No ‘Trail of Screams’ in Milton this year
|Mark Campbell, Courier Staff Writer, Twitter @mscnewsman|
Saturday, October 19, 2019 8:58 AM
Photo courtesy of Milton Fire & Rescue
A Halloween tradition for residents of the Courierarea has come to an end.
Milton Fire and Rescue Chief Jason Long announced in a Facebook post recently that the department will no longer host its annual Trail of Screams corn maze because of the impracticality of responding to calls, conditions of the field’s soil and low volunteer membership.
“This was a hard decision for us but it was for the best,” Long announced in the post. “We apologize to all of our loyal customers that came each year. It is just not something we could do anymore.”
For eight years, the fire department has hosted the maze in the cornfield next to Station 2 on Volunteer Drive off U.S. 421. Fire volunteers would spend at least two weeks cutting and mowing the paths, placing props and decorations in the maze each weekend evening it was open and removing them from the path hours after it closed, usually as late as 1 a.m., Long said. Each year, they would cut a new pattern in the corn, like the Maltese cross used in countless fire department emblems.
“People don’t realize how much work was involved in it,” Long said.
A limited number of firefighters and the priority of responding to calls has made it hard on the department to juggle, however. In the event of a call, firefighters had to shuffle customers out of secret emergency shortcuts and temporarily shut the maze down. It happened often, Long said.
“All the firefighters would be out there in the middle of the corn maze, and if we had to go to a wreck or a house fire, you’re looking at five to 10 minutes to get everyone out of the corn maze, but then you have to get the customers out too, then shut it down, and then get in the trucks and respond,” he said.
Long said membership has dwindled in recent years. The department had 20 to 30 members a decade ago; they now have about 12. When factoring in their shifts, only five or six are around to respond to a call at a time.
“And that’s not enough people,” Long said. “...We don’t have anything to offer people except for you get to help the community, you get a shirt, you get to be part of the department...you can’t get people because you have nothing to offer, really, besides that,” he said.
Milton Fire and Rescue is not alone in having this problem. A study from the National Volunteer Fire Council found the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. decreased by 25 percent from 1983 to 2017. At the same time, emergency calls have tripled in the last 30 years, it said.
The department did, however, get five new recent applicants after a persistent call for new volunteers, Long noted.
Another issue in running the maze was the condition of the corn crop and potential for fires. Years of growing on the same land without rotating have made the stalks brittle, short, thin and potentially flammable, Long said. This year was so dry, he doesn’t know if running all the electrical equiment through it would have been safe.
“One year, you could look over the corn and see where you were going because the corn didn’t grow high enough,” he said.
Last year proved especially frustrating, when the maze had to stay closed because of rain every weekend and the department didn’t make a cent. Unlike departments in Oldham County, Kentucky, Milton Fire and Rescue doesn’t have a taxing base, he explained. All revenue comes from the fish fries they host several times a year, which helps cover the $1,000 to $1,500 spent on running the corn maze each year.
But the hassle of juggling the maze with responding to calls, the department’s main priority, remains the biggest reason for shutting down the attraction.
“There was one year that we had a fatal wreck up in Bedford and we responded to it, and it was right when the corn maze opened — I don’t even know if we had one customer in there yet — and we were up there for three-and-a-half hours,” Long said. “When we got back, there was a line, there were people waiting three-and-a-half hours for us to get back just to do it... it was fun, but it’s just not the business we need to be in as a fire department — fish fries are what we’re going to stick to.”
Long said most of the props, costumes, lights and fog machines were given to the Deputy, Indiana, Volunteer Fire Department for its annual Haunted Hayride, which they hosted last Saturday night.
A comeback for the Trail of Screams would only be possible if the funding and volunteer force were sufficient, he said. Families from as far from Cincinnati and Fort Wayne drove down to go through the maze, as well as hundreds of local families.
“It sucks for that, just because those families, it’s something they can do and and it’s a memory for them, it’s just that it’s something we’re not able to do anymore,” Long said.