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Children of the Corn

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When Bill and Jack Swets decided to plant a maze in their cornfield an hour and a half north of Denver, they thought their biggest problem would be finding a way out once they stepped in to enjoy it. Designed by a Utah agro-artist, it's a complex work of wonder, with three miles of trails detailing a stegosaurus, a cursive-script "Colorado" header and a border of head-spinning angles and turns. But unfortunately for these retired Larimer County farmers, their maze of maize wasn't nearly as difficult as the labyrinth of regulations laid out by the county they've lived in for more than fifty years.

Just days before the Swets brothers were set to open their novel business venture, Larimer County officials put a legal scythe to it, threatening fines and civil penalties if the brothers opened for business.

As a result, the brothers are now wandering through a stack of unanswered questions as high as the stalks in their ten-acre field of dreams. The struggle has turned each of the two men into a corn-fed rebel eager to give the county an earful. "My brother and I, we're kind of mavericks," says Bill Swets, a muscular 57-year-old whose handsome apple-pie face frequently explodes into a smile. "So we just told 'em to shove it--we're gonna open it anyway. This is a case of bureaucracy gone wild, and this thing is too beautiful to waste."

Since August 14, the Swets have opened the gate to their embattled endeavor (located east of I-25 and Harmony Road, just near Fort Collins) on a free-of-charge, weekends-only basis to allow the community to see firsthand what the county wanted to turn asunder. And while the move has meant losing out on bushels of bucks, the brothers say they're making up for it with heaps of praise from the local citizenry.

"Look at these," says Jack Swets, 61, whose country-boy countenance and spectacles hardly make him look like a candidate for civil disobedience. "These are some of the cards from our comment box." The notes offer a slew of rave testimonials from the estimated 1,400 attendees the maze has averaged each weekend since opening: "I always wanted to be in a maze," reads one, while another declares, "I thought we'd never get out--wonderful!" Many more feature the word "awesome," while a heartfelt offering from a preschooler consists of five crudely drawn smiley faces.

"This tells you the feelings of the people that come through here," says Bill Swets. "We haven't had one negative comment from anyplace--except the county!"

Such positive words are nothing new to the Swets siblings. Three decades ago they helped found the nearby Timnath Volunteer Fire Department, building and repairing the company's trucks, fighting fires and saving lives of the folks in their rural community. For the past ten years, Bill has amazed area residents with his "Swetsville Zoo," a collection of 150 homemade metal sculptures of dinosaurs, mutants and other strange creatures, all made by Bill from scrap collected off local farms. Some of the pieces are up to 20 feet high and 35 feet long, and a few of them are kinetic. It's an astounding attraction, free to all visitors, that's been celebrated around the globe for its sense of whimsy and Swets's command of design and construction--despite the fact that he's never had an art or welding class in his life.

According to Bill Swets, the birth of these bizarre creatures was fueled in part by his efforts on the Timnath fire squad. "You come home at two o'clock in the morning after scraping someone off the interstate or cleaning up a suicide, you can't sleep," he says bluntly. "Some guys can handle that. I can't. So I'd go out to the shop and work off my frustrations. A lot of these things were built between two and six in the morning."

Since retiring from the fire department several years ago, such horrific scenes are now behind Bill, leaving him more time to tend to his metal menagerie and the adjacent maze, which is built of a hybrid brand of Pioneer high-yield corn.

The Swets began by planting a dense grid of corn rows instead of the usual parallel ones. Then, agro-artist Brett Herbst staked out the field and marked his pattern with green dye. When the stalks were a foot high, weed killer was applied along the pattern of the dye. The result, after the dead corn is trampled down, is an intricate, orderly pattern.

When Bill and Jack make their way into the maze, blackbirds scatter from the eight-foot-tall stalks, which glow in the light of an early morning sun. As they walk the trails, they exchange comments on the state of the crop. "We have to explain to people to be careful about what they say in here, because there are so many ears listening," Jack says, bursting into a half-minute fit of laughter that ricochets between him and Bill. "I'm a kid, and I don't ever plan on growing up," Bill reveals.

A few minutes later, as the men head for "Colorado," a small plane appears in the crystal-blue sky over the maze, tipping its wings as it bisects cotton-candy clouds. "He's coming over to look at it," Bill whispers excitedly. "See him? He's laying it over so he can get a good look. Hey," he shouts in mock fear while waving his arms at the plane, "we're lost. Get us out of here!" The brothers break into another fit of tag-team guffaws as the plane continues to circle the field, wings cocked to one side.

"On the surface," Bill says, "getting lost in a cornfield seems like a dumb thing to do, especially for somebody who has worked these fields all of their lives. But it's a ball." Jack agrees, noting, "It's a challenge that can't hurt people, and they can accomplish something without risking. Plus, it gets people out in the country, and it's something that the whole family can do together. It's pretty hard to knock that."

Under the original plan, Herbst would design and build the maze on the Swetses' property and give them a cut of the money he would make by charging admission. The Swets brothers say that acreage planted with a regular crop of corn ordinarily would produce about $3,000. They expected to reap more cash than that from the project.

