The Celebrate Rural Montgomery Fall Festival at Butler's Orchard, scheduled for today and listed in the Oct. 7 Weekend section, has been postponed because of rain. It has been rescheduled for Sunday, Oct. 30, from 2 to 5:30. (Published 10/8/2005)
Autumn harvest observances date back thousands of years. But today's celebrations prove a far cry from the ancients' ceremonies. The rural rituals of 2005 fall under the term "agritourism," in which farmers creatively use their natural resources to promote fun and earn a living.
As winter nears, "people realize that for outdoor activities, it's sort of the last hurrah," says Todd Butler of Butler's Orchard, one of the area's many farms offering fall festivities.
Longtime area farms close every year, often because an owner retires with nobody wanting to take over a business that faces fluctuating, undependable income and increasing pressures from developers. Many owners stick around, however, thanks in part to the income generated by the public's eagerness to embrace tradition.
Every fall, city and suburban folks drive out to the farms to see barnyard animals, sample cider and choose odd-shaped gourds for their Thanksgiving table arrangements.
"We were the first ones in our area to do anything like this," says Wendy Wright of Hill High Farm in Winchester, Va., which found a new source of revenue by opening to the public 10 years ago. "It just grew each year."
Butler's, Hill High and four other locations described here -- including one marking its final season -- share a bond with dozens of area farms: Family-owned and -operated, they feature signature traditions that have kept people returning. Some offer activities that are as simple as selecting a pumpkin from the field, while others rival amusement parks. Down on the farm, you can kiss a pig while wearing wax lips or scare yourself silly in a haunted barn with 18 sound systems.
The following six farms provide a glimpse of the choices within an hour or so of the District. For more destinations, see the list of farms on Page 33.
Milestone in Rural Montgomery
Picture Montgomery County: high-tech office buildings, congested thoroughfares and burgeoning development. But if you venture off Interstate 270 at Germantown and make a couple of turns, the image changes dramatically. You're tooling along a quiet, tree-lined country road. Round a bend, and there sits Butler's Orchard and Farm Market.
"For me, it's like, ahhhhhhh: You're out of the rat race," Todd Butler says of the feeling that washes over him when entering the rural enclave. Fifty-five years after parents George and Shirley Butler, fresh out of college, bought 37 acres, Todd and siblings Susan and Wade run the now 300-acre produce farm. George died five years ago, but Shirley still helps out in the store.
Butler's gradually expanded and added various seasonal crops, one of which grew into a popular tradition, the Butler's Orchard Pumpkin Festival. For a high school project, Todd started a pick-your-own pumpkin patch. A few years later, he attended a farm marketing conference, where a farmer talked about his fall Pumpkinland event. The idea clicked with the Butlers, who asked their foreman to create some characters out of stacked pumpkins and gourds. Then the family added a handful of activities.
"It was one day, a Saturday, in October," Butler recalls. "The next year, we went to one weekend."
Now marking its 25th anniversary, the event has grown to one of the largest of its kind in suburban Maryland. Thousands of people visit every October weekend and Columbus Day to pick pumpkins and enjoy various family-oriented goings-on around the spacious farmland behind Butler's market.
"It's kind of basic stuff, but it's things a lot of kids have never had the opportunity to do," Butler says of such festival staples as a straw-filled hayloft, hayrides, mazes and barnyard animals, which the family borrows from neighboring farms. This year, the Butlers added three long, plastic slides set between hay bales atop a huge mound of dirt.
The festival's silver anniversary coincides with the 25th anniversary of Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve, 93,000 acres of farmland and rural open space in the county's northwestern section, preserved through a nationally acclaimed land-use plan. The milestone will be honored Saturday during a Celebrate Rural Montgomery Fall Festival at Butler's, one of the farms in the reserve.
BUTLER'S ORCHARD -- 22200 Davis Mill Rd., Germantown. 301-972-3299. www.butlersorchard.com. Farm market and pick-your-own hours are Tuesday through Sunday 10 to 5:30. The market closes Dec. 24 and reopens in May. The Pumpkin Festival takes place Saturdays, Sundays and Columbus Day 10 to 5 through Oct. 31. $8, free for children younger than 2. Festival highlights include a tunnel through a straw pyramid and Pumpkinland, featuring 20 to 30 characters made from pumpkins, gourds and squash. Ride ponies from 11 to 4, $3. Other activities requiring additional fees include face painting and kids' crafts. Live bands from noon to 4. Pumpkin Harvest Days, $5.50 per person, take place Tuesday through Friday 9:30 to 5 through Oct. 29 and include a hayride, small pumpkin, two apples and most play activities. Pick your own pumpkins from about 25 acres. The free Celebrate Rural Montgomery Fall Festival is Saturday from 4 to 7 and includes most Pumpkin Festival activities, along with anniversary cake, a bonfire and marshmallow roast, a raffle with prizes and live music. Visitors who arrive at the farm earlier in the day may stay for the evening event.
