LINGLE – Dan Ellis is just a big kid at heart.
You almost have to be to envision all the fun and games he and his family plan each year at their Ellis Harvest Home west of Lingle. And, call it agri-tourism, agri-tainment or what you will, it’s helping Dan and the clan stay viable on the land that’s been in his family almost 60 years.
This is the original family farm, Dan said. His father, Wendell, bought the land along U.S. Hwy. 26 just short of two miles west of Lingle in 1959.
Wendell Ellis passed away in 2006, so he never saw what’s become of his family farm. This year marks the 10th anniversary of what’s become an almost iconic autumn destination for families from Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming.
Each year, thousands flock to the Harvest Home farm to play. During the season, Dan and his family host weekly farmers markets, selling produce they grow fresh themselves in four tunnel hot-houses. But it’s during the month of October when the fun really begins in the Ellis Harvest Home Corn Maze.
Activities at the farm actually started about 14 years ago, with a couple of hills of pumpkins, Dan said.
“We started with two hills, just for the family, in the early 1980s,” he said. “Next year, it was a few more, then it was a few more, and now, we’re up to 10 acres. We have more than 50 varieties of pumpkins, from the minis to the regulars.”
But it’s arguably the corn maze that serves as the main attraction for the 5,000 to 6,000 people who flock to the farm annually at this time of year. The first maze went in 10 seasons ago, with the planning and work beginning in the spring with the help of a company from Spanish Park, Utah.
The theme this year is the Great American Eclipse. Once the corn is planted, the Utah crew arrives and sprays down the corn with herbicide in a set pattern. Then, it’s just a waiting game until fall.
Past themes have included “Buy Local,” support for the military and, of course, the University of Wyoming Cowboys. The Ellis clan comes up with the ideas and the folks from Utah works up the plan on the computer.
The maze is about seven acres this year and actually incorporates two separate mazes, Dan said. They’ve had mazes covering upwards of about 10 acres, but that’s “just too much walking,” he said.
There’s also a third, much smaller hay-bale maze in the center of the farm yard, with the rest of the activities. The Harvest Home Fall Festival also offers concessions, giant wooden boxes filled with corn and lots of other opportunities for kids to get dirty.
“A lot of kids aren’t allowed to just play in the dirt” at home, Dan said. “Out here, it’s encouraged.
“It’s really fun watching the kids (as they walk into the yard from the parking lot), especially if they’ve never been here,” he said. “Some of the kids will just stop and stare, like they’re saying, ‘We get to play in all of this?’”
A major attraction is always the petting zoo, featuring piglets, pygmy goats, chickens and lots of kittens, which is a special treat for the kids who may not have pets at home. They just love petting the kittens. Three or four years ago, Dan and his son Zack recalled, one young boy carried one of the kittens around for most of his time at the farm.
“That was so cute,” Dan said.
New this year is a Jumping Pillow, what’s essentially a giant air mattress that’s almost – but not quite – like a trampoline.
Of course, there are pumpkins for sale and a concession stand – the Red Barn Cafe – featuring autumn-themed foods including chili, hot chocolate and cider, popcorn balls, caramel apples and more. They tried burgers, thinking just the smell of the grilling meat would attract people, but they weren’t a big seller.
“For some reason, there wasn’t a lot of interest in the burgers,” Dan said. “People are looking for something unique to fall. That’s why the caramel apples do so well.”
Admission to the Fall Festival is $10, which gets access to the mazes, Jumping Pillow, petting zoo and more. Concessions and a chance to play with the corn cannon – an air cannon that fires pieces of corn cob – and sling shots are extra.
Ellis Harvest Home festival is open weekends, 10 a.m. - 10 p.m. on Saturdays and 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Sundays. During the week, Dan and his crew host school groups from all around the region.
The annual event is fun and it offers the family a chance to entertain their own inner children, watching the families who come from all around to play, Dan and Zack said. The festival and weekly farmers markets also provides enough of a financial shot in the arm to help them maintain their rural family lifestyle in difficult times.
“We make a little bit of money,” Dan said. “It’s one more piece of the pie to make it in agriculture.”
After family patriarch Wendell passed away in 2006, the family had to sell their land to help settle his estate. They continued farming the home place until they had the chance to buy their family’s land back about four years ago. Overall, Dan believes Wendell would be pleased.
“I’ve often wondered what Wendell would think of all this,” he said. “I think he would love sitting in the yard and visiting with all the folks that come out.
“He’d definitely enjoy watching the families having fun,” Dan said. “It’s definitely a family affair out here.”