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? 

What the supporters of All-Star Ballpark Heaven thought would be a natural sell has, to their confusion and frustration, turned out to be anything but. In early community meetings, a contingent of local landowners raised loud concerns. They worried that the development would dramatically increase traffic on area roads, making it dangerous for children to play outside; that the light generated at the two dozen fields would be a nuisance for nearby homeowners; that runoff from the site would cause Hewitt Creek to overflow, flooding neighbors’ land. They had aesthetic worries, too. “If you change the site physically,” says Matt Mescher, the neighbor who once watered the outfield to keep the sod alive, “without that blue sky and cornfield backdrop, you’re going to be cutting your foot off.” At a lengthy and clamorous February 2012 city-council meeting, Rita and Al Ameskamp’s son Wayne made an impassioned plea for the town to halt the project. “Don’t let them build these baseball diamonds out in the country and take our farm ground out of production and ruin our piece of heaven,” he said. Lawsuits and social-media campaigns ensued. Without irony, a columnist for The Des Moines Register expressed concern that the development would facilitate the area’s “Disneyfication.”

Then came an election, this past November, in which proponents of the development were roundly defeated. All three of the city-council members up for reelection were thrown out of office—as was Mayor Heavens, a five-time incumbent who had served in the position since 2003. The Field of Dreams expansion, Heavens says, was “the issue of the election.” His successor, Alvin Haas, the co-owner of a local construction and environmental-consulting firm, won’t go quite that far, but he doesn’t discount its significance. In a town uniquely defined by its ersatz baseball park, how could he? “We didn’t campaign on it,” he says, “but you know, in the back of their heads, people were thinking about it.”

Denise Stillman admits that the controversy has hampered fund-raising and planning efforts. She’s moving ahead anyway. The land belongs to her and her husband, after all: the city gave them license to build on it, and they’re convinced the idea is still sound. Six fields will open for competition in 2015, she promises, with more to follow as soon as possible.

Already, Stillman has made a number of incremental improvements to the field—rehabbing the big barn, upgrading the playing surface—and just about everyone in Dyersville would agree that these changes were necessary. She has screened movies and hosted Little League games, too, and has plans this June for a blowout weekend celebration to mark the 25th anniversary of the release of Field of Dreams. For select occasions, Denise has even convinced the Ghost Players to come back out of retirement—and the Iowa corn.

This winter, not long after the controversial election, I drove out to see the Field of Dreams for myself. I started at the south end of Dyersville, near the old Ertl plant, a long, yellow factory where hundreds of residents manufactured farm toys for decades before the company moved its production facilities in the 1990s, first to Mexico and then to China. (The plant is now home to a Japanese toy distributor.) It seemed a fitting launch point: the decals that employees slapped on tiny tractors once gave Dyersville national recognition. I headed north on Highway 136 into the older part of town, passing two-story brick houses with expansive porches and tidy lawns. At the western end of the main drag, I spotted the Basilica of Saint Francis Xavier, one of the only rural basilicas in the country. It’s a breathtaking Gothic church, 126 years old and more than 200 feet tall, with intricate ornamentation. Nobody would mistake Dyersville for a metropolis, but it’s not some sleepy backwater, either. There is activity, economic and communal, and there is history.

Two winding roads, cutting through rolling farmland and past archetypal barns, connect Dyersville’s downtown with its famed estate. I arrived late in the afternoon. The cornfields had long since been plowed under, and several inches of snow had fallen the night before, obscuring all but a sliver of the pitcher’s mound and the bag at second base. It was cold, with temperatures in the single digits and slipping; the wind was howling; a lone Christmas wreath hung from the white picket fence.

Taking in the scene, I started thinking about the paradox of the field. Why is it, I wondered, that people feel so compelled to seek out and preserve a pastoral simulacrum built entirely for commercial purposes by a multinational movie studio? Part of the appeal, of course, is how closely the land still resembles the ball field people saw onscreen. But something deeper struck me, too: even though it’s a Hollywood fabrication, this slice of the heartland feels authentic. By conserving the site, Dyersville has built a bizarro time machine on the cheap, one that transports visitors into an actual setting that seems to occupy a mythical place in the American past—the wholesome sandlot we’ve long outgrown.

In such a surreal atmosphere, on land that’s stark and imbued with nostalgia, it’s easy to turn introspective. More than a decade ago, Brett Mandel, a writer and nonprofit consultant based in Philadelphia, gathered stories of pilgrims who visited the Field of Dreams and were moved by the experience. Finding material was not difficult, he says; it’s something of a folk tradition for townies to share touching tales they’ve heard about or witnessed. There was the Japanese baseball diehard who flew from Osaka to Dubuque, glimpsed the movie site, and then jumped on a plane back to Japan the following day. And there was the man from western Pennsylvania whose son died in a plane crash near Sioux City, Iowa, and who later acknowledged that a stop at the Field of Dreams a few days before the first anniversary of the wreck helped him reconnect with the spirit of his child. In 2002, Mandel published the stories he’d collected in a book called Is This Heaven? The Magic of the Field of Dreams. “People associate the memories of the film with something that’s important to them,” he explained to me. “They feel able to say different things or can feel emotions at the Field of Dreams they aren’t comfortable feeling at home.”

On the grounds, trying to stay warm, I took in a brilliant red sunset from the weathered bleachers. Its glow lit up the farmhouse, the park’s wooden light standards, and a solitary flagpole stuck in right field. I began to understand the draw. The place is different from some anachronistic Disney streetscape. It genuinely tricks you. As Marv Maiers, the Ghost Player, told me during my visit, “What’s out in front of you is real.”

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