The Scarecrows' Last Stand
Cars don't travel too fast along Gallahan Road in Clinton during October. Drivers brake and crane their necks when they catch sight of Cherry Hill Farm & Orchard's unusual pumpkin patch and a scene that could be titled "Day of the Living Scarecrows -- in Technicolor!"
There they are, lined up or scattered around and about the fields: hundreds of one-of-a-kind figures, many looking as if they'll bolt right toward startled passersby. There's that green-faced character from "The Mask," and over there, a pig couple, the sow clad in a pink dress and purple head wrap.
Cherry Hill's scarecrow tradition started about 40 years ago, when Pat Gallahan set up a display of 25 in her mother-in-law's yard. Every fall, the number grew. To get a good look at the straw people, now numbering about 500, visitors take hayrides.
Each year features a mixture of new scenes -- such as a "Shrek" tableau, complete with onion carriage -- and old favorites, such as a wedding party, gorillas doing the limbo and hillbillies.
When they're not exploring the farm's outdoor activities, folks head for the market's homemade apple cider doughnuts and soft-serve pumpkin- or apple-pie-flavored ice cream. This fall, the tastes prove bittersweet. Worried looks cross customers' faces as they approach Pat and say, "I've heard a rumor." She confirms their fears: Having sold most of the land for development, the Gallahans soon will close the farm that has been in husband Alton Gallahan's family since shortly after the Civil War.
"I never meant this to be an institution -- we're just trying to make a living," Alton says. At age 72, tired of farming's hard physical work and mental strain, he's ready to retire, relocate and, Pat says, "travel while we can still walk!"
But what will become of all those scarecrows? Some likely will be sold at an auction next spring, and Alton says another farmer has expressed interest in buying some. Pat plans to take her favorites to the couple's new home. "I'm putting scarecrows up -- every month a different one!" she says.
CHERRY HILL FARM & ORCHARD -- 12300 Gallahan Rd., Clinton, near Fort Washington. 301-292-1928 or 301-292-4642. www.cherryhillfarm.net. Market hours during October are Monday through Saturday 8 to 7 and Sundays 8 to 6:30. The market closes for good the day before Thanksgiving. Pick-your-own apple orchard hours are Saturdays and Sundays 8 to 5 through October. Owned and operated by the Gallahans for six generations, the farm and apple orchard features a Halloween Harvest Festival, daily 10 to 5 through October. $7 Saturdays, Sundays and Columbus Day; $6 (with fewer activities) weekdays. Highlights include a straw pool for jumping, farm animals, a cornstalk trail, a nature walk and children's activities.
Fairy Tales and Farm Animals
Long ago, but not so far away, wide-eyed youngsters whiled away a carefree hour at a spot right out of a storybook: the Enchanted Forest, a whimsical theme park dotted with colorful, larger-than-life-size scenes featuring characters such as Mother Goose and the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.
The quaint park opened in Ellicott City in 1955 and closed in the late 1980s when the aging owners sold it to developers. It reopened briefly in 1994. The cheerful displays grew sad and weathered, standing unattended for years as community groups tried unsuccessfully to save the park, now overshadowed by the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center.
Meanwhile, a few miles away, Martha Clark opened a petting farm on land that has been in her family since the 1930s.
"I loved the idea of opening the farm to the public so children and families from the area would have a chance to interact with animals and enjoy the beautiful scenery," she says of Clark's Elioak Farm.
Two years later, Clark learned that a local real estate agent had obtained and restored the Enchanted Forest's pumpkin coach for a charity auction. Clark contacted the winners and arranged to display the bright orange carriage at the farm.
"The response to our getting the Cinderella pumpkin coach was overwhelming," says Clark, who enjoyed making the piece available to a new generation accompanied by parents who hadn't seen it in years. Inspired, Clark approached Kimco Realty, owner of the shopping center and park, and worked out a deal: She could have any Enchanted Forest pieces free as long as she handled moving arrangements. (They're heavy and awkward to transport because they are made of concrete and fiberglass.)
"Since then, life has been a whirlwind," she says, with friends, volunteers, employees and sponsors not only relocating the structures, but also repairing and restoring them.
