Leaves are Falling, the Farm is Calling

With its abundance of apple orchards, pumpkin patches, corn mazes and family fun, fall is hard to resist. At Richardson Adventure Farm, the fun reaches an entirely new level.

It’s OK to admit it. Fall is one of the best times of the year, and for good reason. Cooler temperatures, mysterious corn mazes and those apple cider doughnuts are just part of the fun.

Spend a day at Richardson Adventure Farm, in Spring Grove, and you’ll be able to squeeze it all into one fall afternoon.

“Our farm is just about having fun on a fall day,” says George Richardson, a fifth-generation family member who co-owns the farm with his wife, Wendy; his brother and sister-in-law, Robert and Carol Richardson; and his son and daughter-in-law, Ryan and Kristen Richardson.

The farm opened for the fall season Sept. 9, and the fun continues through Oct. 29 this year. A corn maze, wagon ride, train ride, sunflower fields and dozens of other activities are included with the admission.

The beauty about this sprawling farm, located in northern McHenry County, is that there’s something happening year-round. In addition to the fall activities in September and October, there’s also a tulip festival that happens in the spring, a craft beer festival that happens in the summer and a Christmas tree farm that opens the day after Thanksgiving. So, while plenty of farms have few visitors during off months, this family-owned farm keeps the good times rolling all year.

“We used to open for the fall in mid-August, but it’s very hot to be walking through a corn maze,” Robert Richardson says. “And people are still busy with all of their summer activities. So now, we open the weekend after Labor Day when it’s starting to feel like fall.”

The farm started as a homestead in 1836 when Robert and Frank Richardson came to the United States from England. What started as a small farm with 240 acres has blossomed into a 544-acre estate with two farmsteads.

Through the years, one thing has remained constant. The farm has been in the same family for 187 years and counting.

Left to Right: Wendy, George, Ryan, Robert, Carol

“We all have our own responsibilities, but we come together to make major decisions,” George Richardson says. “The fifth and sixth generations of Richardsons own and operate the farm.”

The staff has been working behind the scenes getting the farm in tip-top shape for months.

“We have a million tulips in the spring during our Tulip Festival, and after that we’re pretty much working on building projects, maintenance and getting ready for the season,” George Richardson says. “We wash all of the windows and wax all of the floors so everything is clean and pretty for the start of the season.”

Fall Sweet Fall
One of the main attractions on the farm is a massive corn maze that spans more than 28 acres with 10 miles of trails. The Richardson team works with Shawn Stolworthy, owner of MazePlay.com, a maze design service, to help create designs that can be translated into a cornfield. The actual cornfield design is planted in early June with a specialized planter hooked to a computer and a global positioning system. The trails are tilled again in July to get them cleaned and prepped for opening day.

“We planted our first corn maze in 2001, and by the end of October of that year, we had more than 10,000 visitors,” George Richardson recalls. “We knew this would be a lot of fun.”

During that first year, some high school students went through the maze with fire torches, so George entered the maze to chase them down. As he went to walk them out, he got lost.

“It was at night and I couldn’t find my way out,” he says with a laugh. “Ever since that point, we decided we were going to design the maze with no dead ends. Everyone gets a map, but it’ll still be confusing. There’s a 50-foot observation tower and it’s lit at night so you can’t get lost.”

In years past, the farm has shown off corn maze designs inspired by the likes of Star Trek, The Beatles, the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago Bears, to name a few. This year’s maze celebrates dinosaurs.

Kids can also get in on the corn maze fun with two kinds of trails. One only has left turns and one only has right turns.

“We did this because if a mom has two young kids and she doesn’t want to worry about them getting lost, she can take this trail since you only make left or right turns and you come right out,” George Richardson says.

Since the farm is so big, visitors can also sit back and enjoy a train ride across the grounds. Those who’ve been on the train before might notice a few changes.

“We rebuilt the train this year,” George Richardson says. “The train dates back to 1963, and when we bought the train in 2015 we did a total refurbishment. But, one cylinder was getting weak and sometimes it struggled to get the two carloads of people up the hill. This year, we bought another passenger car and a handicap/passenger car. We needed more power for that load, so we bought a rebuilt engine (72 horsepower instead of 56 horsepower) and rebuilt the transmission. Now, we’re able to give even more rides, and hopefully, trouble free.”

There was also a need for more bathrooms on the north end of the grounds, so a new restroom complex has been added to that part of the farm, which is situated by the animal barn, pig races and the train depot.

“There’s a lot that happens on that side of the farm and we needed more convenient bathrooms,” George Richardson says. “It’s a very nice facility, which was probably our biggest summer project.”

