Sunderland’s Popular Mike’s Maze Honors the National Park Service This Fall
The Recorder, August 22, 2016, by Andy Castillo
The 1930s National Park Service’s slogan “See America” is inscribed in corn-stalks next to naturalist John Muir, and below a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt outlined in the mist of Old Faithful, in this year’s much-anticipated Mike’s Maze design.
Last year, when the maze on Warner Farm, which was started in 1718, uploaded an aerial photo to Facebook of the 2015 design, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” it quickly became the number-one trending thread on Reddit.
Today, that same image has more than 3,100,900 views on Imgur and almost 800 comments on Reddit. Online interest wasn’t just about the photo: the story of the maze, which commemorated the 150th anniversary of the children’s story, went national and was picked up by websites such as Yahoo News and Boston.com.
Mike’s Maze, which is located at 23 South Main St., is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and holidays (Labor Day and Columbus Day) Sept. 3 through Nov. 6.
Later in September, Mike’s Maze will become a haunted maze, called Mike’s at Night, featuring a “zombie night patrol.” According to the maze’s website, the maze provides “paintball gear and weaponry, and you provide the sharp shooting skills to fight the zombie attacks!”
Mike’s at Night is open Friday and Saturday nights the weekends of Sept. 23 through Oct. 31.
The maze is looking for applicants who want to be zombies and actors in Mike’s at Night.
2016 Design: Mike’s Maze National Park
An unpainted cutout of a life-sized bison rests against the wall of the maze’s snack-hut, a reference to this year’s theme, and evidence that the farm is gearing up for the 2016 season.
Jess Wissemann, who last year, along with her husband, Dave Wisseman, took over designing the maze from long-time designer, Will Sillin, said this year’s design, dubbed “Mike’s Maze National Park,” honors the centennial of the National Park Service, which will turn 100 this week.
“The National Parks are that uniquely American idea that public land is for everyone,” Dave Wissemann said, adding that the idea was influenced by 2016’s uncertain presidential election, the Rio Olympics and concern about the future of the parks service.
A game associated with the maze also references the National Park Service: in the cornfield, maze-goers will search for and identify about 14 animal cutouts (which will be painted by then), and will have to answer National Parks trivia questions to ‘complete’ the design.
“Like for Teddy Roosevelt, it’s what kind of crazy things did he or didn’t he do while in office,” Dave Wissemann continued, “you learn something with a unique and funny spin.”
To research for this year’s theme, the maze designers watched Ken Burns’ documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”
Besides the maze, visitors can jump on a giant pillow, fire a potato cannon, use a giant camera obscura, drive peddle carts at Dave’s Derby, and participate in a rubber duck race at the farm.
Along with food such as kettle corn, maple cotton candy, homemade fries and cider slushies, there’s also a 40-foot slide made from a drainage irrigation system. Most of the vegetables offered at the stand were grown at the farm.
History of the Maze
Since the first maze in 2000, designs on the cornfield next to the Connecticut River have pushed the envelope of creativity. Past designs include “Bert Einstein and the Spiral Galaxy,” which graced the field in 2005, and 2010’s “Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Can.”
Based on past designs, Jess Wissemann said maze-goers have begun to expect unique and quirky maze-art which, unlike most other corn-mazes across the United States, are designed and created by the farm itself.
“It started off as a hobby — a wacky idea thought up with my neighbor, Will,” said Mike Wissemann, owner of Warner Farm and Mike’s Maze. “It has grown. Originally, it was just to two of us, with one guy selling candy bars and the other out in the maze.”
For the past few years, Jess Wissemann said that designs have been sketched on Adobe Illustrator, but before that, Jess Wissemann said they were hand drawn by Sillin, who’s an artist.
“They tried every possible way to cut the corn,” she continued, explaining that Sillin would sketch a grid, exactly the same as a pattern put in the cornfield beforehand, over the drawing. Then, an up-scaled version of the design was cut (either hacked or mowed) through the cornstalks.
More recently, the maze has hired Rob Stouffer, owner of the Missouri based maze-cutting business, Precision Mazes. Stouffer uses a custom Bobcat equipped with a flail mower, guided by global satellite positioning system software, to cut the stalks within a foot of the design intent.
Cutting corn is an annual tradition now, and an integral part of the farm’s business model. About a month ago, Stouffer brought his equipment to Sunderland and cut the maze when the corn was about waste high — which Mike Wissemann said is a lot easier than what they’ve done in the past.
Today, the maze draws up to 30,000 people, Wissemann continued. “That’s not nothing considering it’s weekends for only two months a year.”
The maze has become about a third of Warner Farm’s income, which, throughout the year, grows vegetables. Following this year’s drought, Wissemann said he’s looking forward to following up last year’s record maze season.