Scene of famous movie battleground for two families
Posted: Thursday March 30, 2006 1:33PM; Updated: Saturday April 1, 2006 12:00PM
Players emerging from the corn was a memorable part of Field of Dreams.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
All true baseball transcendentalists have seen Field of Dreams, the 1989 film in which an Iowa farmer (Kevin Costner) hears a mysterious voice whisper, "If you build it, he will come." A further revelation explains things: If the farmer carves a baseball diamond from his cornfield, the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson will appear to play ball there. So the farmer plows under his crop and spends long afternoons gazing at the chalk-lined emptiness, awaiting the ineffable. He becomes a kind of Flutterball Moses, bringing down the game's commandments. (My favorite review was J. Hoberman's in The Village Voice: "Horse----!")
Nevertheless, moviegoers seemed to bask in the film's solemn, spiritual ickiness. Indeed, the moment they saw Shoeless Joe (Ray Liotta) emerge from the corn, the field became a landmark in the geography of our imaginations.
Less than two weeks after the premier, the first Field of Dreams pilgrim arrived at the film site in Dyersville, a flyspeck town 25 miles west of Dubuque. More than half a million others have followed. Bearing balls and mitts, they play catch, shag flies and snap pictures of the farmhouse porch, where the movie farmer and his movie wife once rocked on a movie-prop swing. "After Yankee Stadium, Fenway and Wrigley, our ballpark is the most famous in America," says Keith Rahe, a D-ville native. "It's certainly the most famous bordered by a cornfield."
The Edenic field is not just beloved, but beleaguered. It lies on property owned by two neighboring families that have quietly feuded for more than a decade. Visitors find two gravel roads, about 10 feet apart. One leads to Rita Ameskamp's Left and Center Field of Dreams, a grassy expanse that includes most of center field, third base and the cornfield. The other turns onto the original Field of Dreams movie site, which comprises most of the diamond, all of right field and the white clapboard house. That land belongs to Don and Becky Lansing. A power line runs over the field and marks the dividing line. It has become a boundary.
Ameskamp and the Lansings have different visions of the Field of Dreams tourist experience. Though neither side charges admission, each has a gift shop that sells key chains, mugs, stuffed animals, caps, bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets as if they were souvenirs from Lourdes. Both stands offer temperature-sensitive T-shirts showing a cornfield in which, as the fabric gets warm, ghost players materialize. But only the Lansings hawk white pickets from the movie fence for $25 a pop, and only Ameskamp shills "Authentic Dream Dirt" ($2 a vial). "We don't sell dirt," snaps Becky Lansing. "We give it away for free."
Thirteen years ago the onetime Boulder, Colo., travel agent watched the film and dreamed of living in the farmhouse that overlooked the improbable field. One evening after buying the video for $5.95 at a McDonald's, a portentous voice commanded her to be at the field at midnight on New Year's Eve with a hot dog and a root beer. So in late December 1994 she drove the 875 miles to Dyersville. When she arrived, the field was feathered in snow. She ran the bases in the muffled night, sat in the stands and ate the hot dog she had bought from Rita Ameskamp. On New Year's Day, she introduced herself to Don Lansing. A year later he proposed on the infield. "Things haven't been the same here since," grumbles Ameskamp.
About that time Ameskamp and her late husband, Al, leased their portion of the field to a Milwaukee management company. The outfit proposed installing batting cages beyond the corn, but that idea was scrapped after the Lansings fought it in court. Relations got even more unneighborly in 1999, when the Ameskamps won a zoning change that allowed them to build a cornfield maze shaped like Shoeless Joe at bat. Tourists paid $6 a head to poke their way through. The Lansings sued over that, too. "We want to keep the Field of Dreams simple and serene," says Becky Lansing. "It's a vortex for all that is good."
The Lansings no longer allow organized games on the infield. Or weddings. Or the spreading of a loved one's ashes. And the clowning of the Ghost Players, a bunch of locals in old White Sox uniforms, is confined to Ameskamp turf. "Nobody killed Becky's dream," Ameskamp sighs, "but she'll kill everybody else's."
The families once talked of managing the field jointly. "But Don said we were just entitled to nine percent of the profits," Ameskamp says. "To him, the infield is more important than the outfield." She adds, with righteous anger: "I think different. I've got most of the corn." Which is, she reminds you, the domain of ghosts.