Herbst says Larimer County officials seemed fine with the idea. "The first time that I went in, they said there wouldn't be a problem with this," says Herbst, speaking from Boise, Idaho, where he's opening another of the fourteen mazes he's doing this season. "But then the county said they were concerned about too much traffic and that they wanted turn lanes and the parking lots paved. After finally reviewing everything, they decided to just shut it all down.

"If this was something permanent, I could probably see that, but with something seasonal, there's got to be a little room for a margin of fudging. But they were very inflexible--it was very frustrating."

Bill Swets recalls that frustration. "To start with, the county said this was all great," he says, "and they gave Brett a lot of encouragement. But then right at the last minute, when the corn was up and we were ready to go, they come up with this pave the parking lot stuff and all that, just giving him fits. And he'd already spent around six grand on it and couldn't afford to do that."

At that point, Herbst gave up and moved on, leaving the Swets brothers to continue battling with the county. Officials expressed other concerns as well, from sanitation at the portable toilets to engineering issues involving the cornfield's location in the floodplain of the Poudre River, which borders the site on two sides. However, the brothers claim that the county's concerns weren't for public safety, but for something else entirely. "They were after our hides," says Bill Swets.

According to the Swetses, their troubles with the county began about a year and a half ago, when the county set out to redesign nearby County Road 5, which runs along the east side of their property. "The interchange they had planned was terrible--it was at the bottom of a hill, and it was gonna kill somebody," Bill says with a dose of disgust. "So we got everybody together and raised so much opposition that it got killed." When the county went ahead with plans to redesign the existing bridge at the same location, the Swetses also made sure things were done by the numbers. "My brother and I are ditch riders for the river commission," Bill points out, referring to their part-time jobs managing irrigation activities on surrounding farms, "and we have access to all the flood figures and everything. Well, the county went and falsified a bunch of figures and put a smaller bridge in. We said, 'Wait a minute, you liars, this ain't right.' So because of us, they had to completely redesign the bridge. So they're after us."

John Pedas, a code-enforcement officer for the Larimer County Planning Department, denies the brothers' allegations of headhunting by his office. "That is their perception," Pedas says, "because that's what they want people to think: 'Poor little farmers are being picked on.' But that's not the case. There is no conspiracy to drive the Swets boys out of business or prohibit them from using their property reasonably. But when they become unreasonable, then they become subject to scrutiny." According to Pedas, the county's reasons for denying the commercial project were strictly a matter of public safety, including what a planning-department report referred to as "excitement and fatigue factors."

"I've never been in a corn maze," Pedas admits, "but if you get kids that are somewhat excited about the maze and they become dehydrated, they could become fatigued." And as for traffic issues, he says, "we wanted them to give us a traffic assessment done by a traffic engineer, to tell us whether this would be a problem or not. They didn't give us that information."

Says maze designer Herbst, "It's not like mazes have been around for years and years and it's a science, where you can say this maze will draw exactly this many people. I mean, I don't know that and they don't know that, so what's the study gonna tell you?"

Herbst and the Swetses did, however, offer estimates of what traffic they did expect, based on figures from Herbst projects in other localities and on a miniature train park that the Swetses once hosted on the site now occupied by the maze. The Swetses point out that in the ten years the train ran, there were no traffic accidents at their location, which drew up to 12,000 visitors a year. Still, the county refused to approve the maze plan.

"In some ways," Pedas concludes, "the Swets brothers are their worst enemy. They want to do things their own way, and there are no alternatives. They have to realize that they are not the only people affected by what they do."

Surrounded by stalks in the middle of their cornfield, half-way across "Colorado" in the bottom of the letter "r," Bill Swets offers a different perspective. "I think a lot of the problem with the Swets brothers," he says, "stems from the school we went to, the little Timnath School up the road. They produced individuals that could think. The schools nowadays, with four and five hundred students in a class, they produce a part of the machine, one little cog. We're the whole machine, you see, and we're not afraid to say, 'Hey, this is not right.'"

The differences really become apparent, the brothers say, in dealings with the government. "We have to live with their mistakes, and they work for us, and I think they should have to do a good job," says Bill Swets. "You know, we pay their wages, and we kind of think that they're working for us and that their job description should say, 'To make this a better place to live.' I mean, isn't that the object of life? Instead, they're screwing it up. They have common sense mixed with nonsense."

"We, and Bill in particular," Jack interjects, "have done nothing but give to the community. But the county is just the opposite. Everything they touch, they ruin, and money is the leading thing. But it's not that way here--money is not the driving factor. The idea is to have some fun and make it a better place to live. Everything they talked about with this has proven wrong. The Porta Pottis aren't overflowing, nobody's gotten hurt, there've been no car wrecks, and you don't see any floodwaters here. They have not been right on one single thing. And what has been the cost to the community and the county because of this incompetence? If it helps somebody and it doesn't hurt anybody, what's wrong with it?

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