Every year in the underrated borough of Queens, New York, the Queens County Farm Museum holds the annual County Fair. It’s pretty small as far as county fairs go, especially when you consider that Queens is one of the most populated municipalities in the country and is undisputedly the most ethnically diverse place on Earth. But it has all the features of a good country fair: there is overpriced junk food, agricultural exhibits, arts and crafts, and even hay rides.
There is also a corn maze. Adults can pay nine dollars apiece for the honor of finding their way through the corn maze and feel like completely lost fools for an hour or so. Every year the maze is in a different design with an image that carries a theme throughout the whole ‘The Amazing Maize Maze’ experience. This year the corn was planted in a design of a jokey on horseback to celebrate American Pharaoh winning horse racing’s Triple Crown just outside of Queens at the Belmont Stakes.
I went through the corn maze with my wife a few years ago before we had children. I didn’t enjoy it very much. My wife wanted to get our toddler daughters out of the apartment and give them something interesting to do. A corn maze is an old American tradition and one you wouldn’t think you’d find in New York City. But the Queens County Farm Museum is a verdant oasis in the middle of our sprawling metropolis, and it seems wrong not to take full advantage of all it offers.
We got to the fair and made our way through the petting zoo and to the corn maze. I paid our admission and asked if we would be allowed to take the stroller with us. The people working the maze said that while we could bring the stroller with us, the corn maze could be narrow and muddy in places and we were better off without it. Our girls have been fully mobile for months now, so a brisk walk through the corn would do them some good. It would serve to tire them out and get them ready for their post-lunch nap.
We were issued a flag on a tall piece of narrow PVC pipe and a paper map that we would fill out as we found clues and mailboxes with map pieces throughout the maze. We started our walk, holding our daughters’ hands and relishing the lovely afternoon among the corn stalks.
I quickly remembered why I didn’t like the corn maze several years ago. It embodies two things that I like the least: being hot and sweaty and getting lost. It was an unseasonably warm day and the corn provides no shade. The sun was at its highest and no one had a choice but to get lost. Our daughters tired out first and my wife and I had to carry them everywhere. The girls cried whenever we tried to put them down, which we needed to do frequently to gather clues and map pieces.
We kept at it though, not wanting to bail out before we found our way out of this confounded crypt of corn. We kept running into many of the same people who were trying to make their escape as well. Every few minutes another group would find their exit and a happy-sounding employee would announce it over a public address system that was otherwise belching warmed-over pop tunes. “OK, we have another victor, what is your name??!”
Workers oversee the maze from a raised platform and a separate tower. In at least one spot within the maze, a length of irrigation tubing serves as a communication conduit and a monitor in a tower will provide a clue once you give him or her the password.
“I need a Triple Crown,” I gave the password to a young man at the other end of the tubing.
His answer was a cryptic clue-laden sentence along the lines of, “Sectors five and six are the hardest ones you seek, mount the horse to get a peek.”
“You want us to start doing heroin,” I mentioned. I actually took it to mean that we should head for the part of the maze depicted as the horse or jockey, but he offered no advice on how to get to that location. Other maze workers who roam around within the giant puzzle offered more tangible clues and to the staff’s credit, the corn maze is run very well. Just be sure to bring lots of extra water and if you have children under three bring something to carry them in.
After much walking around and getting lost over and over again, we eventually found our way to the exit. We emerged as victors, thirsty and miserable and vowing to do it differently next time.
It took us 56 minutes to get through the corn maze and we got out too late to catch the Great Cordone’s 12:30 show, which had people spilling out of the show tent.
We made our way through the fair and over to where most of the food was. My wife celebrated our surviving the corn maze by ordering some roasted sweet corn. The girls couldn’t have been happier.
No city is as emblematic of the urban life as New York City, so it may be a surprise to find that there are several farms operating in the city. There’s a working farm in Queens, the city’s largest borough.
The Queens County Farm Museum is a real working farm located in the Glen Oaks neighborhood of Queens.
The farm dates all the way back to the late 1600s and is the longest continually farmed site in New York State. It started as a farm during the days of the Dutch settlers. For many years it survived because it was run by patients of Creedmoor State Hospital, a mental hospital. Creedmoor is still in use today even though some of its buildings are abandoned. It’s fitting that farming survived in this area of Queens because of inmates from an insane asylum.
