SPRING GROVE, Ill. — When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on the moon 50 years ago, it marked a pinnacle in history that just decades earlier was limited to science fiction novels.
About 530 million viewers worldwide were glued to television sets to see the first live video from the moon’s surface and hear Commander Armstrong’s “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Richardson Farm in Spring Grove, Illinois, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of that great achievement with a 28-acre corn maze.
The maze with 9.7 miles of trails features the command module Columbia, the lunar module Eagle, Armstrong placing the U.S. flag on the moon, Aldrin, a moon buggy used in later missions, the Earth rising above the moon’s horizon and “next giant leap” representing missions to Mars and other destinations.
It also pays tribute to Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee who died in a capsule fire during the test on the launch pad in January 1967 with three stars next to the 50.
Richardson Farm is operated by George Richardson and his wife, Wendy, and Robert Richardson and his wife, Carol. Joining the family operation in 2007 were George and Wendy’s son, Ryan, and his wife, Kristen.
Richardson Farm features about 140 acres devoted to the Christmas tree business, 80 acres for the fall Adventure Farm experience and 230 acres of corn and soybeans, plus other miscellaneous areas.
Besides the corn maze, there are over 30 activities, including slides, pedal carts, a tracked train ride, jumping pillows, a 30-horse carousel, pig races, a 50-foot tall observation tower at the base of the maze and animals to view.
For an additional charge, Richardson Adventure Farm offers a 650-foot long zipline, Zorbing — rolling down a hill inside an 11-foot diameter ball — paintball shooting gallery, complete concessions, pumpkins, fresh doughnuts, fudge, kettle corn, caramel corn and more.
There is live music on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and also beer and wine for sale. Adjacent to the corn maze grounds are 100 private, wooded campfire and picnic sites available for groups to rent for the afternoon or evening.
“We have a whole separate area for younger kids, but we have a lot of things for older people, too. We get a lot of early teens, high school groups, 20-somethings, 30-somethings — some with kids, 40-somethings with kids or in groups, 50-somethings, 60-somethings and grandmas and grandpas,” George Richardson said.
The Richardsons represent the fifth and sixth generation still operating the farm that still includes the original 160 acres their ancestors homesteaded in 1936.
The family continued to diversify over the years to keep the farming operation going.
“It was a dairy farm when I was a kid. Dad sold his dairy cows in the mid-1960s, and it was then grain and pigs,” George Richardson said.
George and Robert joined in the family farm in 1979 after they had “real jobs” for a few years.
“We graduated from the University of Illinois. I then sold farm equipment, and Robert was at Disney World driving the monorail and managing different areas. Then we drifted back to the farm,” George Richardson said.
Upon their return to the family farm, the Richardsons ramped up the hog operating to raising nearly 3,000 pigs a year.
Pigs To Trees
They then branched into Christmas trees which have since grown to selling over 8,000 trees, along with 1,000 wreaths and greenery. They originally planted 1,000 Christmas tree seedlings in 1981 and sold the first ones six years later.
“We started planting Christmas trees for people to cut their own trees as a little bit of a side hobby and to use some pasture land that we couldn’t get the tractors into. After 10 years of selling Christmas trees, we kind of figured out that we liked talking with people a lot more than we liked talking with pigs, and the income stream was much more predictable and a lot more fun,” George Richardson said.
“We’d raised pigs for 23 years and the barn equipment was pretty well worn out by then. So, we got out of pig production, and that’s when we started the corn maze in 2001.
“Pigs were pretty good in the early years, and 3,000 was a good size farm. Well, 20 years later, that’s a tiny farm and the economies of scale had moved up to the larger operations and we weren’t very competitive at that time any more. Couple that with the barn’s equipment wearing out and having to restructure and put $100,000, $150,000 back into pigs.”
That first corn maze in 2001 drew 20,000 visitors and was just as successful the following year.
“We thought, OK, I think we have something here that’s going to work. It was just an experiment just to survive when it started. We grew slowly and carefully, with a lot of thought about what would provide the best experience for our customers and we are now happily in our 18th year,” Richardson said.