In Dalton’s haunted cornfield, a family fights to keep teens safe

A horn sounds — an emergency — a car crash. The onlookers find themselves in a hospital ward, waiting to find out what has happened and how badly the injured are hurt. But the hospital lies through night woods and farmyard and a corn maze, and the blood is fake. At least it is this time.

On two weekends in October, Grey Goose Farm on Cleveland Road transforms into Purgatory Road. A haunted hayride twists and turns through a “hospital” where the nurses and doctors in the waiting room take a ghoulish approach to Halloween.

But the ghosts and monsters here are friendly spirits — and they are here to fight real nightmares. The hayrides raise funds to prevent teenage suicide.

Joann Farrell and Betsy Nichols of Dalton started the hayride in 2012. Both have had experience with suicidal young people, Farrell said. They each have three children, and each have known children who have come near that point.

In 2012 they worked with the National AHEC, and in 2013 they began to work with the local chapter, the Berkshire AHEC — Area Health Education Center — to keep all funds in the Berkshires.

“We are really excited and happy that the community and Joann and Betsy have organized all of these people to help,” said Bear McHugh, Youth Suicide Prevention Project coordinator at Berkshire AHEC, whose work the hayrides support.

Corn and pumpkins grow together at Hancock Shaker Village.
Photo by Susan Geller

Corn and pumpkins grow together at Hancock Shaker Village.

By 2013, more than 50 volunteers were working each night (ages 15 to 25) helped out to raise more than $12,000.

The news spread by word of mouth, Farrell said, and all kinds of people came — “families, kids, football players — and a lot of them talked about why they wanted to support the cause,” she said. “It’s really hitting home with a lot of people.”

AHEC people there last year brought cards and information, but the organizers made sure no one stood near the table, so anyone could approach it without having to talk or draw attention.

“I know my three kids, if they were having trouble, they would not walk up to a table at an event like this and start talking to an adult,” she said.

But as she took tickets not far away, Farrell would see kids walk by that table, take a card and keep on going, to climb onto a hay wagon.

The ride wanders through the grounds of Nichols’ farm, off Route 9.

“Betsy has horses and donkeys and a pig,” and she competes in equestrian events, Farrell said. Visitors at the hayride, crossing the farmyard after dark, like watching the horses lean their heads over their stall doors to listen to the music.

The ride itself is as elaborate as a play, with sound and sets and costumes.

“We start planning in July,” Farrell said.

Nichols comes up with a script, and they collaborate on the scenes and props.
And the cast has kept growing. The actors seem to have at least as much fun as the visitors.

In 2013, the hayride became a reunion. Farrell’s son has been coordinating the music from Seattle, Wash. He will fly in for the ride, she said, and gather more than two dozen friends to help.

Dalton high school students give up their weekends to get into their makeup and into the woods, in the dark.

The actors relax into their parts, Farrell said: “They don’t care if they’re making a fool out of themselves. They love the makeup — they compete to scare the kids.”

And they are looking forward to doing it again. Farrell has had kids asking to sign up since August.

“It’s a lot of fun,” she said.

She has held sign-ups in the schools, and students in art classes have helped with the makeup.

In fact, the community has come out to support the effort in many ways. Courier Printing helped with the posters. L.P. Adams has donated wood for structures the hayride crew has built for sets. They have had food donated to feed the volunteers, who stay there from 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. — “and in October at 10:30 p.m., it can be cold in the woods,” Farrell said.

The funds they raise will help programs at the Berkshire AHEC that work with schools and also with faith leaders, emergency nurses and doctors, parents and anyone involved with local teens, especially with teens who are more likely to be in pain, with young veterans, LGBTQ teens, runaways and others.

Between 2004 and 2008, McHugh said, Berkshire County had the highest suicide rate in the state, and the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act has funded the grant to support the Berkshire AHEC’s prevention project. Between 2011 and 2012, the Berkshires had no teen suicides.

But for every teen or youth suicide, 100 to 200 young people may have tried to kill themselves, McHugh said. “It’s so important to reach out to someone before they’re feeling that hopeless.” Substance use, threats, insomnia, anger and recklessness may all be signs that someone is suffering.

“There are a lot of people who could use some hope,” he said, “and there is help out there. If people get the help they need, they may never be suicidal again.”
It’s clear why Farrell’s and Nichols’ efforts have moved so many volunteers and so many people in and around their town to get together, to help.

This year, the Dalton Police Department has already contributed $250, Farrell said.
There will also be police presence in the parking area, she said, and real EMTs standing by, just to cover all contingencies.

Above all, she wants the people on the hayrides and the actors laugh, to feel warm in the night woods, and to keep safe.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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