'Field of Dreams' at 25: Controversy continues amid the corn

'Field of Dreams' at 25: Controversy continues amid the corn

Credit: Rodney White/The Register

Don Lansing, former owner of the farm where the “Field of Dreams" movie site is located, tends to the site near Dyersville on March 31.

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by Kyle Munson and Rodney White, Des Moines Register

WHAS11.com

Posted on April 22, 2014 at 6:50 AM

Updated Tuesday, Apr 22 at 6:50 AM

DYERSVILLE, Iowa (USA Today) -- The Upper Midwest may have the market cornered on America's most revered, perennially watched feel-good films: It's a Wonderful Life was set in Minnesota, and Iowa has Field of Dreams.

Yet the past 25 years in Dyersville have roiled with controversy amid the corn.



Dwier Brown, who portrayed Kevin Costner's ghostly father and has written a new memoir titled If You Build It ..., points out that the film's plot "ends conveniently before the people arrive at the field."

"It's one of the great things about movies that they can sort of create this fantasy that doesn't exactly conform to the way people are, and the way laws are, and the way rules are," Brown said.

In other words, the dreary practicalities of how to cope with a rural landmark that has drawn waves of tourists for 25 years have been left to Dyersville.

Field of Dreams director Phil Alden Robinson said he almost could return to town and shoot a Preston Sturges-style film in which "we ruin the lives of everybody we come in touch with."

That might be hyperbole. But bitter conflict also is hard-wired into the original script: Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) follows the urgings of a mysterious voice who commands that he plow up his cornfield to build a baseball diamond. Ray's brother-in-law (played by Timothy Busfield) mocks the idealistic farmer for building the field and tries to force Ray to sell his land.

A land divided

Today, a pair of driveways still lead from Lansing Road to the field — a remnant of the site's formerly split ownership.

The field was built on the west side of Don Lansing's farmhouse so that the view from the porch would capture the setting sun. That required encroaching on the farm of neighbors Al and Rita Ameskamp, whose land occupied most of left and center field.

The Ameskamps initially plowed up their portion in 1989, the year the movie was released, to replant it with corn, a move that inspired so much outcry that the late Al Ameskamp vowed never to repeat his mistake.

"I goofed it up one time," he said in an interview for the 1998 documentary Dreamfield. "I made it right. Lord knows if I ever do it again by God, though, I'll have to leave the country."

Lansing and his wife, Becky, sparred with the Ameskamps in and out of court. But the movie site in the early years also played host to big events, including celebrity games produced by sports trading card company Upper Deck that featured such Major League greats as Reggie Jackson.

As the 1990s wore on, the two families ended up with competing souvenir stands on opposite sides of the field. But eventually, in 2007, the Lansings purchased left and center field from the Ameskamps.

It turns out their rivalry was tame compared to the battle that started after the Lansings put the 193 acres up for sale in 2010.

Expansion, so more will come



In 2011, a couple from Oak Lawn, Ill., Mike and Denise Stillman, emerged to buy the farm for $3.4 million and closed on the deal at the end of 2012. They introduced a proposal to develop All-Star Ballpark Heaven, which evolved into plans for a $74 million youth sports complex with 24 fields, team bunkhouses, an Olympic swimming pool and an indoor practice dome for the winter months. The initial $24 million first phase is designed to include just six fields, including a stadium to seat 5,000 people.

For Dyersville, there's the promise of 90 jobs, 30 of them year-round.

Denise Stillman, president and CEO of Go the Distance Baseball LLC, said she loves the movie and the diamond, proposing the development as a way to finance preservation of the movie site.

"I'd rather have more people enjoy it and give younger kids a reason to come," she said of baseball and softball tournaments. "Because to keep it relevant, you need the kids to be here so they grow up and they bring their kids. And they won't in 20, 30 years if there's no other reason for them to come. We've got to keep the movie alive, like The Wizard of Oz. "

Ballpark Heaven would leave the movie site untouched, including a strip of corn from 300 to 500 feet wide around the outfield.

