Thursday, October 8, 2009

Maze celebrates the City of Champions

Airplane passengers flying to or from Arnold Palmer Airport in Latrobe, might think that UFOs have revisited the area and have created crop circles in the cornfields near the Westmoreland County Fairgrounds.

But that's just Jeff Johns Sr. -- at it again -- creating works of art in his fields.

The giant City of Champions maze carved into more than five acres of a cornfield at Lonesome Valley Farms, in Mt. Pleasant, features a football on a pedestal similar to this year's Super Bowl trophy. Not far away, two hockey sticks with a hockey puck represent the Stanley Cup champs.

For the ninth year, the Johns family has taken one of its cornfields and turned it into a canvas on which they, along with friends, create a detailed maze with a theme. When seen from the air, the maze takes the form of a picture.

"It is a very intricate process, gridding out the entire field. There is a lot of measuring and cutting out to get your design to look like what you want it to look, it takes some time," Johns Sr. said.

His son, Jeff Johns Jr. is the resident artist. He was only 17 when he designed his first maze.

"I always liked drafting, building and nature. I had a knack for sketching and drawing pictures," Johns Jr. said. He said that he starts off with a drawing but he has learned to adapt his plans to the lay of the land.

"You might have a weak spot in the corn or a low-lying area where damp spots could form so we have to move over a few rows," Johns Jr. added.

"The maze has to be cut into the field in June because the corn cannot be more than ankle high for you to be able to see the design taking shape. Half a dozen people help us to cut out the maze," Johns Sr. explained.

He said that people stand in the field as reference points and help with the measuring.

Most of the mazes have a fall theme, but thanks to the inspiration of Johns Sr.'s wife Denise, the maze took a different turn this year.

"We were all out there cutting out the maze and were about a third of the way through when my wife said, 'Stop! Why don't we do something to celebrate the Super Bowl win and the Stanley Cup?'" said Johns Sr. "We stopped what we were doing and completely changed the plan."

Johns Jr. said that what he enjoys most about building the mazes is, "seeing the end project, what it looks like from the sky. When you are building it you put reference points in, but you really don't know what it looks like till you see it from the air."

Some of the scenes they have created in the past include a huge pumpkin, horses running through a canyon, the Kecksburg UFO, and an outline of a haunted house complete with a witch on her broom flying across the moon.

The City of Champions Maze is now open, but one group got a sneak preview. The Laurel Highlands Regional YMCA Swim Team visited the maze as a team building exercise.

"We had 51 swimmers and five coaches go through the maze. They were paired into six teams of swimmers and one team of coaches. We made it a joke to try to beat the coaches," said Laurel Highlands, the team's head coach.

She said the teams used flashlights to go through the maze and they had to find four different points in the maze where there is a hole punch to stamp your card. Only one team successfully solved the maze in an hour and 43 minutes.

"A couple of the little kids were scared going in but after John gave the speech about security and how you could get out of the maze, they were fine. It is very well organized and safe," Highlands said.

The City of Champions Maze is open from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. with the last ticket being sold at 9 p.m. Adult tickets are $7; children 12 years and younger are $6.

In addition to the maze, the Johns family also offers a Haunted Hayride Valley of Terror with a haunted trail/maze at the end that encompasses about 15 to 20 acres of the farm.

"This is the 20th or 22nd year we have done the Haunted Hayride," Johns Sr. said. "We are known for our Killer Combine, it has body parts on it and flashing lights. This year it will blow flames, too."

The hayride includes about 50 volunteers that Johns Sr. calls the Boo Crew. "The people who volunteer are crazy about Halloween, they just love it," Johns Sr. said.

The Haunted Hayride runs from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Adult tickets are $12; children 12 years and younger are $10.

Visitors to Lonesome Valley Farms will also find a Pumpkin Sling, fire sites, concessions, games, a gift shop and a country Hayride which runs from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Adult tickets are $6 ; children 12 and younger are $5.

"The goal here is to have something for everyone," Johns Sr. said.

Lonesome Valley Farms is open every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through the last weekend in October, weather permitting. All children must be accompanied by an adult. The City of Champions Maze and the Country Hayride are also available, by appointment, for groups and organizations during the week. For more information, call 724-423-4290 or visit them on the Web at

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