Visitors to the farm might see a figure flying high above them. It’s not a bird or a plane; it’s someone riding a zipline across the grounds. Guests can climb the observation tower to soar across the farm on a 700-foot-long zipline.

“For $16, it’s a very fun ride and it’s entertaining to watch the zipliners gliding over your head all day long,” says Ryan Richardson. “All of the people who operate the ziplines are our employees, and they go through annual training and certification.”

Snoop Pigg, Taylor Swiftfoot and their friends have a muddy good time as they race around Richardson Adventure Farm’s pig race track on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

“Wendy and I do most of the pig races every two hours with live pigs,” George Richardson says.

“Each pig gets their own musical introduction and my wife and I do some funny banter, so that’s entertaining. We might have 600 to 800 people every two hours watching the show.”

Christmas Tradition
Immediately after the fall season ends, the Richardsons and their team turn their attention to Christmas with the help of their Christmas tree farm. People from miles around come to select and harvest their own Christmas trees. This gives families a chance to continue or renew any longstanding traditions of going out and selecting their own Christmas tree.

Back in the 1980s, part of the farm was filled with oak and hickory trees that dairy cows used for pasture. Richardson and his family began thinking of a better way to use the space.

“We asked what we could do with the smaller area and we decided on the Christmas trees,” George Richardson says. “We bought 1,000 Christmas tree seedlings and planted those back in 1981, and six years later those trees grew to 8 feet.”

The family put a sign on a nearby road that explained they had trees for sale, and the stipulation was people had to cut their own.

No problem.

“I think my recollection is we sold 186 trees that first year,” George Richardson says. “People were thanking us for opening our farm so they could walk around and choose their own Christmas tree.”
Today, the farm has more than 50,000 trees with plenty of variety available across 75 acres, so anyone who comes looking for the perfect tree will have a good chance of finding the one of their dreams.

Richardson Farm staff make the process even easier because they take guests on a wagon ride to and from the fields – and they’ll even haul the tree. While this is going on, people can thaw out indoors with hot chocolate or coffee, which can be paired with a delicious homemade doughnut.

In addition to Christmas trees, the farm also has hundreds of wreaths, garland and other decorations made on site to complete a home’s accent for the holidays.

There’s no Offseason
The autumn festival and Christmas tree farm are busy enough, but the Richardson family’s farm has still more.

Every summer brings a brightly colored sunflower field, making it a popular place to grab photos. It’s a site unlike anything else. The sunflowers are planted with more than 3 miles of walking paths, where visitors can spy a range of colors like orange, yellow, gold, red and peach.

The sunflowers typically are in full bloom through September and might last into October, depending on the weather. They’re not hard to miss, because the 13 acres of sunflowers are planted fairly close to the farm’s entrance.

“We plant them late, about the time when we do the corn maze, because we don’t want them to blossom until Sept. 9 when we open,” George Richardson says. “The plan is they’ll open in conjunction with the corn maze as long as they’re blossoming.”

There really is no “offseason” at the farm. Even during the summer, there are other events and activities happening. There’s a MUDGIRL obstacle race that takes place on the grounds in July. It’s a 3-mile mud race with more than 17 obstacles geared toward women.

There’s also a craft brew festival that happens on the grounds in June. Hosted by the Richmond-Spring Grove Area Rotary Club, the Craft Beer Adventure Festival features local craft beers, wine and spirits scattered throughout the farm grounds.

“We try to keep the grounds going so we can use them for more than just two months out the year,” George Richardson says.

And then there are the tulips – all one million of them. Since the Richardson Tulip Festival started in 2021, the farm has added more than 300,000 new bulbs from 30 varieties. This, of course, adds on to the bulbs from previous years. The tulips are typically in full bloom from mid-April through mid-May, creating about two to three weeks of all-out color in the spring landscape.

The tulips are planted near a private 36-acre lake, which sets a backdrop for the amazing, breathtaking setting. The gift shop is open during the spring for wine tasting, fresh doughnuts, popcorn, kettle corn and indoor restrooms.

January and February are the quietest months on the farm, but there’s still work to be done behind closed doors.

“We have to chat with the tax man and insurance man and that fun stuff,” George Richardson says.

“My wife orders supplies for next year, like things for the gift shop. We get to work from home in those months, and it’s much slower and not as hectic.”

Richardson Farm has come a long way in its nearly two centuries, but one thing is for certain: for many a local family, no season is complete without a trip to the farm.

“Our farm is about having fun,” George Richardson says. “We get high school kids, young couples, and guests with or without kids. People can even bring their dogs if they’re well-behaved. We’ll also get the 40, 50, and 60-year-olds who’ll let their kids and grandkids run around while they sit around the campfire. We get people of all ages who visit, and that feels really good for us.”