Former Dyersville Mayor Jim Heavens thought he had "hit the jackpot" with the Stillmans — particularly when the couple agreed to pay for the necessary $3 million extension of city utilities to their proposed project.

"Instead of hitting the jackpot," Heavens reflects, "I hit an iceberg and started to sink and didn't know it."

Voters ousted Heavens and three council members in last November's elections. Depending on whom you ask, the Field of Dreams controversy was either significant in the 40 percent voter turnout or was a red herring for other issues.

Many agree, however, that the sale and proposed revamp of the Lansing farm created new fault lines for debate: Would building around the Field of Dreams ensure its survival or shatter its essential pastoral charm? Is Ballpark Heaven a rare opportunity for rural economic development, or has the city encroached on local farmers?

Pastoral dreams diminished

The most vocal opposition has been a coalition of Field of Dreams neighbors known as the Residential and Agricultural Advisory Committee, which has sued Dyersville over the site's rezoning. Go the Distance also sued the committee for defamation and interference with the project, and the committee countersued.

"Here was going to be, in our standards, an amusement park plopped in the middle of what used to be called heaven," said Matt Mescher, 49, who lives next door to the Field of Dreams on 6 1/2 acres of what previously was the 100-acre Ameskamp farm. From his backyard, he can hear "every crack of the bat" at the movie site.

Mescher and his allies emphasize that their primary beef is not with Ballpark Heaven but with the city for what they consider illegal rezoning of the Lansing farm from agricultural to commercial property. They would like to see the ballpark built along U.S. Highway 20.

The committee's lawsuit against Dyersville awaits a ruling from a judge in Dubuque. Lawsuits that Go the Distance and the committee filed against each other have been dropped.

The lawsuits, Stillman acknowledges, have dettered "several high-profile investors who just don't want to deal with small-town politics."

Yet she still cites 20 equity investors in the project, more than half of them Iowans — per requirements of a $16.5 million state tax rebate granted by the Legislature — and with notable names such as Hall of Famer Wade Boggs and former Friends star Matthew Perry.

Stillman, who has an MBA from Northwestern University, divides her time between Dyersville and the Chicago suburbs, where her two children live. She has persevered with the project for nearly four years, despite hurdles that have included a recent divorce.

Trust destroyed

Dyersville's new mayor, Al Haas, does not oppose Ballpark Heaven and doesn't think the rezoning was illegal. If the court rules against the city, Haas said, he would be willing to try to pass rezoning again under new criteria.

"I don't think I have any choice," Haas said. "I would do that for any other business, to give them every opportunity to realize their full potential whatever they wanted to do."

"I just wish we'd have done more talking and more communication before we got to the lawsuit stage," he said. "Give me a 12-pack of beer and a picnic table and a couple hours of the afternoon, and maybe we could settle some of this."

Both sides acknowledge that a major diplomatic breakthrough is unlikely before the court ruling. Ballpark Heaven, meanwhile, opens its first tournaments this spring on the leased fields of the Dubuque Sports Complex, with additional programming for kids and coaches at the movie site.

"We've got each other's cellphone (numbers), but there's really no communication at this point," Mescher said. "There's probably lack of trust going both ways between us."

Give it back to nature?

W.P. Kinsella, the Canadian who gave birth to the Shoeless Joe novel on which the movie is based, is in the middle of a couple of novels — "one last kick at the cat," as he puts it. The 78-year-old author is less reverent of the movie site than many of his disciples.

"Being a writer who works for a living, I always would have charged admission," Kinsella said. "Ten dollars a carful isn't going to hurt anybody."

Even before filming was complete in 1988, Universal pitched a plan for the field to Wendol Jarvis, then head of the Iowa Film Office, who had helped entice Field of Dreams to Iowa. The studio offered to purchase the field and donate it to the state as a public park — an idea that fizzled.

The movie's director, Robinson, wishes the field would be plowed up to grow corn again.

"I have no feeling about it that it needs to be preserved as a shrine at all," he said. "Movies are ephemeral. I kind of like the idea of sort of nature taking over again."

But it would take a fearless iconoclast to tear into the field. If Al Ameskamp were still here, he would tell you that.

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