What began as a humble pumpkin patch has become a 50-acre Halloween party in Union Springs.
Open weekends through Oct. 28, Penny's Country Farm offers a corn maze, a haunted trail and a western town complete with a saloon, sheriff's office and blacksmith shop, among other attractions.
The farm is owned and operated by Tom and Penny Minnoe, who also own Auburn Medical Transport Co. They've lived on the 53-acre Union Springs property for 25 years, and built their home there.
But since opening a U-pick pumpkin patch there 11 years ago, the Minnoes haven't stopped building. They now spend most of their weekends maintaining the Halloween attractions on their property, or adding new ones. And for the six weekends leading up to the holiday, the farm is "out-of-control crowded" with families and a staff of 12 the Minnoes hire to cook, direct cars and more, Tom said.
"We had no idea it would morph into this thing that's going on now," he said. "Every year it seems like we've gotten bigger and more diversified."
Tom said many of the Halloween attractions at Penny's Country Farm were suggested by visitors. That includes the 5-acre corn maze, which the Minnoes opened about eight years ago. Tom said they devise the maze to be as challenging as possible, so they have staffers who've memorized it ready to "fish out" the people who inevitably get lost inside. There's also a smaller children's maze that takes the shape of a square or oval. And, in a bit of a gag, there's a "grandpa's corn maze" next to the large one — but it simply consists of a bench where families can take pictures, Tom said.
All of the farm's Halloween attractions are family-friendly, Tom said. Even the Spook Woods, a haunted trail, is toned down for younger eyes. The five-minute daytime walk through the woods features skeletons hung on the trees and other mildly frightful sights, but "no one's going to jump out at you," Tom said.
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Children who still want to avoid the trail have plenty of other options at Penny's. There's a pirate's cove playground with ships, as well as bounce houses. There's a live animal area, Billy Goat Mountain, with mini donkeys and horses, chickens, alpacas and turkeys, plus baby goats in another barn. One of the horses, Sparkles, is dressed as a unicorn, Tom said. There's also the Boo Train, a children's barrel ride, as well as wagon rides, which last about 10 minutes. And most ages can fire the pumpkin cannon, which "just rocks" gourds about a quarter of a mile, Tom said.
But the most popular attraction at Penny's Country Farm — and the subject of Tom's most enthusiastic talk — is its western town. Titled Tombstone, it has a saloon, sheriff's office, church, general store, water tower and new blacksmith's shop. The decorated wooden structures can fit more than a dozen people each, Tom said, and the saloon, which sells snacks, is two stories.
It's the Minnoes and their staff, however, who make Tombstone come alive. Cowboys have gunfights at the O.K. Corral, and Grandpa Gus performs music shows in the saloon from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekend. He encourages children to grab a guitar, fiddle or bass and play along in what Tom called "a petting zoo for instruments." There's also a cowboy show where Billy Bob comes to town and robs Miss Kitty. Children can then help Grandpa Gus catch the bandit by saying "one-two-achoo" to stop him from sneezing. And once Billy Bob goes in the slammer at the sheriff's office, children can tease him as he pleads for them to give him the key, Tom said. Even those aboard the farm's wagon rides might find themselves being "robbed" and becoming part of the story, he added.
Tom, whose father performed country music as Tim Minnoe and the Silver Spur Band, said a hotel is the next addition to the town.
"The kids just love it," he said. "It's a pumpkin patch with a little western twinge."