Shawn Stolworthy heard about the idea of something called a "corn maze" while attending some fertilizer meetings. He was intrigued by the idea. He enjoyed art and loved the idea that he could combine it with farming and make a corn maze. Initially, his father with whom he farmed, was less than impressed with the idea. In time, he agreed to allow Shawn to try a maze on a corner of the farm. Little did his father know Shawn would launch a new career designing and cutting mazes across the country and touch many lives along the way.
In 1998, Shawn planted corn for the first time. His family and friends pitched in to work beside him. “Working with my dad creating the first maze was great!” Shawn recalls, “He was supportive and helpful and I was grateful.”
Of course, success didn’t come without obstacles.
“I had studied a lot about corn while obtaining my agronomy degree but we were potato farmers. We didn’t even have a corn planter and no one else in the area was growing corn. We planted the first maze with a grain drill. It wasn’t the best option, but it did work. It turns out the corn does well following a potato crop. We were using GPS to fertilize and mark out potato rows."
During that summer Shawn’s brother helped him make a corn maze and develop a GPS system to cut it. It wasn’t perfect and marking out the first maze was quite the challenging.
Shawn said, “While I was cutting the first maze, I was skeptical that the design would look like the tiger I was trying to create. So after I had a certain portion of it done, we decided to check it. Our spray pilot flew up and took the picture—that was back when we had film. We had wait to have photos developed! Thankfully, when we got the pictures they looked good so we went on and finished cutting the maze.”
After months of preparation, Opening Day arrived and Shawn was ready for his first customers—but none came! Shawn recalls his disappointment, “I wish I could have known that it is common to start out slow!" They opened in early August and hadn’t done much advertising previous to the opening. “I knew it would start a little slow but not that slow,” Shawn said. After a week of advertising, a few people started to show up. People liked the maze and spread the word that it was fun. As the parking lot starting to fill up, more people driving by on the freeway began paying attention and the attendance began to snowball! As more and more families poured into his maze, Shawn’s anxiety settled into relief and finally bloomed into real joy! Shawn was very gratified to see for himself how much fun his customers were having and, as a direct result, he recalls, “We had a good season that first year.”
After the first year, Shawn was hooked. He started planning for the next year's maze as soon as the maze closed. Though the Stolworthy’s were successful cutting the maze the first year, they knew they could develop a better system for the next year. Over the winter they developed a better way to mark out a corn maze using GPS. Marking out and cutting the maze was successful and Shawn realized that he could do it more accurately and quickly (and for less). He created a website and started advertising the maze service. The first maze Shawn cut for someone else was in Washington state. Thankfully, he had a wife that was willing to take a tent and a couple of sleeping bags and travel with him across Montana and Washington to support his dream. After helping a few farmers that first year he realized that this could develop into a career.
Though Shawn’s father-in-law said nothing about it at that time, he was really concerned about Shawn taking his daughter across the country and trying to make maze cutting a business. Shawn recounts, “We had to put our life savings into the business and took a chance that we could make the business work.” They faced heat and weather challenges that made it difficult, yet Shawn had a willingness to trudge through fields with a backpack, followed by a tractor to sketch out the trails. Shawn remembers, “I got in really good physical condition those first few years.” He remembers times when the mosquitos were so thick they created black clouds, times when he'd get run into by the tractor operator, and how difficult it was trying to lead the tractor through fields of fully-grown corn. “The corn would cut up my face and wrists and the tassels would slap the back of my head when the tractor got too close.”
Overall, however, Heather and Shawn overcame the obstacles, expanding their business one farm at a time. Through the long and hard process, they continue to say, “A lot of the time, it feels like we have someone from on high looking out for our maze business.” During challenges, when others would have given up, they persevered with the love of the people and the joy of working in the field.
Shawn wanted to help people with more than just maze cutting. He was making some good friendships with customers and wanted their businesses to succeed, so he created a maze manual. Shawn has often said, “I've wished I had something like my Maze Manual and marketing materials to help me when I started. I would have created a far more effective marketing campaign and it could have saved me a lot of money as well.” He created the manual, in large part, because he wanted to help others attain the success he desired much quicker.
“Fortunately we did enough right in those first few years that we became very successful and we had fun doing it,” Shawn says. They have come a long way since then! Today MazePlay has expanded to include customers throughout the nation and a few other countries. MazePlay is no longer just Shawn and Heather. They have a talented team of professionals that are passionate about what they do. MazePlay creates the most stunning, technical, and fun mazes. They have produced a very advanced and efficient maze cutting system. They designed the wildly successful Farm Scene Investigation© corn maze game and illustrated storybook. They continue to be interested in their customers' success, providing marketing materials and assistance for them. For many of their larger customers with a number of different events, MazePlay creates some really neat cartoon maps.
Shawn continues to love the work—both with his team and with the people they serve together. He says, “I have an artistic background and I have loved doing the field work—even when I was out doing it by hand. I consider myself an artist and I paint with a John Deere tractor.” Even Shawn’s father-in-law is now willing to tell others what Shawn does for a living. If you would like to share this experience and make a corn maze of your own, we are ready and excited to help!