August 30, 1999 12:00 PM

Drive too fast down the rural back roads of Dyersville, Iowa, and you might miss a uniquely American landmark. It consists of a cornfield, a two-story white farmhouse, and a baseball diamond that could easily belong to the local rec team. No soldier died here, no President was born. But giants once walked this earth—Burt Lancaster, Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, not to mention Timothy Busfield. For on this site in 1988, Field of Dreams was filmed—a slice of Capra-esque whimsy in which a farmer (Costner), cued by a mysterious voice, builds a baseball field on his land, thereby mystically resurrecting, among other people, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the White Sox slugger who conspired to throw the 1919 World Series.

The movie was a predictable success. The surprise came in real life, when the film’s persistent refrain, “If you build it, he will come,” proved to be prophetic. The year Field of Dreams was released, 7,000 fans arrived in Iowa for a look. That number has grown annually through last year, when 50,000 pilgrims visited the former set to play ball or walk through the cornfield from which Shoeless Joe and other ghosts, including the farmer’s dead father, materialized.

Seems like a baseball lover’s dream—almost. On closer inspection, this landmark is really divided in two, each side marked by a sign. The Original Field of Dreams Movie Site, including the house, most of the diamond and all of right field, is owned by retired forklift operator Don Lansing, 57, who runs it with his wife of three years, Becky, 45. The neighboring Left & Center Field of Dreams Gift Shop and Visitor Center is on property owned by Al Ameskamp, a 63-year-old retired farmer, and his ex-waitress wife, Rita, 59, whose land includes most of center field, third base and the cornfield.

Both couples extol the allure of their properties. “People come here to fantasize,” says Al. “You’ll see a constant game going on, strangers playing together from all over the world.” Adds Becky Lansing: “Some come for the spirituality, some for fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams. This is a vortex for all that is good.”

What they disagree on is how to use the land. In June, the Ameskamps and the investor group to whom they lease the site won a zoning change allowing them to carve a 1.6-mile maze in the cornfield, shaped like Shoeless Joe at bat; visitors now pay $6 apiece to walk through it. In response, Don Lansing sued the Dubuque County authorities. “People can come here to enjoy a nice, quiet place and swing a bat,” he says. “If they want commercialization, they can go to the cities. We did stuff like that at the beginning—a Wheaties commercial, weddings. But we stopped. It was ruining it.”

Zoning notwithstanding, both sites have long engaged in commerce. Neither charges admission, but each sells souvenirs. The Lansings, for instance, offer white pickets from the movie fence for $25 a pop; the shop on the Ameskamp’s property sells $2 “dream dirt” from their field. Both shops sell temperature-sensitive T-shirts showing a cornfield in which, as the fabric gets warm, ballplayers appear.

At one time, the entire 300-acre expanse was owned by the Lansing family, who purchased the land in 1906. Don moved into a trailer when Universal Pictures offered him an undisclosed sum to use his house and land (“I didn’t get rich off it,” he says). After filming ended, he kept his side of the ball field intact and, with his sister Betty Boeckenstedt, 58, began selling souvenirs licensed by Universal. Betty was moved by “seeing people drive away, beaming like they’ve just seen heaven.” One pilgrim stayed: In 1995, Becky came from Colorado and fell in love with Don. As if it were scripted, he proposed on the infield.

The Ameskamps bought their 133 acres from Lansing in 1967. Married since 1959, with four children and six grandchildren, they were extras in the film, but when shooting ended, Al plowed his side of the field for planting. “I came home and said, ‘Not the field of dreams!’ ” Rita recalls. “People started leaving notes in our mailbox,” says Al, “asking us to put it back.”

The two couples coexisted until 1996, when the Ameskamps floated the idea of erecting batting cages, expanding their gift shop and holding motivational seminars. Nothing came of the plan—except bad feelings—and sparks reignited this summer when the Ameskamps got approval for the maze. “Look at that,” says Al. “From above, I think it looks like a beautiful sculptured shag rug.” But Becky Lansing, glaring at the red-and-white-striped tent at the entrance to the maze, fumes, “It looks like a carnival.” The Lansings’ challenge to the rezoning could take months or years to resolve. But Don has adopted a pragmatically agrarian approach. “It’ll all be over in November,” he says, “when they harvest the corn.”

Richard Jerome

Kate Klise in Dyersville

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