From chicken farm to corn maze

From chicken farm to corn maze

One plot of farmland has served the Conner family’s evolving needs for more than 150 years. We visit the Hilliard, Florida corn maze and share their story.

The first time Eddie Conner’s daughter Amanda asked the longtime farmer to grow a corn maze in Florida, he just laughed.

Conner's A-maize-ing Acres“That’s crazy. No one’s gonna pay money to go in a cornfield. Besides, I don’t have time. I have four chicken houses to take care of,” he said.

He could just picture his ancestors chuckling at the idea. Some of their land had belonged to the Conner family since before the Civil War in the small town of Hilliard, FL. The family had used it to farm sugar cane, cattle and other livestock. Currently he was raising 400,000 chickens a year for Tyson Foods on the Northeast Florida farm. Using it as a recreational attraction had never crossed anyone’s mind.

Then everything changed. Tyson Foods shut down its Jacksonville plant and pulled out of its Northeast Florida operations. Eddie found himself out of a job. He knew it would be too hard for him physically to get back into heavy farming, but he didn’t want to “go punch a time clock somewhere.” Suddenly, starting a corn maze in Florida didn’t sound so crazy.

Fast forward 13 years later, and Conner’s A-Maize-Ing Acres is a smashing success, attracting more than 20,000 people during its seven-week season each fall. Thousands of additional visitors come for field trips to learn about the farm year round.


Growing up on the farm

Standing in a former 500-foot-long chicken house - now a hub for activities and parties for the maze business - Eddie saw memories everywhere he looked.

“I remember walking behind this turn plow in the field when I was young,” he said, pointing to one of the many antiques that decorate the barn. “This was one of the first things John Deere ever made.”

Eddie Conner of Conner's A-maize-ing Acres

Eddie Conner reminisces about the many changes he's seen during a lifetime on his family farm.

 

Across the yard, the 175-year-old farmhouse where Eddie was raised still stands, now serving as a home to his daughter Amanda’s family. Eddie remembers watching his mama cook in the kitchen and getting a whooping on the front porch after throwing some of her prized peaches for sport. He remembers being able to see nothing but Conner family land in every direction.

The family once had 600 acres. Eddie and his brothers inherited it and divided it among themselves. His share, 200 acres, serves his family well, providing space for the business, as well as cattle fields, pig pens, chicken barns, horses and crops.

Curly horses are among rare breeds at Conner's A-Maize-Ing Acres

Curly horses, named for their beautiful curly hair, are among rare animal breeds that make the old fashioned farm even more unique.
 

Leaving country life

There was one small stint in Eddie’s life when he parted ways with his rural lifestyle. He served three years in the United States Army, moving from Fort Benning, Georgia, to Vietnam, to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and then Germany.

“I remember driving down the road and seeing houses that were only a few feet apart. That’s a different life,” Eddie said. “I missed the country, the openness. Out here, I can holler or shoot my gun and nobody’s going to come running and yelling at me for doing it.”

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When Eddie discharged from the Army, he made two of the most important choices of his life: he returned to his hometown and he went to church, where he saw a sweet girl named Betty Jean. He would gather the courage to ask her on a date years later. A farm girl, herself, Betty Jean had grown up just down the road before her family moved away. Eddie was glad to see they had come back.

The lady of the farm

Today, Betty Jean Conner is indeed the lady of the farm, taking pride in every detail of the business. The horses aren’t  just horses - they’re historic Curly horses with the beautiful curly hair that gave them their name. The pigs are Gloucestershire Old Spots, a special English breed known for their docility and intelligence. And guinea fowl roam the property as the designated bug zappers and “alarm system.”

“They don’t like change, so they’ll be the first to let you know when something’s going on,” she said. “They’re also great for getting rid of ticks.”

Eddie Conner II tends to guinea fowl on the Hilliard Florida farm

Eddie Conner II tends to the chickens and guinea fowl.

 

In the kitchen, it was Betty Jean who mandated the use of non-GMO sunflower oil in the fryer. And this year she cancelled a contract with a major soft drink company to instead partner with a local company that makes sweet teas with cane juice rather than corn syrup.

Perhaps that attention to detail is why visiting Conner’s A-Maize-Ing Acres has become a family tradition for thousands of Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia families, who travel sometimes for hours just to visit the farm.

Built with love and faith

The Conners said every decision is made after careful consideration and prayer. They want their farm to represent their love of family, nature, and their Creator, and to help each guest see the world in a new way.

Conners A-Maize-Ing Acres, a Hilliard Florida farm

While it's a fully operating, old-fashioned farm, Conner's A-Maize-Ing Acres also has features for tourists, including concession and eating areas, playgrounds, a "cow train" and even a vat of dried corn for their youngest visitors to play in.

Guests who want to learn about agriculture aren't the only ones getting an education at the old fashioned farm; it’s even more educational for the Conners’ children and grandchildren, the majority of whom live on the property and help with its upkeep.

Everyone has a job: their son, Eddie II, heads up care for the farm animals, feeding them and tending to their needs. His niece Kara McLendon, 12,  juggles farm chores all day, though she still finds time to polish her throwing and catching skills with her softball in the yard. And at just 10 years old, Kara's little sister Cierra can be found buzzing around the property in a gator utility vehicle as she moves from one chore to the next.

This year, the Conners will get some more help when they begin training the girls’ 6-year-old cousin.

“We’re going to start him out picking potatoes and pulling up roots. You’ve gotta start somewhere,” said 15-year-old Hope, the oldest of the grandkids, who’s held every position from kitchen staff to entrance cashier at the corn maze.

Betty Jean couldn’t be more proud of the children’s role on the farm.

“They are learning so many life skills. I call it ‘on the job training,’” she said.

Perhaps someday, the Conner family legacy will be passed on to them, and they will inherit the same land that has provided a living for so many generations before them.

Farm girls: Eddie Conner's daughter and granddaughters help out with chores at Conner's A-Maize-Ing Acres

The Conners' daughter Amanda, center, lives and works on the farm with her own daughters, from left to right, Hope, Cierra and Kara.

Looking for land? View country land for sale throughout the South on Rethink:Rural's parent company's website, RaydientPlaces.com.

To learn more about Conner's A-Maize-Ing Acres, located at 19856 County Road 121 in Hilliard, Florida, visit their website at conners-a-maize-ing-acres.com.

Corn maze photo submitted by the Conner family. All other images by Jacksonville, Florida, photographer Debra Heuskin-Adloff

Tiffany Wilson

The editor of Rethink:Rural, Tiffany Wilson has been passionate about writing - and country life - since childhood. She grew up in a log house in the hills of a small town in Upstate New York. She previously worked as a newspaper reporter and hospital communications coordinator. Today, she lives with her husband and children in Yulee, Florida, and in her free time maintains a popular blog for parents in the Amelia Island area.