Invisible voices rose from deep within the thicket of rustling cornstalks on Jim Kuhlwein's farm, followed by thwock-thwock-thwock sounds. Beneath a bright-blue sky, Chris Cavinder, Matt Kuhlwein, Bradley Mays and Brian Roudabush wielded small machetes as they hacked narrow paths through the 9-foot stalks.
Invisible voices rose from deep within the thicket of rustling cornstalks on Jim Kuhlwein’s farm, followed by thwock-thwock-thwock sounds.
Beneath a bright-blue sky, Chris Cavinder, Matt Kuhlwein, Bradley Mays and Brian Roudabush wielded small machetes as they hacked narrow paths through the 9-foot stalks.
They were preparing the annual corn maze that will open Saturday at Kuhlwein’s Farm Market, on Walker Road just west of Hilliard.
It is one of about a dozen mazes in central Ohio, but it is one of the few that is handmade.
The Kuhlwein crew refuses to use computerized designs and mechanization (or even GPS technology) employed by other maze owners.
“It’s a tradition for us to do it by hand, sweating and hauling cornstalks out,” Mays said. “If we cut it by machine, the paths would be too wide. It’s just easier to do it the old way.”
Of course, Kuhlwein’s field is significantly smaller than that of most area mazes — 120 feet by 200 feet, compared with 4 to 8 acres.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Maize at Little Darby Creek in Milford Center has hired the Maize LLC — a company dedicated solely to making corn mazes — to create its 9-acre mazes since 2002.
Elaborate past designs have paid homage to LeBron James and former Ohio State coaches Woody Hayes and Jim Tressel, among others.
This year, the maze is a tribute to farmers and features a man riding a tractor.
“They (Maize LLC) do a great job,” said Jayne Rausch, who owns the farm along with her husband, Randy. “It would take us a week to cut it ourselves, and they come out and do it in about three or four hours.”
Brett Herbst founded the Maize LLC in 1996. This year, he said, the company has cut about 270 mazes nationwide. He charges $2,500 to $7,000, depending on what the farmer wants.
The process starts with the farm owner sending Herbst a design concept. He inputs the field’s measurements and the design into a computer, which creates a working design, he said.
His crews (typically three people) show up at the farm in late June or early July, when the plants are perhaps 2 feet tall. Workers stake out and spray-paint paths through the corn. A mower or rototiller is used to cut the corn.
Part of the plan is to design a maze for all skill levels, Herbst said. The Maize at Little Darby Creek actually is three mazes in one — a child maze, an easier maze that should take about 20 minutes to complete and a complex route that could take an hour or more to navigate.
Since the first known maze was cut in 1993 in Pennsylvania, the corn-maze craze has blossomed into a full-fledged “agri-tainment” industry.
What’s the big attraction?
“There are so few farms anymore,” Rausch said. “So many people in the city, maybe their parents or grandparents grew up on a farm, but they don’t have that farm experience.
“Some people still want to teach their kids about farms, to say, ‘Oh, look, they grow corn,’ and let them know it doesn’t just pop up in the store.”
Ethel Sullivan, matriarch of Circle S Farm in Grove City, said she enjoys seeing parents — who visited the farm as youngsters — bring their children.
“It’s about making a memory and making a tradition,” Sullivan said.
Herbst agrees that nostalgia for farm life drives much of the interest in corn mazes. But he also thinks a social aspect exists.
“It’s just a very engaging activity for a family or group of friends,” Herbst said. “Nobody goes to the maze by themselves. It’s an interactive experience in a unique environment.”
And the fact that the Kuhlwein maze is done in such a low-tech manner doesn’t seem to matter. Mays said he expects 7,000 to 10,000 visitors this year.
Jim Kuhlwein, 67, whose parents began farming the land in 1929, is comfortable staying old-school.
He draws the design in a spiral notebook and said he has learned one important lesson through the years.
“One year I put in a few dead ends, and that’s a bad idea,” he said. “The teens just barge right through it.”