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Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005 10:03 pm

Maze crazy

Paris family turns farm into destination for fall fun

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This time of year, many family farms boast corn mazes. Paul and Sherry Staley have two — their 12-acre “Jungle Maze” and a three-acre “Mystery Maze.” But that’s not all. The Staleys have been in the entertainment-farming business long enough to go completely maze-crazy. They have constructed five straw mazes, ranging from an easy toddler course to a completely dark, labyrinthine, 10-story mon-straw-sity, “not recommended for those who are claustrophobic or asthmatic” according to their encyclopedic Web site.

Of course, the Staleys don’t want their claustrophobic and asthmatic visitors to feel left out. The couple’s carpeted indoor “Dark Zone” maze is “almost allergy-free,” they say, and their outdoor, open-air “Spider Web” maze, made of two miles’ worth of PVC pipe, accommodates just about everyone.

Did we mention that five of these mazes are also wheelchair-accessible?

See, the Staleys specialize in taking casual suggestions and turning them into grand realities. In fact, their entire operation was inspired a dozen years ago by a bit of unsolicited advice delivered by a Sears repairman making idle conversation while he worked on their water softener, Paul Staley says.

“He’d been out East,” Staley recalls, “and he said, ‘Ya know, I went to a farm that was having hayrides and mazes and tours, and people were just flocking to it. You guys could do that.’ ”

At the time, the Staleys had 1,500 acres devoted to 6,000 hogs, and the 1980s had been disastrous for the pork market. What did they have to lose? They called their new business Pumpkin Works.

That first year, the couple had one simple straw maze, a haunted house, and pumpkins. Within three years, they had phased out the hogs completely (except for a few cuties kept in the petting zoo), and everyone was happier — the Staleys, their banker, and their neighbors.

Now Pumpkin Works has not only the mazes and the pick-it-yourself pumpkin patch but also an Indian-corn field (complete with red-wagon rentals), hayrides, bonfires, a general store, a pumpkin slingshot, and whatever else the Staleys think up between now and the day you arrive at their little patch of heaven.

This year’s major maze features a stagecoach, which takes its cue from the Staleys’ biggest barn, built in the 1850s to stable horses for the local stage. Like most Pumpkin works attractions, it is designed by Sherry, a former art teacher, and created by Paul. Many operations use fancy GPS technology to plot their mazes; Sherry still uses graph paper, and Paul still uses flags, a riding lawnmower and old-fashioned math to get the maze built.

Mazes are still the Staleys’ main draw, but Paul says that the hayrides through the family’s 100-acre woods are almost as popular. The hour-long daylight rides are accompanied by a naturalist, who identifies the trees and wildflowers. Ghosts and other haunting personalities join the after-dark “spooky” rides.

Prices, hours of operation, and many other details are available on the farm’s Web site (pumpkinworks.com), or call 217-275-3327.

Pumpkin Works is in Paris, a good three-hour drive from Springfield.

A closer corn maze — the Great Godfrey Maze — is in Alton. This year’s seven-acre crop is cut into a Wizard of Oz design. The Sept. 2 opening-night party will feature Dorothy and her friends as special guests, and the movie will be presented on a giant outdoor screen beginning at 7:30 p.m.

Starting Sept. 3 and continuing through Halloween, the maze will be open 5-9 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m.-dusk on Sunday. Along with the maze, you’ll find a kiddie train, a tricycle corral, and a corn cannon (three shots for a buck).

On Oct. 1, the maze will be the site of the Annual Fall Corn Festival, featuring live music and food vendors. During the last two weeks of October, the maze will become haunted.

Admission prices for the maze are $6 for adults and $4 for children ages 6 through 11. For more information, consult greatgodfreymaze.com or call 800-258-6645.

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