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Fertile imagination in Iowa
On a sunny Sunday in June, I found myself at the Field of Dreams, watching as the pinstripe-clad Ghost Players baseball team appeared out of a cornfield.
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.
It was still spring, so the corn wasn't yet as high as an elephant's eye, more like 18 inches, but that didn't diminish the delight of about 300 fans who filled the bleachers and spilled over into lawn chairs. Fifteen years after the film's release, they still come — about 60,000 a year, in fact.
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.
Soon it was time to move on to Iowa City, where I had booked at the Sheraton, chiefly because of its location: It's at one end of Dubuque Street, a pedestrian mall that, with side streets College and Washington, is the hub of downtown life and an easy walk to the University of Iowa.
The city's population is only 62,000, but that increases by 29,000 university students during the school year. The college — home of the Hawkeyes — sits astride the Iowa River, and the gold-domed building that once was the territorial capitol dominates the old campus.
The university is home to the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop, where Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Philip Roth and John Cheever have taught and whose graduates have included Wallace Stegner and Flannery O'Connor. Small wonder that the city takes pride in its literary heritage. Look down while strolling Iowa Avenue between Clinton and Gilbert streets just off campus and you'll see that you're on Literary Walk. Embedded in the pavement are quotes from 49 well-known writers with Iowa ties, including W.P. Kinsella, who wrote "Shoeless Joe," which became "Field of Dreams."
Iowa City is an excellent base for exploring east-central Iowa.
I spent a full day at Amana Colonies, a collection of seven villages established almost 150 years ago by the Amana Society, members of the Community of True Inspiration, a communal religious society that had fled persecution in Germany. Rebelling against what they saw as the dogmatism of formal religion and the trappings of the church, they chose simplicity in worship and lifestyle but, unlike the Old Order Amish, did not totally shun technology. It was a society in which all contributed and all shared equally
The colonies, beautifully preserved, are now a national historic landmark and a premier Iowa visitor attraction, with museums, shops, hotels and restaurants, drawing 1.5 million visitors annually.
The villages, with their wooden and brick buildings, are dotted over 26,000 acres, originally planned to be an hour apart by oxcart. The best way to get oriented is to buy the widely available "Amana Colonies by Car" audio driving tour, a terrific CD with map that brings the past to life through stories told by old-time residents and descendants.
No talking at meals
In Middle Amana, I stopped at the communal kitchen museum, a re-creation of a kitchen like those once found in each village. Kitchen detail was women's work. At mealtime, men sat at one table, women and children at another. Although diners said grace together, there was no talking during meals, which were heavy on German fare, such as liver sausage and sauerkraut.
A slide show at the Museum of Amana History in Amana, the largest village, is a good introduction to the colonies. I learned that all property was communal, all shared in equal measure what they earned and everyone attended religious services 11 times weekly. There were no radios or movies or other temptations of the outside world. The museum complex includes a typical house, simply furnished.
A self-sufficient community that was both communistic and capitalistic, the society owned businesses including a woolen mill, still in operation, flour mill and calico mill. The colonists were definitely not teetotalers. Trellised grapevines on exterior walls of houses provided both insulation and grapes for wine. Each female was allotted 6 gallons a year; each male, 12.
The Amana Society prospered longer than many such communities in America before falling victim to economic woes, devastating fires and the loss of its young, who eschewed the simple lifestyle. Today, the homes are privately owned.
Headquartered at Middle Amana is Amana Refrigeration, now a unit of Maytag but founded by the son of a High Amana storekeeper.
The Inspirationists often are confused with the Amish, who also have a strong presence in this part of Iowa. Together with the Mennonites, the Amish settled in little Kalona, 18 miles south of Iowa City. There, I took a 90-minute minibus tour conducted by Paul Yoder, a Mennonite.
The $10 tour was great. An Amish family of six waved from their horse-drawn carriage as we passed. We saw an Amish man breaking a horse, and we passed a farmhouse where men in black and women and girls in long dresses and bonnets had gathered for a meal.
