Fighting Over the Field of Dreams

A quarter century ago, in rural Iowa, a Hollywood crew built a temporary baseball diamond for a now-classic movie. Maintained as a tourist attraction since, the field has recently been sold, and a developer’s new plans for it are dividing some of the community’s landowners. Which raises a curious question: Should the field's fake authenticity be preserved? 
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The Ghost Players, a group of locals inspired by Field of Dreams, who for years entertained tourists by emerging from the outfield corn to play ball (Charlie Neiberlangall/AP)

Wendol Jarvis knew that it was perfect the moment he saw it. As the founder of the Iowa Film Office, Jarvis had spent weeks toward the end of 1987 and into early 1988 scouring his state trying to find a suitable location to shoot Shoeless Joe, a film adaptation of the W. P. Kinsella novel of the same name—a whimsical fable about baseball and familial bonds. The book told the story of a man who builds a ball field on his Iowa farm after a voice instructs him to, and who then receives a visit from a group of deceased, disgraced players desperate for redemption.

A few locals had tipped Jarvis off about a spot in Dubuque County: a white home with a red barn set in a small valley near Hewitt Creek, about three or four miles northeast of the small town of Dyersville. Jarvis had driven over with the film’s director, Phil Alden Robinson. They liked what they saw. The place would require a few cosmetic changes, they realized (adding a picket fence and a wraparound porch, replacing the windows), but on the whole, it had the quintessential farmhouse look they were after. “A long approach,” Jarvis says, “a lane so you could see the ball field from a distance.”

In February, the film’s producer approached the farm’s owner, Don Lansing, with a generous contract prepared by Universal Pictures. Wary about reshaping the property, which his family had owned since 1906, Lansing hesitated at first, but the excitement of having a movie made on his land, and his fondness for baseball, helped assuage his doubts. Handshakes were exchanged; papers were signed. Al and Rita Ameskamp, who lived up the road, also signed on; Robinson needed the field to extend onto their land so he could shoot clear sunsets behind it. A Hollywood crew dropped bases and foul lines onto the soil that spring and then for four months crashed eastern Iowa, capturing footage, day after day, of men in wool jerseys and antiquated mitts pitching and catching. During his off hours, Kevin Costner, who played Ray Kinsella, the film’s lead, fished and golfed. His co-star James Earl Jones spent time and a few dollars at the dog track in Dubuque, 20 miles east.

Some residents of Dyersville had mixed feelings about the project. The year prior, in the nearby town of Worthington, Richard Gere had filmed a movie called Miles From Home, about two farmers-turned-bank-robbers, and there were locals who thought Gere and a number of the other actors had treated the area like their personal playground. The look of the new ball field itself didn’t inspire confidence: because of a nasty regional drought, the landscape, typically lush, had turned brown and fallow. To make the farmland presentable, the crew was forced to irrigate, but even that didn’t fix the problem fully. Right before filming began, Robinson decided, in desperation, to paint the cornstalks and portions of the grass green.

Filming ended in early August. Renamed Field of Dreams, the movie opened 25 years ago this month, in just 22 theaters nationwide. Mary Ungs-Sogaard, the publisher and general manager of the Dyersville Commercial, attended the premiere in Dubuque, as did others from the area. “Oh gosh, no, we didn’t think it would become big,” she says now, sheepishly. The “love letter to Iowa,” as Jarvis describes it, quickly reached the box-office top 10 and stayed there almost until the Fourth of July, ultimately earning more than $64 million domestically, along with nominations for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. To the shock of locals, it was a runaway hit.

For Hollywood, that was the end of the story. For the citizens of Dyersville, the opening credits were just starting to roll.

The Lansings’ entrance to the Field of Dreams. The field’s new owners intend to make the field the centerpiece of All-Star Ballpark Heaven, a multimillion-dollar tournament park. (Ryan J. Foley)

The Ameskamps plowed under their chunk of the outfield not long after the film’s cast and crew left. The infield baked in the sun. Don Lansing dropped a few bats and balls near the backstop, for passersby to play with, and left the field as it was for friends and relatives who might stop by.

Field of Dreams devotees found his farm’s address and trickled into Dyersville immediately after the movie debuted. Noticing the visitors, Don set up a card table by the equipment, where he put out some Shoeless Joe buttons, left over from filming, for the taking. When the buttons started to disappear, he and his sister made T-shirts, which they placed on the table beside a small coffee can. Some visitors grabbed the shirts and, in return, stuffed $5 and $10 bills in the can. “You could really turn this into a nice little cottage business,” Wendol Jarvis told Lansing when he noticed what was going on. Others had the same idea, among them Lansing’s neighbor Keith Rahe. “It’s like the Lord opened the skies,” he recalls, “and said, ‘Here’s a gift, now what are you going to do with it?’ ”

Because of a drought, the landscape had turned brown. Before filming, Robinson decided in desperation to paint the cornstalks and portions of the grass green.

Momentum built slowly and organically. Matt Mescher, a carpenter and part-time truck driver, watered the outfield with several colleagues on the volunteer fire patrol so that the turf patrolled by the fictional Shoeless Joe would sprout again. Rahe and a few buddies reached out to Dyersville’s semipro baseball team and organized the Ghost Players, a rotating group of eight to 10 men who on Sundays would don old White Sox jerseys, sneak into the outfield corn via a back path on the Ameskamps’ land, and emerge “magically” to play with visitors. They soon became a staple at the field. In the early ’90s, the sports-trading-card company Upper Deck hosted weekend extravaganzas there, with fantasy camps and banquets and celebrity ball games under the lights. (In 1992, Kelsey Grammer and Meat Loaf teamed up against the Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson, Bob Gibson, and Fergie Jenkins.) ESPN aired a documentary about the film. It’s difficult to say how many people visited annually during the site’s boom years, in the mid-to-late 1990s, but one often-cited figure is 65,000. Rahe, who now serves as the president and CEO of the Dubuque Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, is convinced that the actual number was far greater than that. “The crowds just kept getting bigger and bigger,” he says. “It continued to market itself.”

Throughout the early rush, Lansing and the Ameskamps kept their increasingly famous field clear of commercial clutter and free to visit, attributes that became central to its allure. “If this field were in suburban Chicago,” says Marv Maiers, a Dyersville native and veteran Ghost Player, “you’d be paying $10 just to drive down the driveway … They’d be trying to suck the money out of you. And you don’t have to spend a nickel if you don’t want to. You can just come enjoy the show, enjoy the scenery, and enjoy the tranquility.”

But success strained the Lansing-Ameskamp relationship. At times, at home and in court, the families fought bitterly over their vision for the space. The Ameskamps, having leased their property and entered into a profit-sharing agreement with a small group of investors called Left and Center Field of Dreams, wanted to hold more events and build a maze in their cornfield, changes they thought were subtle enough to preserve the site’s rustic reputation. Don Lansing and his wife, Becky, a Colorado transplant he met—naturally—during her 1995 trip to the ball field, feared the overcommercialization and the kitsch that might accompany an expansion of any size. Each side had erected its own entrance sign and gift shop, a redundant yet sensible compromise. In a move that perfectly encapsulated the owners’ mutual scorn, though, the Lansings reportedly posted a placard near their house: The souvenir stand at third base is operated by an out of state investment banking firm and is not associated with the Lansing farm or family. “Everything we want to do, they say no,” Rita Ameskamp lamented in one 1999 newspaper interview. “Sometimes it brings tears to your eyes.”

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