Right after Halloween ends, the inevitable thought that goes through Vickie McKee’s mind is “What can we do next year?”
There’s always another design for the corn maze she maintains. Some years, it’s haunted. In 2008, they even paid tribute to the Orange High Baseball 2A State Championship team, which included their son, Matt, with a design of baseballs and a diamond that would have Kevin Costner’s character from “Field of Dreams” proud.
While the couple’s other crops are set to be harvested, David McKee plants his corn in July, which is why it was still green when this year’s maze opened on Friday. By the time it closes next month, it will all be brown.
When Vickie and David opened their haunted corn maze in 2001, her own father scoffed over the idea. Now, it’s an Orange County tradition.
“There was a couple here yesterday from Chapel Hill,” said Vickie on Sunday afternoon. “She was originally from Georgia and he was from upper-state New York. She said, ‘This reminds me of home. We live in Chapel Hill, but when I walked up here, it felt like home.’ That’s what we want it to be.”
A diverse population ranging from Carrboro, Durham, Alamance County and lots of college students now make the trip since Vickie has worked hard to spread the word through social media. Each year, the maze welcomes thousands of people.
The McKee Cornfield Maze opened on Friday to conclude the most humid September that Vickie can recall. From now until November 4, it will be open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
The maze started in 2001 out of financial necessity. For years, David and Vickie were among many tobacco farmers in the Caldwell community, which was typical for rural areas. From the 1880s until 2000, the golden leaf was the largest source of income in North Carolina.
Tobacco sales declined during the 1990s due to fewer people smoking and greater competition from cheaper foreign tobacco. David, who co-owned the crop with his brother Earl, sensed the writing on the wall.
For the McKees, the future wasn’t golden leafs on a stalk. It was visitors coming to a haunted corn maze to get stalked.
“It was a time to diversify,” said Vickie.
Around that time, Vickie starting reading about hedge mazes in England, some of which spanned two miles. That was inspiration enough.
David and Vickie transformed their tobacco field into a haunted cornfield maze, spanning 12 acres. Vickie, who grew up on a dairy farm in Orange Grove, had a memorable exchange with her father shortly after opening.
“He asked me ‘Have you lost your mind?’” McKee said. “He told me ‘This is a great field of corn. Why are you cutting paths in a field because people aren’t going to come?’”
As years went by and the maze grew in popularity attracting visits from surrounding counties, her father would come out just to watch kids with their parents walk through the field.
“He would just shake his head and say ‘I can’t believe that people come to walk in a corn field,” Vickie said. “He just could never understand it, but he loved it.”
About 30 people were hired to haunt the maze. The McKees would give them outfits lifted from ‘70s and ‘80s horror films to frighten patrons. Several chainsaws were utilized. So were werewolves. If you have to ask if Michael Myers showed up fresh after escaping from Smith Grove Sanitarium in Haddonfield, Illinois, you just aren’t paying attention.
“We knew everyone who worked here,” Vickie said. “We had everyone in their place. We stationed them and made sure they were in the right spot.”
Miles of power cords were pulled into the field for the sake of strobe lights, foggers and tunnels. One year, the McKees did their job of scaring people too well.
“We had a lady come out one night a few years ago,” said Vickie. “She looked at me and said ‘Well, you did it again.’ And she lifted her shirt to show that she had gone to the bathroom too soon.”
The McKee Haunted Corn Maze was among the first of its kind in North Carolina. Now, the concept has spread across the state.
“We would have different farmers come here,” Vickie said.
Vickie went on the join the Board of Directors for Agritourism, a marketing arm of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture that encourages learning and engagement for young people on farms.
After 17 years, this year the maze is in transition.
“We’re trying to diversify,” said Vicki McKee. “We’re trying to do more family events. We want to have some food trucks out here. That’s our thought this year.”
The McKees are planning movies that will bring the entire area together. Vickie wants to show “Monsters Inc.” for kids. But the haunted nature of the corn maze’s past won’t fade into oblivion. McKee wants to show the 2002 Mel Gibson thriller “Signs” for an adult feature.
“It’s set on a farm,” McKee said. “It’s the perfect film to show here.”
There are two mazes. The larger one, for adults, is 12 acres. For adults who just want a leisurely stroll, they can get and out without going into the backfield. For those who want a challenge, Vickie says people can go further into the field complete with eight hidden checkpoints that includes hidden clues, where people “can’t get lost, but they can get CORNfused.”
“There are paths and labyrinths that can lead you everywhere,” Vickie said. “But it’s nice the way it’s set up because you’ve got the perimeter of the woods and a tower. So while you’re in there, you’ve got your bearings even though it’s a wall of corn.”
The children’s maze, which is two acres, is set up to help kids learn the letters of the alphabet.
There are also hayrides, a barrel train ride for children, cornhole games and lots of animals waiting to be petted.
“You’d be surprised how many people have never seen farm animals,” Vickie said.
Even more so than cash, family is the main reason for the maze’s longevity. David and Vickie started the venture so their three sons (Rob, Matt & Kirk) could grow up in agriculture. The sons grew up helping to maintain the maze, and Matt had his wedding reception there in 2016. Now, all three are out of the house but live nearby.
Vickie operates the maze while maintaining her regular job as a nurse at Duke Hospital. David still farms soybeans, corn and beef cattle.
“We make it a fun, wholesome place for other families to come,” Vickie said. “We’re all tuned in to the Internet and our iPads and our cell phones now. But this is a good place to get a nice walk and enjoy the farm life.”