In August, the 540-acre farm unveiled the revamped displays during an Enchanted Forest 50th birthday celebration. Now, visitors strolling or taking a hayride around the farm again can see, among other pieces, the big white Mother Goose, a giant birthday cake, the little red schoolhouse, the crooked little house, oversize mice with a cheese-shaped slide and the Easter Bunny's house, a huge "chocolate" egg embellished with painted frosting.
Though Clark doesn't intend to re-create the park, "my ultimate goal is to save as many of the items from the Enchanted Forest as I possibly can," she says.
CLARK'S ELIOAK FARM -- 10500 Clarksville Pike (Route 108), Ellicott City. 410-730-4049. www.clarklandfarm.com. Open daily 10 to 4 through Nov. 6; reopens in April. Petting farm admission is $3 ages 13 and older, $4 ages 1 to 12 and free for ages younger than 1. The petting farm features a variety of animals, including an emu and baby goats. Other fall highlights include hayrides, $2, free for ages younger than 1; pumpkin patch visits, fee for pumpkin; pony rides, $2; and a free mini-farm play area, children's jump course, hay bale maze and ride-on tractors. Events include Teddy Bear Farm Visit days this weekend, featuring music by Tony McGuffin from noon to 4, teddy bear contests at 1 and 2:30, and free hayrides for all kids bringing teddy bears.
Aliens Land in Cornfield!
It's the last hayride of the first day of Cox Farms' 33rd annual Fall Festival, and driver Lucas Cox wants to hear enthusiasm.
"Are you all ready for a real fun, good hayride?" he shouts from the tractor seat, and a chorus of voices answers, "Yeah!" from two attached wagons. Grinning, he steers the vehicle onto a path that, for the next 20 minutes, will guide visitors on a twisting journey through pasture and cornfield and past a pond. The travelers must shout out a countdown as the wagons pass posted numbers, 10 through 1, and then they have to get beyond the aliens.
"Each year we try to come up with something new or different," Eric Cox says of the hayrides, among the most popular activities at the autumn extravaganza at the farm he and wife Gina own in Centreville. "The spaceship, I think that was my wife's idea," Cox says of the silver flying saucer that debuted a few years ago and proved a huge success. "The actors come out and high-five the kids and sometimes do a little dance."
Indeed, as son Lucas drives toward the interplanetary craft, out pop green-masked, shiny-costumed aliens, who not only dance but also turn cartwheels while high-pitched recorded voices sing a song to the tune of the "Star Wars" theme.
Cox employees chosen to don the alien attire are "the goofiest, most outgoing and most enthusiastic -- it's kind of a coveted position," Lucas says later. A recent Iowa State University horticulture graduate, he's in charge of training the hayride drivers.
"I never thought working with my family would be this much fun," he says with a big grin.
COX FARMS -- 15621 Braddock Rd., at Pleasant Valley and Braddock roads, midway between Routes 29 and 50, about five miles west of Centreville. 703-830-4121. www.coxfarms.com. Open daily 10 to 6 or dark (last entry at 5) though Oct. 29; Oct. 30 through Nov. 6 closing time is 5 (last entry at 4).The weekend and Columbus Day (Monday) entry fee is $11, free for ages younger than 2. Weekday admission, which includes fewer activities, is $7, free for ages younger than 2. Fall Festival weekend highlights include unlimited hayrides, several mountain slides in assorted sizes, a smoking "Volcano Rumble Slide," rope swings over foam pits and farm animals (including babies). Cox Farms' roadside produce market at 2599 Chain Bridge Rd., Vienna, 703-281-0165, has a play area for children.
Give That Pig a Kiss
The barnyard menagerie at Great Country Farms boasts some mighty offbeat critters: a smooching pig, racing pigs, a talking rooster and a pumpkin-munching dinosaur.
"Paloma, our kissing pig!" Kate Zurschmeide says by way of introduction, noting that folks sometimes don wax lips so they can give the friendly porker smooches. Zurschmeide is leading the way to the Oinkintucky Derby, one of the most popular events during the Fall Pumpkin Harvest Fest at the Bluemont farm nestled at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At the tiny, fenced-in track, Zurschmeide's sister-in-law Debbie Schoeb, donning a rubber pig nose, has just started her announcer shtick for the gathering crowd.
"The only way we can get these pigs around the track is to do two things," she shouts. First, the audience has to yell, as loudly as possible, "SuuuuuuEEE!" Second, the pigs need to see that after they finish, they'll receive a special treat: Oreo cookies.
