Wearing 1919 Chicago White Sox uniforms, they emerged from the corn just as the ghost team did in "Field of Dreams," the Kevin Costner film about baseball and redemption.
I had arrived in east-central Iowa after an overnight Greyhound bus trip from Chicago, an adventure undertaken after thunderstorms canceled flights out of O'Hare. Iowa is one of the few states I had never visited, and I was curious — about Iowans, who are courted by presidential hopefuls every four years, and about life in these small Midwestern towns.
The Field of Dreams, I decided, was a must. The first Sunday of each month, from June through September, the Ghost Players — locals including a banker, a crop salesman and a foundry worker, coached by an elementary school principal — put on a show that's one part baseball and two parts vaudeville. The Ghosts play gleeful tricks on eager kids chosen at random to be the other team. And everyone has fun.
On this day, one Ghost picked up a base and ran with it, while another snatched the shirt of a baserunner and hung on. The catcher grabbed a hitter's bat at the plate. The pitcher tossed four balls at once to one batter and blew a ball the size of a grapefruit past another.
To fans of the film, the Field of Dreams is a shrine, and it has put little Dyersville, a farm town of 4,000 about 25 miles west of Dubuque, on the map.
"The movie's been very good for the community, which no one had ever heard of before," said Keith Rahe, team manager and manager of Left and Center Field of Dreams, the Ghost Players' parent organization. "Before, it was like, 'Iowa? Isn't that where they grow potatoes?' "
But it is a somewhat embattled shrine. Arriving at the site a few miles northeast of town, visitors find two gravel roads, one leading to Left and Center Field of Dreams, the other to the Field of Dreams Movie Site. "Universal Studios came in and built this on two people's property," Rahe said. "Each family has its own piece of the field" as well as its own souvenir stand.
The Lansing family owns the white clapboard house, where the Costner character lived, and parts of the infield and right field. The Ameskamp family owns most of the cornfield, left and center outfields and part of the infield — and that's where the Ghosts play.
Regardless of who owns what, the dream endures.
Blue cheese and wrestling
Afew days earlier, I had picked up a rental car in Cedar Rapids and headed for the Amana Colonies, 18 miles south, just to get the lay of the land. In the next four days, I would visit the Field of Dreams, explore the colonies — a religious commune of villages founded in 1855 by German immigrants — and visit the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum at West Branch. I would spend time in the little Amish-Mennonite town of Kalona and in Newton — home of Maytag blue cheese and Maytag appliances, as well as of the International Wrestling Institute and Museum. I would also drop in on the annual Trek Fest at Riverside, a town known to true-blue Trekkers as the "future birthplace of Capt. James T. Kirk."
Arriving at Amana at breakfast time, I popped into the Colony Inn for just a bite, which seemed to be an alien concept. Diners were tucking into the family-style breakfast ($9.25), which included fruit, pancakes, eggs, bacon and sausage and fried potatoes. When I asked whether anyone ever finished, my server said, "Oh, yeah, and they ask for refills," which are free.
I spent my first two nights in Iowa at LaCorsette Maison, a bed and breakfast in Newton, 70 miles west of Iowa City in central Iowa. Getting there really was half the fun.
I drove along the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway, picking up county road V66 at Marengo, just west of Amana. (The road numbers change several times between Marengo and Le Grand, but the byway is well marked.) Cornfields and tidy farms unfolded as I drove through such quintessential Midwestern towns as Belle Plaine and Tama. With a two-lane road to myself, I crossed the Iowa River under a flawless blue sky punctuated with puffs of white clouds.
Heading south from Le Grand on Iowa Highway 146, I made a lunch stop at Grinnell. The town of 9,000 was founded by Josiah B. Grinnell, who, townsfolk claim, is the person to whom Horace Greeley said, "Go west, young man." It's home to Grinnell College, some gorgeous Victorian homes and the restored Merchants' Bank building designed in 1914 by Louis Sullivan, who mentored Frank Lloyd Wright. This architectural gem, with its colonnades and rose window, houses the Chamber of Commerce and welcomes visitors on weekdays.
Newton, population 15,000, is about 14 miles west on U.S. Highway 6. Here the splendid Neoclassical Jasper County Courthouse anchors the downtown square. (Tours are given by appointment.) Just outside of town is Maytag Dairy Farms, a 1,600-acre spread established by the son of the Maytag appliances founder. Joining a group of visitors, I learned what makes its famous blue cheese blue: mold grown on bread, then folded into the curd.
I couldn't leave Newton without visiting the International Wrestling Institute and Museum, which traces the sport from its origins 5,000 years ago to its showbiz present. The glitz is downplayed, although there is a poster of Gorgeous George. I was perplexed by a salute to Rocky Marciano, who was not a wrestler but an undefeated former world heavyweight boxing champ. The mystery was solved when a staffer explained that Marciano died in a 1969 plane crash near Newton.