A sense of humor
Ten miles east of Iowa City is West Branch, home to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, a tranquil 187-acre National Historic Site. On the site are the simple two-room cottage where Hoover was born in 1874 and the 1857 meeting house where the Hoovers, devout Quakers, worshipped. Hoover's father, a blacksmith, and his mother died when he was a child, and he was sent to Oregon to live with an uncle who had lost a son.
I strolled the trails, pausing at a grassy semicircular rise framed by evergreens, where two simple slabs of white Vermont marble mark the graves of the 31st president and his wife, Lou. Around the grounds are benches, where visitors can sit, press a button and hear the Hoover story: "My grandparents came to Iowa by covered wagon
Driving Iowa's byways, passing farm after farm, I thought about the people I'd met. I'd loved their openness and their humor. I remembered Rahe, the former farmer at Field of Dreams, explaining that, although most farmers rotate their crops, it's corn, and only corn, at Field of Dreams, year after year.
"It would be pretty tough," he said, "for the Ghost Players to come out of soybeans."
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Inns and outings
From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) to Des Moines is available on American, United, Continental, Midwest Express, America West, ATA and Northwest. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $228. It's about 140 miles from there to Dyersville. To Cedar Rapids (about 45 miles from Dyersville), connecting service is offered on United, American and Delta. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $288.
WHERE TO STAY:
Sheraton Iowa City, 210 S. Dubuque St.; (319) 337-4058, fax (319) 337-9045, https://www.sheraton.com . Nothing special but in an excellent location, anchoring a pedestrian area that's the hub of downtown life, near the University of Iowa. Doubles from $119.
LaCorsette Maison Inn, 629 1st Ave. E., Newton; (641) 792-6833, fax (641) 792-6597, https://www.lacorsette.com . Lovely rooms in two vintage mansions. Innkeeper Kay Owen serves an elegant six-course dinner for $40. Doubles, including full breakfast, from $85.
WHERE TO EAT:
Colony Inn, 741 47th Ave., Amana; (800) 227-3471. Huge breakfasts, hearty lunches and diet-defying family-style dinners served in inviting room. Specialties such as bratwurst, Wiener schnitzel and sauerbraten. Dinner entrees $9.25-$20.
One Twenty Six, 126 E. Washington St., Iowa City; (319) 887-1909. French windows, candlelight and '40s background music provide the ambience. Outdoor patio, open kitchen, rotating artwork. Dinner entrees $14-$24.
Givanni's, 109 E. College St., Iowa City; (319) 338-5967. Stylish brick-walled space that once was part of an 1880s building has been given an artful Art Deco redo. The food, focusing on Italian, is good too. Dinner entrees $13-$24.
Phoenix Café & Inn, 834 Park St., Grinnell; (641) 236-3657. Restaurant in a Victorian building serves imaginative lunches and dinners. There's also a morning coffee bar and market with take-out and wine shop. Dinner entrees $8-$25.
TO LEARN MORE:
Amana Colonies Convention and Visitors Bureau, 39 38th Ave., Suite 100, Amana; (800) 579-2294 or (319) 622-7622, https://www.amanacolonies.com .
Field of Dreams Movie Site, 28995 Lansing Road, Dyersville; (888) 875-8404, https://www.fieldofdreamsmoviesite.com . Open April to November.
Left and Center Field of Dreams, 29001 Lansing Road, Dyersville; (800) 443-8981, https://www.ghost players.com. Open April to November.
Kalona Historical Society, 715 D Ave., Kalona; (319) 656-2519, https://www.kalonaiowa.org/tour . Byways tours April to October.
Newton Convention and Visitors Bureau, 113 1st Ave. W., Newton; (800) 798-0299, https://www.visitnewton.com .
Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, Parkside Drive, West Branch; (319) 643-5301, https://www.hoover.nara.gov .
Iowa Tourism Office, 200 E. Grand Ave., Des Moines, IA 50309; (800) 345-IOWA (4692) or (515) 242-4705, fax (515) 242-4718, www.traveliowa.com.