Zurschmeide and husband Mark -- Great Country partners with Mark's sister, Schoeb, and brother, Bruce Zurschmeide -- got the pig racing idea at a farming conference, also a source of inspiration for the farm's newest addition: Brewster the Talking Rooster. The lifelike bird sits on a countertop and moves his head, opens and closes his beak, and blinks his eyes, then surprises passersby by carrying on a conversation. Standing inconspicuously several feet away, Schoeb provides Brewster's voice and chats up a gathering crowd.
Schoeb also emcees shows featuring the farm's biggest critter, P-Rex, a mechanical dinosaur created by an artist friend. The creature's jaws chomp pumpkins into a gloppy mess, which can be removed only by dino-flossing.
"Our mission, our goal here, is to have families come out," Schoeb says. "That's what we're really about: making a memory for everybody."
GREAT COUNTRY FARMS -- 18780 Foggy Bottom Rd., Bluemont. 540-554-2073. www.greatcountryfarms.com. Open daily 9 to 5 through Nov. 6; reopens Nov. 27 through Dec. 11 for Christmas tree sales; reopens in April. Weekday admission is $3 per person. Weekend and Columbus Day admission is $6 per person. This 200-acre farm offers hayrides to the 50-acre pick-your-own pumpkin patch. Other highlights include a 60-foot slide, a two-acre play area, a 100-bale hay maze, giant rope swings, more than 75 animals (including a treehouse with goats) and a catch-and-release fishing pond. Visitors can go through a maze of tall willow trees and a pathway puzzle maze featuring different colors of rocks. Weekend and Columbus Day admission also includes cornhusk-doll making and hourly pig racing from 11 to 4.
Terror in Apple Country
Name your deepest fear, and Vernon Wright, mastermind behind "Haunted Nightmares," most likely has it covered.
Pitch-black darkness? Oh, yes, plenty of that!
"The more terrified I can make 'em, the more I like it," says a grinning Wright, son of Hill High Farm owners Vernon and Wendy Wright.
Mild-mannered, family-friendly apple orchard and pumpkin patch by day, Hill High by night becomes the site of a high-tech haunted house so frightening that grown-ups sometimes head for the first "chicken exit," as Wright calls the emergency doors in the 4,000-square-foot barn. Now in its fourth year, "Haunted Nightmares" has become a staple of the Wright family's October festivities. Last year, folks waited in line for up to three hours -- in the rain -- to enter the setup, which includes numerous props and special effects, along with 10 to 15 actors who sometimes get in visitors' faces but never touch them.
"We've changed about 50 percent of it this year," says Wright, who attends trade shows to get new ideas and additions. He handles the "pneumatic stuff," while business partner Steve Black operates the building's 18 sound systems.
What scares visitors the most?
"A lot of people are just terrified of clowns -- I don't know what it is," Wright says. People also have problems with the tunnel room, where a rotating cylinder and psychedelic visual effects create a dizzying illusion.
"They can't figure out what's moving -- it messes with their heads," he says.
A sign near the "Haunted Nightmares" entrance lists warnings similar to those found alongside a roller coaster: "Not recommended if you are pregnant, if you suffer from a heart condition, high blood pressure or any physical ailment."
Wright's best advice for first-timers?
"Make sure you use the bathroom before you come in!"
HILL HIGH FARM -- 933 Barley Lane, Winchester. 540-667-7377. www.thepumpkin-patch.com. Open Saturdays and Sundays 10 to 5 through Oct. 30. The farm has a 30-acre apple orchard and 30 acres of pick-your-own pumpkins. The free Pumpkin Patch play area features a straw maze, farm animals and antique farm equipment. Pony rides for an additional fee from 10 to 5. Hayrides $6, free for ages 2 and younger, start about every half-hour and feature an apple and small pumpkin for each passenger; moonlight hayrides are Saturdays from 7 to 11. A "Happy Trails"-themed, seven-acre corn maze boasts about three miles of trails; check the Web site for special evening hours. $7 for adults, $5 for children ages 5 to 12 and seniors ages 65 and older, free for ages 4 and younger. The haunted house, not recommended for ages 7 and younger, is open Fridays 7 to 11, Saturdays 1 to 11, Sundays 1 to 5, Oct. 20 and 27 from 7 to 11 and Oct. 31, opening at 5. Admission is $8. Kids ages 12 and younger can visit an inflatable haunted maze, $3; adults may accompany young children free. Helicopter rides every weekend for an additional fee.
Frequent Weekend contributor Mary Jane Solomon, whose favorite month is October, most recently wrote about apple picking.