Over time, habits become traditions. And traditions become history.
For the Gearhard family of Murrysville, the tradition of farming has reached historic proportions. In August, the Gearhard farm on Mamont Road was designated as a Bicentennial Farm by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
A Bicentennial Farm is one on which the same family maintains a permanent home and owns at least 10 acres of the original deeded property for 200 or more consecutive years. In September, Mayor Robert Brooks presented members of the Gearhard family with a proclamation honoring their dedication and enduring spirit dating to 1769.
"It is really neat when you can see the lineage of farms that go back and families that have farmed them for over 200 years," Mr. Brooks said.
The designation of Pennsylvania Bicentennial Farms began in 2004 and only 165 of the 62,000 farms in Pennsylvania qualify for the honor. The historic farm program recognizes those farms and farm families as having contributed to Pennsylvania's heritage.
While the farms and families are all different types and sizes, they all have the common denominator of durability and love of the land. For Herb Gearhard, that translates into a destiny that he is completely comfortable with.
The farm has been handed down to the Gearhards through their ancestors in the Hayes, Gillespie and Elwood families that came before them.
"Farming is in my blood. This is a great honor for us and for our forefathers and mothers. In working back through the historical records, we discovered that my fifth generation grandfather, Robert Hays, bought the land in 1769. He was the second person to build a house in what was then Franklin Township," Mr. Gearhard said.
"I see myself and my family as temporary stewards of a small, endearing piece of land."
The original farm property was 339.5 acres and today is 150 acres.
Mr. Gearhard's early memories of life on the farm include lots of hard work. "We baled an awful lot of hay because we had over 70 head of cattle. Sometimes so much snow would slide off the barn roof that we had to tunnel through it to get into the barn."
Over the generations the farm has sold eggs and milk, beef, vegetables, corn, grain and hay.
Today the Gearhard farm also is known for its annual corn maze tradition.
Each year thousands of people come to the farm to get lost in the corn maze. Kids and adults alike wander around giggling and laughing, not sure where to turn next. They retrace their steps or realize that they "have been here before" and let out a howl of frustration.
Mr. Gearhard started the maze in 2000 after reading an article about corn mazes in an agricultural magazine. Although it might seem that corn mazes date back to the early 1900s or even more ancient times, the fact is they were invented in 1993 by a man named Don Frantz.
Mr. Frantz is not a farmer; he directs and produces theatrical stage shows of all sorts. In 1993 he was a producer and director for the Walt Disney Co., where he was instrumental in creating Walt Disney Theatrical Productions and bringing "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" to the Broadway stage.
At the time, Mr. Frantz had been contemplating how to build a maze out of hedges on his father's property, like those seen in English estate gardens. Having seen the movie "Field of Dreams" the night before, he was struck by creative lightning the next day as he flew over the massive cornfields of the Midwest.
Two years later, the first cornfield maze was built at Lehigh Valley College and was noted in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest maze.
"I've not found any other activity that has the same effect on people," he said, explaining the popularity of what has become an autumn tradition on thousands of farms around the country. "It is not a spectator sport nor is it competitive. No matter how old or young you are, you have the same shot at being right and solving the maze.
"In the movie, James Earl Jones makes a speech saying that the ballfield is where people feel good about themselves, where they are grounded, where they connect with one another. I like to think of a cornfield maze like that."
Mr. Frantz still leads the American Maze Co., which helps farmers install a cornfield maze complete with music, script, interactive audience activities and directions.
According to Mr. Gearhard, work on the maze begins early in the year. The conventional cornfield is planted in a grid of 136 by 136 rows. All the stalks are planted 30 inches apart.
He then takes his design to graph paper, always spelling out a message. The graph paper mirrors the grid in the field. As long as the planter is attentive and nature cooperates, Mr. Gearhard's cornfield maze rises from the dirt.
Each year he challenges visitors to the maze to figure it out the message. This year's message relates to the farm's Bicentennial designation. Last year, more than 2,400 people went through the corn maze, the most ever.
In 244 years, the Gearhard farm and family have overcome settling native American land, the strife of the Civil War, the scarcity of the Great Depression and many other challenges. Today, Murrysville is experiencing rapid commercial and residential land development. Mr. Gearhard sees this as one of the challenges his descendants will face as they maintain the family heritage.
"I always tell my kids that if they ever sell the farm for a housing development, don't let them name it after the family. I'd be rolling in my grave."
Tim Means, freelance writer; email@example.com.