The Queens County Farm Museum is open to the public and while it is largely used for educational purposes, it is still a legitimate farm. You can buy fresh eggs laid by their chickens and eat vegetables grown there. When you go to visit you’ll see workers moving wheelbarrows of dirt and feeding animals.
The farm is visited by school groups and has lots of activities for students and volunteers. You can take classes there on a variety of topics. You can also rent space for parties. In the autumn, the farm grows an elaborate corn maze and the public is challenged to work their way through it with a map. My wife and I entered the maze a few years ago and it was not easy to find your way out.
This past weekend, they held a carnival there and the wife and I took our 15-month-old girls there to meet up with the in-laws and enjoy the nice weather. They got to pet rabbits, feed goats and sheep, ride ponies and take a hay ride. The girls got free balloons from the Glen Oakes Volunteer Ambulance Corps. We were able to take the girls up on a large tractor and got to see a great magic show by Cordone.
The five boroughs used to be covered in farms. New York City at one point did not extend far beyond the downtown area. Where City Hall is now was considered the remote outskirts of town (when they renovated City Hall Park in the late 1990s, workers unearthed graves from a poor house that used to be there).
In addition to the Queens County Farm Museum, there are urban farmers growing vegetables and raising chickens on small plots of land throughout the city. Staten Island has several working farms, though not open to the public. And there are people trying to preach the gospel of organic food by carving gardens out of abandoned lots and any scrap of space they can find.
The city currently doesn’t have enough arable land to make a dent in the agricultural markets, but it’s nice to know that people who live in this hothouse of a metropolis can get a taste of the farming life without leaving the city.
Autumn officially begins on Monday, Sept. 22, and even though New York had a relatively mild summer this year, there are still plenty of reasons to feel good about the new season.
Fall is just better than summer, even a pleasant summer. Autumn is one of the best times of the year. It gives one a sense of renewal, of things starting over again. It is time to celebrate, dedicate oneself anew and see crisply the possibilities of the coming seasons. And this sense of renewal is one of the reasons autumn and New York go so well together. Starting things over again and exploring new frontiers, harvests and chapters of life is what New York City is all about as well.
Here are some ways you can celebrate the coming Fall season in New York that don’t involve fashion shows or raking leaves:
Corn Maze at the Queens County Farm Museum: You probably don’t expect to find too many working farms in the five boroughs of New York City, but there are. Chief among them is the Queens County Farm Museum, located in the Glen Oaks section of Queens. Its annual corn maze (“Maize Maze”) opens this coming Saturday, Sept. 20. A few years ago I entered the corn maze there and managed to find my way out. A few times it was tempting to just break through the walls of corn and thrash my way out of there as if pursued by the Children of the Corn. But we managed to get out without losing our minds, though we didn’t stop at every check point along the way (next time, maybe). Corn mazes are quite common in more rural parts of the country, even those not famous for corn. I’ve come across several while driving through New England.
Any chance to take part in the country life while within the boundaries of New York City is an adventure you should take.
Foliage watching in Inwood Hill Park: People from all over the country come to the Northeast in order to drive through upstate New York or parts of New England to see the trees change color. Save yourself the car rental and take the A train (or the 1 train) to the “upstate Manhattan” neighborhood of Inwood and Inwood Hill Park. I was fortunate enough to live across the street from Inwood Hill Park for more than 10 years. The brilliant array of colors that the trees of Inwood present are as grand as any you’ll find upstate. Inwood Hill Park contains the last natural forest in Manhattan. Even on a day when lots of people are in the park, it’s not hard to find yourself in a quiet and remote part of the woods. Also, because New York City is warmer than upstate and New England, the trees will take longer to change colors, so you have more time to make it uptown. While you’re in Inwood you may spot some eagles or hawks in the park. Nearby Fort Tryon Park is worth a visit too, but lacks the dense woods.
Learn some new skills: Want to be more of a capable person and less of a lazy spendthrift? Well the Fall is a good time to learn some new skills and there are chances to learn how to be a more useful person. For example, New York State is offering free disaster preparedness training courses both in person and online. And this weekend in Queens you can learn how to can your own vegetables thanks to the Flushing CSA (full disclosure: my wife is a member of Flushing CSA and is helping organize this event). So you have no excuse not to emerge from autumn a better and more prepared person.