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? 

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.”

For most of Dyersville’s other residents, the interfamily feud remained little more than town gossip, and an occasional Japanese tour bus was a small price to pay for the financial and civic jolt the Field of Dreams provided. A sightseeing infrastructure emerged: new restaurants, new shops, a new hotel, all in a town of only about 4,000 people. Baseball and especially the Chicago Cubs have always been popular in this part of the Midwest, but the field established what City Administrator Mick Michel calls “the Dyersville brand.” To paraphrase the film’s signature line, when Universal built that diamond, fans most definitely came.

The field worked its magic for years. As time passed, however, interest began to wane. The movie seemed to fall out of networks’ prime-time rotations; the Ghost Players aged and hung up their cleats; enrollment in Dyersville’s Little League remained steady, but some parents noticed their kids growing more interested in soccer. “People wondered if it was about to run its course,” recalls Mary Ungs‑Sogaard. In the 2000s, Al Ameskamp passed away, and Rita sold her portion of the property to the Lansings, who, in 2010, ready to pass the field along, put all 193 acres on the market.

Rumors soon rippled through Dyersville’s coffee klatches about who might buy the site. Would a corporate group snatch it up? What about Kevin Costner himself? What would become of the place? The answer came in October 2011, when two suburban Chicagoans, Denise Stillman and her husband, Mike, announced their purchase of the field and the adjoining farm.

Denise Stillman had ambitious plans. In the land to the north and west of the movie site (which she promised would remain cost-free and undefiled), she proposed building what she called All-Star Ballpark Heaven: a giant, 24-field baseball-and-softball complex, loosely modeled after Cooperstown Dreams Park, a tournament camp near the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, in New York. When fully operational, she claimed, the facility—a kind of Cooperstown West—would be able to host 152 teams for 13 consecutive summer weeks.

During the second event, Kelsey Grammer and Meat Loaf teamed up against Reggie Jackson, Bob Gibson, and Fergie Jenkins.

This was not some fly-by-night scheme. Stillman, a marketing and planning consultant with an M.B.A. from Northwestern, had compiled research about the youth-sports market, contacted coaches to determine whether a Field of Dreams tournament would hold cachet, and bounced the idea off business leaders in Dyersville to see whether they thought it was feasible. “The former owners had zero basis and no mortgage, nothing else to pay,” she says. “They could afford to keep it as it was. Based on the mortgage, you need to build something bigger—you can’t just sell T‑shirts. So what’s the smallest project we could build and still make the numbers work?”

Over the next year, the Dyersville City Council annexed land, made a few zoning changes to accommodate the proposal, and approved a development agreement to minimize the risk to taxpayers. Stillman, working full-time on the project, organized a team of construction managers, engineers, and lawyers to execute her vision. To help fund it, she created a limited-liability company called Go the Distance Baseball, which attracted the attention of the Hall of Fame third baseman Wade Boggs and the Friends star Matthew Perry, among others, who signed on as partners. Go the Distance Baseball finally closed on the property in December 2012, for a reported $3.4 million, and Stillman signaled her intention to begin running tournaments in 2014.

To Dyersville’s mayor, Jim Heavens, who had for years worried about the fading value of the town’s principal asset, it seemed like a dream come true. “Here we had a nice couple that came to Dyersville and said they want to invest $70 million in our town,” he told me. “I can remember walking out of our first meeting thinking, Wow, I hit the jackpot here.”

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.”