Gone to the pig races

A family farm, begun in 1836, thrives about an hour from Chicago.

Young pigs racing on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022 at Richardson Adventure Farm in Spring Grove, about 90 minutes from Chicago. The farm also offers a corn maze.

Young pigs racing Sunday at Richardson Adventure Farm in Spring Grove, about an hour from Chicago. The speedy swine were given names like Taylor Swiftfoot and 50 Cent (per Pound), the eventual winner of this particular race.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

You shouldn’t be able to find yourself at a pig race unexpectedly. Not in a major metropolitan area like Chicago. Pig racing seems something a person should see coming, a long way off. It shouldn’t come as a surprise.

But when Sunday morning dawned, I had no idea that a few hours later I’d be cheering trotters tearing around a track. All I knew was, my older son and his girlfriend had come to town, and as Manhattan sophisticates finding themselves in the Midwest, naturally wanted to visit a pumpkin patch. Ever the amiable host, I plugged “pumpkin patch” into my phone, and the closest green dot was Richardson Adventure Farm in Spring Grove, 45 minutes from my home. That seemed doable.

Had you asked me, during the drive, what I expected, I would have imaged some kind of large roadside stand, with many pumpkins, set out on pallets. There would be a faux rustic building of some sort, offering apple butter and corn husk dolls and a cafe, where we would repair to celebrate our new pumpkin with hot cider and cinnamon donuts.

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Just trying to park at Richardson’s told me that image was woefully inadequate — hundreds of cars and pick-ups arrayed across a field, with mobs working their way toward an admission booth that hearkened to the Bristol Renaissance Faire, if not Disney World. We waited in line. The clerk informed me admission is $24 for adults, but my wife and I, being over 60, we could slip in for only $18 apiece.

I was confused. We were paying $84 for the opportunity to buy a pumpkin? There are pumpkins for sale at Sunset Foods. My initial instinct — flee — was impossible, given the presence of the couple who had just flown in from New York. “I thought I was coming to a pumpkin patch...” I muttered, handing over my credit card.

“Oh, we’re much more than that,” chuckled the clerk, and we joined a whirling commotion. Richardson’s claims to have the world’s largest corn maze, and soon we were tramping among the dried 7-foot-high stalks. I marveled at how quickly we shifted from trying to navigate around what seemed the entire population of Waukegan, to being utterly alone, listening to the wind rattle the dry stalks. We spent maybe 45-minutes traversing the maze — they give you a map, and checkpoints where you can punch a number on the map, giving the experience more of a scavenger hunt progression of small successes than the usual “How do I get out of this thing?” maze frustration.

After the maze, we explored. There was a petting zoo and a small train, and all sorts of attractions to be bounced upon and rolled.

At a large circular seating area, a skillful country cover band was playing “Copperhead Row.” Never one to pass on the opportunity to sit down, I seized the initiative and settled into a second-row bench. Then I noticed the small fenced-in oval track before us, and a large clock announcing when the next pig race would begin: 4 p.m. I checked my phone: 3:56 p.m. Providence had taken a hand.

Wendy and George Richardson at their farm in Spring Grove, Ill. He is the 5th generation of Richardsons to run the farm.

Wendy and George Richardson — he is the 5th generation of his family to run the farm in Spring Grove. It grows corn, soybeans, Christmas trees and, increasingly, offers seasonal public recreation.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

And here is a sterling example of why some jobs just can’t be delegated. The pig races were hosted, not by some droning local teen reading off a card, but by George and Wendy Richardson — he, the fifth generation of Richardson to run the farm since 1836. We were quickly walked through a history of the farm, the raising of corn and soybeans, how a thousand Christmas saplings were planted. How the corn maze was created in 2001. And that the mini-state fair of today is run not only by George and Wendy but also by George’s brother Robert, and George’s son Ryan, the sixth generation. Suddenly that $84 seemed a sound investment in the history of the region and the stability of a family farm.

The pig race was the highlight, with the pigs given comic names (“Taylor Swiftfoot”) and colorful saddle blankets, participating in a race that didn’t take 30 seconds. Understand, my wife and I, a few weeks ago, cringingly attended a bullfight in Madrid, and my wife, who had wondered indignantly why the matadors couldn’t show off their cape skills, then return the bulls unharmed to pasture, heartily approved of an event where the animal participants end up happily gobbling vanilla creme cookies and live to race an hour later.

Only leaving did we realize that we hadn’t thought to buy a pumpkin. So we stopped at Sunset on the way home, and purchased an excellent specimen for $7.99.

The Richardson Adventure Farm is open Thursdays to Sundays, through Oct. 30. Well-behaved, leashed dogs are allowed. On Nov. 6, you can ride your horse through the maze.

The corn maze at Richardson Adventure Farm in Spring Grove, Illinois.

The Richardson Adventure Farm boasts that their corn maze is the world’s largest.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

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