Iowa burg shows enterprise

When postal worker Steve Miller proposed in 1985 to fellow council members of Riverside that the town designate itself the "future birthplace of Capt. James T. Kirk," they went for the idea. But, Miller recalled, one group in town wasn't so sure.

"The toughest thing I had to do was go down to the senior citizens dinner and explain to people in their 70s and 80s who'd never seen 'Star Trek' how a fictional character was going to be born here."

It wasn't that Trekker Miller had had a vision. But he had read a biography of Capt. Kirk that pinpointed his birthplace as a small town in Iowa. "Since nobody else had claimed it, it was just layin' out there," he said. "We were a small town in Iowa looking for a way to promote ourselves."

There wasn't much else happening in Riverside (population: about 800), a farming community 15 miles south of Iowa City. So up went a plaque behind what's now the New Image Hair Salon, proclaiming the site — chosen because Miller happens to own the property — as the future birthplace, date March 22, 2228 (although some fans say it is 2233).

"It just took off," fueled by the media, said Miller, now retired and living near Iowa City. Although "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry might not have had Riverside in mind, Miller said he did write saying "it was a very enterprising idea and, as far as he was concerned, the first volunteer had it."

Riverside had boldly gone where no town had gone before.

Calling itself the place "where the trek begins," it tweaked its annual summer fair and renamed it Trek Fest. So it was that on a hot afternoon in June I found myself in a barn at the fairgrounds in Riverside, in the shadow of Kent Grain and Feed's silvery silos, watching "Star Trek IV."

Later, pushing through the crowd, I sought out Terry Stumpf, a construction company head who was chairman of the event for the Riverside Community Club. I found him watching a drag race staged in a mud pit.

He took me to the Trek Fest T-shirt booth, where I met committee member Tysha Branigan, a florist who had painted dots on her face and torso. She explained that she was a Trill, a humanoid. Nearby, a man with a shaved head sweated beneath a Klingon beard.

It was a strange gathering — part sci-fi and part small-town fair that wasn't about to shed such traditional trappings as tractor and truck pulls and demolition derbies, "Star Trek" costume contest notwithstanding.

Stumpf acknowledged the dilemma. "At first there were people in town who had a hard time relating to it," he said. "And there are some Trekkies who think it should be 100% Trekkie, but we can't do that. You've got to have a little something for everybody."

And Trek Fest — where true devotees can buy vials of Kirk Dirt — does draw respectable crowds. This year, 5,000 people attended, and it made $10,000 to give back to the community.

We climbed into Stumpf's four-wheel-drive vehicle and, as we headed for the birth site, he explained that, though he's not a true Trekker, he embraces Riverside's plunge into Trekdom.

"It gives us a direction to go in," he said. "Instead of having corn days, we know we have something better coming at us."

And each March 22, members of the community club gather at Murphy's bar, drink Romulan ale — a blend of blue schnapps, pineapple juice and Sprite — and sing "Happy birthday, dear Capt. James T. Kirk."