Thirty years ago, a Hollywood crew built a baseball diamond in rural Iowa for what would become an iconic movie. Today, the site is one of Iowa’s top tourist attractions, drawing fans from around the world.
Wendol Jarvis still remembers the day he and Field of Dreams director Phil Robinson found the farm where the movie was shot. Jarvis, then the film commissioner for the state of Iowa, had spent several weeks in 1987 and early 1988 scouting locations for the film. When he showed Robinson the “stereotypical farmhouse” in “a little valley surrounded by cornfields,” Robinson declared it was the spot where he wanted to make his movie.
Robinson convinced Don Lansing, the farm’s owner, and his neighbor Al Ameskamp, to let them use their properties for the movie—including plowing part of their cornfields to build a regulation baseball diamond. Filming and the accompanying excitement took over, not just at the two farms, but all of Dyersville, a small town with a population of fewer than 5,000 residents three-and-half hours west of Chicago.
It brings out the best in people. There’s no selfishness. People patiently wait in line to hit. They step up to pitch. They field the ball.”
For those who have been lost in Iowa cornfields for the last three decades, Field of Dreams tells the story of Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), a struggling farmer who hears voices telling him to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his fields. He does and, more inconceivably, the ghosts of baseball greats emerge from the corn to play. Eventually, they are joined by Kinsella’s father, who played briefly, and throngs of fans who, as James Earl Jones’ character predicts, “will come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up at your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.”
Despite Jones’ prediction and the film’s famous line—“If you build it, he will come,”—Lansing and Ameskamp didn’t actually believe anyone would. Lansing kept his share of the baseball diamond for friends and family who wanted to stop by and play, but worried about losing money on land he could be farming, Ameskamp plowed under his portion of the field—left and center field. When the movie came out and became a huge hit, people did come and Ameskamp rebuilt.
In the beginning, when a trickle of fans pilgrimaged, the field was unkempt.
“It didn’t look like it should,” said Keith Rahe, Lansing’s neighbor. “Someone came and stole home plate. There were weeds. We got a new plate. We helped make it look nice. We’d be there and people would come and want to play ball. The guys would pitch to them.”
“The guys” were several of the film’s ghost players and extras, many of whom had played ball in college and the minors. Occasionally, they’d don their costumes and come out of the cornfields, play ball with the visitors for a bit, and then disappear back into the corn. One day a regional reporter witnessed the antics and wrote a piece about the real ghost players.
“The next Sunday I was at home with my family and Don (Lansing) called and said, ‘Are you planning on coming out here with the guys?’” said Rahe. “I said not really. He said, would you? There are 400 people out here. So we did and it grew.”
The Ghost Players routine morphed into a mix of comedy show an opportunity for kids to play ball with them. In the mid-1990s, it became so popular Rahe quit his job as a farmer to manage the team who as in demand for fundraisers and performances with the USO all over the world. After September 11, the team stopped traveling to military bases and, as the players got older, limited their appearances to the field and special events. Today, the Ghost Players perform on a handful of Sundays in July and August, emerging from the corn in vintage uniforms.
As James Earl Jones’ character predicts, “They’ll turn up at your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.”
Throughout the years, the site has remained surprisingly uncommercial. Until Ameskamp died and Lansing bought his part of the field, the two farmers ran competing snack and souvenir stands. But visiting the field and attending the Ghost Player games has always been free.
In 2011, Don Lansing sold his farm to Go the Distance Baseball LLC, which had ambitious plans to create a complex for youth baseball. The plans got held up in local controversy and zoning battles that grew largely out of the misunderstanding that the original field would be replaced. However, the plans outline a sports complex behind and out of sight of the movie site. But Denise Stillman, the visionary behind the expansion, died and plans remain uncertain.
The company did open up the house for tours. The guided tour, which ends with a photo op on your own phone in the porch swing, costs $20 for adults. But the field remains intentionally uncommercial and unassuming, maintaining the purity that fans of the film still seek out.
“The Lansing family pushed to keep it simple,” said Rahe. “They wanted anyone to be able to come. They’ve done a really good job and I think that has an allure. I think people feed off that. It brings out the best in people. There’s no selfishness. People patiently wait in line to hit. They step up to pitch. They field the ball.”
Thirty years later, the nostalgic, untarnished feel of the site combined with an easy-going Midwestern affability and adoring fan base continues to draw more than 100,000 visitors annually.
“I think it’s a real tribute to the movie, but also what it really stands for—relationships with family and a second chance to rectify a wrong,” says Rahe. “That can apply to anyone.”