An Adventure Farm That Packs Character
Richardson family builds a tradition of getting lost on the farm
By Jennon Bell Hoffmann
The drive to Richardson Adventure Farm in Spring Grove, Illinois, feels like the opening credits to a movie: crystal blue skies, puffy white clouds, a fragrant breeze rustling through the corn fields that line the sloping road. For a place that promises unforgettable agritourism for the whole family, this prelude is some high-quality marketing.
George Richardson, 66, greets me on the porch of his home located on the family estate. We settle on the back deck, the expanse of the 183-year-old homestead sprawled out before us. Originally homesteaded in 1836 by Robert Richardson, a bricklayer from England, the land has cycled through several iterations of a working farm, including dairy and soybeans, pigs in the 1970s, Christmas trees and feed corn, and what it’s popular for today: adventure park and corn maze. Currently run by the fifth and sixth generation of Robert’s descendants, Richardson Adventure Farm proves that a solid foundation combined with an openness to new ideas leads to long-lasting legacy.
“My farmer friends say we’re odd because we like people,” George laughs. “But I’m like, ‘But people are in such great moods when they come here.’ We like showing them the farm and being part of their traditions. So we tried to do something different, to bring more people out to enjoy the farm and area.”
Have Fun Getting Lost
“Different” is an understatement.
In 2001, with a pencil drawing and a tractor, George and his brother Robert cut a design into their feed corn crop and the corn maze craze was born. George says the corn maze idea sprouted at the perfect time: People were becoming more interested in fall family activities that scratched an itch for nostalgia.
A few years in, they decided to go bigger—in fact, they decided to be the “World’s Largest,” enlisting the help of a professional maze designer and GPS-guided technology for more intricate and interesting maze patterns and trails. The quotation marks around “World’s Largest” are a strategic marketing move, and not something the folks at Guinness World Records recognize (a 63-acre maze in Dixon, California, currently holds that title, but that technicality doesn’t spoil the fun at Richardson Adventure Farm).
“People are in such great moods when they come here. We like showing them the farm and being part of their traditions.” – George Richardson
Sprawled over 28 acres with nearly 10 miles of trails, the corn maze masterpiece changes every year. The design usually incorporates a local excitement (each major Chicago sporting team has been captured in corn), an important cultural event (the milestone anniversaries of the Beatles, Star Trek, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Girls Scouts have been featured), or a tribute to important historical touchstones (think 2018’s celebration of Illinois’ bicentennial). The 2019 design commemorates the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, depicting a command module, a pair of astronauts, and the American flag.
Each corn maze season begins in September and lasts through Halloween, before Christmas tree season begins. Even in the off-season and summer, running a working, functioning farm and amusement park takes as much boots-on-the-ground hard work as it does business savvy. That’s why the five main owners—George and his wife Wendy, Robert and his wife Carol, and George’s son Ryan—make sure the farm is not only keeping to the traditions that attract people each autumn, but also stretching the boundaries of what they can offer. In addition to the corn maze, Richardson Adventure Farm has a pumpkin patch, zip-lining, pig races, campfire rentals, a petting zoo, train and wagon rides, a 100-foot slide, a 50-foot observation tower, and more.
Today, Richardson Adventure Farm sees over 80,000 visitors annually.
The family also rents out space for private events. Last year, a Live Action Role Play (LARP) group enjoyed running through the maze in costumes for their fantasy-fueled fun.
“As long as people are respectful, we are game for anything,” George says.
Family First, Then Business
With business booming, you’d think the Richardsons are already planning for the next generation’s eventual takeover. And yet, joining the business in an official capacity is strictly up to each family member. There are no assumptions, no obligations, and no pressure. How do they ensure the traditions will continue if participation is voluntary?
“I always knew I’d be back,” Ryan, 38, says. He opted to join the ranks of ownership 12 years ago. “But I never felt forced or coerced. I—like all my cousins—like that the farm is here and we want to make sure it survives.”
Ryan’s office is a converted chicken coop that sits a dozen feet from his grandparents’ 100-year-old farmhouse, where George points out he was born and raised. With so much built-in history, family members want to help and want to be involved in whatever way they can, and that makes all the difference. Indeed, everyone has a job to do—if they want it.
George notes that his parents, Owen and Margaret, had the same approach to succession planning when he and his siblings left the farm. “My brother and I were not encouraged to come back to the farm but it was known that we were welcome. After college, we both were off the farm for a few years and Robert and I chose to come back. My parents said, ‘We’ll make room.’ Anyone who wants to is welcome.”
In fact, gaining experiences outside the farm is what has helped it thrive. “Education has always been the most important,” Wendy says. “Everyone was supposed to go away, go to college, and get as much training as they could and do something somewhere else.”
With so many family members involved, I ask whether things ever get hairy. George thinks for a moment and looks at Wendy before they both give a small shrug, as if to say, “Eh, not really.”
Titles for the executives on the farm are loose, and job duties tend to fall into what each person wants to handle, and what needs to get done.
“We have to make a constant effort to keep each other informed and stay on the same general wavelength to decide the big things, like the corn maze, and the future of the farm,” George says.
Ryan adds: “We all see different things, but we all see the farm heading in the same direction. We can each put our own stamp on it and trust we’ll have the support.”
One nonnegotiable for working at the farm: You must believe in the mission. Richardson Adventure Farm is focused on creating fun, family-friendly, interesting farm-life experiences for any kind of visitor.
“We get to talk to the people, they see we are real farmers, that this is us,” says George. “It’s important to put a face on the business. It’s important to keep it personal and play into our sense of history, which we think makes us unique.”
To plan your visit to Richardson Adventure Farm, visit RichardsonAdventureFarm.com.
Jennon Bell Hoffmann writes lifestyle and human-interest stories from her home in Illinois.