising initiative to benefit flooding victims, according to the college, and was inspired by the European tradition of growing hedge mazes.
“Everybody kept saying the same thing to me, it was just ‘Americans, they’re just couch potatoes. Who’s going to want to come out and walk in a maze?’” Davis said.
Davis and Fisher teamed up, with the explicit goal of making the new creation the “best maze in the world.” No longer would the maze be just for children. Instead, it was relocated across the street to a larger area and rebranded as the Davis Mega Maze.
Fisher created a new design based on Celtic folklore, with two dragons intertwining in the middle of the maze. The design, Fisher said, was ingenious because it combined two types of mazes: one featuring grid-basd straight lines and another with sloping, curved lines. Early visitors found the maze a welcoming challenge because of this combination.
The idea caught on, and soon Davis was meeting visitors from around the world. As tourism marketing and travel magazines sought unique attractions to include in their content, the Davis Mega Maze was a natural fit.
Davis soon found, however, that the European-based dragon theme wasn’t resonating with audiences, who were more drawn to the maze as a test of skill and as a new concept. Starting the next year, Davis and the other farm staff committed to creating new maze designs themselves every year, and then contracting an outside designer.
Themes normally fall into the realm of “action adventure,” Davis said, with past mazes drawing inspiration from pirates and the wild west. In recent years, the farm’s “idea team” has experimented more with outside-the-box themes. When David Ortiz retired, the Red Sox slugger traveled to Sterling to mark the opening of a special maze bearing his image. This year, the maze is designed to evoke the classic board game The Game of Life.
Finding the right theme is one challenge, but far from the only one faced by Davis and his colleagues. Construction is key, and the way the maze is built has changed over the decades.
Initially, workers would have to first plant an entire field of corn, then manually lay out where the pathways should go before finally using rototillers to carve the final design.
“We had to plant the whole field, and then we had this crazy group of guys called the ‘A Team,’ they would go through with a 10-foot pole to map out the maze on the ground. After that, we went through with rototillers. We were doing nine miles of rototilling to create the thing at first,” Davis said.
At the time, he added, this was necessary because technology and infrastructure didn’t exist that would allow them to plant and grow corn in a highly-specific maze pattern. As the popularity of corn mazes ballooned, companies sprouted up that offered planting and growing services designed for corn mazes.
One of these is the Idaho-based MazePlay, which Davis Farmland currently uses to design and plant its annual puzzle. Each year, a team from MazePlay comes to sterling with special equipment to plan the maze, which is then tended by farm staff as it grows.
The timing must be perfect, as a maze planted too late would let participants simply see over the corn stalks. In the past, the Davis Mega Maze was planted around the end of May so that it could open by the beginning of August.
But the farm found that late summer was a slow time for business, as many people were still vacationing at the beach or otherwise away from central Massachusetts. So Davis pushed the opening back until mid-September, capitalizing on the association most people have between corn mazes and the fall season.
The pandemic and ensuing labor issues forced the opening further back to Oct. 1. To be ready by October, the maze is now planted in July. Once November hits, the corn is cleared and composted back into the earth. By that point, it is not able to be harvested for consumption, Davis said.
Another lesson that Davis and his team learned the hard way was the danger of certain pesticides. One year early on, he recalled, a friend offered to treat the growing corn with proper pesticides. But some weed-killer accidentally made its way onto the stalks, and the farm staff realized after a few months that the corn wasn’t growing properly. An outside expert told them that they would have to plow the field and start over just a few weeks before they were scheduled to open for the year. Davis came across a creative solution: sorghum sudangrass. This tall plant looks extremely similar to corn stalks, and grows much quicker, he said.
For about 12 years Davis and the maze didn’t have much competition in New England. Slowly but surely, the idea caught on and stuck as a special autumn activity. In the past five years, Davis said, corn mazes have taken another step in popularity, popping up at even the smallest roadside farms.
The Mega Maze is still one of the biggest and most well-known around, and Davis said business is booming.
“There are those other mazes out there, and maybe it’s helped open up peoples’ eyes to mazing and make them not be scared of it, not concerned about actually walking through one. But as far as general attendance, it has just kept going, going, going.” he said.
Why did the idea catch on in the first place, and how has it had such profitable staying power? The key, according to Davis, is the maze’s particular ability to offer a finely tuned mix of thrills, skills, and accessible outdoor fun.
“It’s truly bizarre. It’s really, really bizarre. It’s unique and adventurous,” Davis said. “It’s like doing a big roller coaster. It may seem scary at first, but you know it’s going to end, and you know you’re not going to be falling off.”
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