Annual corn maze in Murrysville salutes heroism, patriotism

Mary Pickels
| Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011

For 12 years, Herb and Nancy Gearhard have created an autumn puzzle in a cornfield on their Murrysville farm.

Visitors get clues, but all they can count on each year is that somewhere in the maze's design will be the letters G and F for Gearhard Farms.

In August, Herb Gearhard started to cut the 2.5-acre maze design, using a sickle bar mower. It took about 24 hours.

"The hardest part is corn stalk removal," he said on Tuesday.

This year's design, a salute to patriotism and heroism, was one the family talked about for years. The maze, carved into a cornfield along Route 286, is in the shape of Pennsylvania. The words "God Bless the USA" and "GF Remembers 9/11" are visible from the air.

"There are four points of interest related to 9/11," Herb Gearhard said, dry cornstalks rattling as he strode through them. He asked that the symbols stay a secret.

The Gearhards, both 54 and seventh-generation farmers, wanted the maze this year to focus on the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and to salute first responders. They are offering area firefighters and police officers free passes this year.

On Oct. 15, 2010, a storage shed on their property, full of farming equipment, was destroyed hours before a tour was scheduled at the corn maze.

"A lot of first responders live along here. We certainly appreciate the work that they do," Nancy Gearhard said.

Herb Gearhard works full time as a steel mill mechanic for Allegheny Ludlum's Brackenridge plant. He plants small grain, oats and corn on the 150-acre farm.

He was first inspired by an agricultural magazine featuring large corn mazes out West. Then he joined his daughter on a kindergarten hayride.

"I said, 'JoElla, we could do this at our place,' " he said. They decided against a "haunted" theme to attract repeat business from families, birthday celebrants, Scouts and school groups.

In 2007, Herb Gearhard carved a heart, two interlocking rings and family members' initials for the couple's 25th anniversary. The 2006 and 2009 mazes paid tribute to son Mike's and daughter JoElla's upcoming graduations from Franklin Regional High School.

The maze always contains a few surprises. "Some people are overwhelmed. Some thrive on the challenge," Herb Gearhard said.

"A lot of people go in as a group and brainstorm, ask each other questions. You see them pointing. When you see them doing that, I know they are on their game," he said.

"A couple of years ago, a LifeFlight pilot came and said, 'I know what the maze is,' " Herb Gearhard recalled. The pilot had flown over the scene earlier, then brought his family so he could watch them try to figure out the message.

A neighbor who is a pilot takes Herb Gearhard up so he can shoot aerial photography, which he posts on the farm's website after each year's maze closes.

Figuring out a maze theme each year is fun for the family, Nancy Gearhard said.

"We try not to call it work. It's agritainment," she said.

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The Gearhard Farms maze will remain open through Nov. 6.

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