America's 'Era of Good Feeling'

An Iowa farm town reflects a weary optimism throughout the land as Americans head into the July 4 weekend.

When Gregg Frost stands at the plate and sends a high fly ball to center field, he feels more than the crack of the bat: He connects with a renewed sense of optimism.

He and his daughter and two friends traveled all the way from Oletha, Kan., to come to this diamond carved out of a cornfield in the middle of Iowa. It is the Field of Dreams - the farm where the movie of the same name was made 10 years ago - preserved in its cinematic simplicity.

"There's a real sense of rebirth here," says the supermarket executive of this place that in the movie represented "all that was good in America."

Mr. Frost's sentiments mirror a larger theme playing out in American life. As the country prepares to celebrate its independence this year - with sandlot baseball games, barbecues, and family reunions - Americans are entering what could be called a new "era of good feeling."

For years, despite a buoyant economy, many people have expressed an uneasiness about their economic well-being and the direction of the country. They always felt just a pink slip away from destitution. But now, in the twilight of the 20th century, pollsters say a more pervasive sense of optimism is taking hold across the American landscape.

Indeed, a recent poll by Roper Starch Worldwide Inc. shows 54 percent of people are optimistic about the future of the country - a record. That's up 10 points from 1994 and 15 points from 1973.

While anxieties still persist, analysts point to the continuing strong economy, plentiful jobs, and rising consumer confidence as evidence of the contentment.

"We're at a time where people both feel relatively peaceful, happy, and satisfied - yet weary," says Arthur Miller, the director of the Heartland Poll, a regular survey of the attitudes of Iowans and seven surrounding states.

Turning inward

Some of that weariness comes from uncertainty, worry that the bottom's got to drop out of the economy sometime soon, although there's less of an edge than even a year ago. And while this year's spate of school shootings has reinforced a concern about the moral decay of the country, more and more people are turning inward toward family and friends, and away from negative portrayals in the media.

"When you only see bad things, you loose sight of the positive," says college student John Beaumont, who was visiting from West Point, N.Y. "I still see kids out playing catch with their dads. For every one kid who shoots another, there are thousands out there who are playing ball, walking their dog, and stuff like that."

That attitude and optimism is reflected not just in the people who travel hundreds of miles to Dyersville's fantasy field, but in the townspeople who work and live here every day.

To a certain extent, Dyersville is a metaphor for the American experience in the 1990s - a community that has gone through difficult times but has rebounded.

Set off Route 20 in eastern Iowa, Dyersville is a farming community of 3,800 people that also has a strong industrial base. It's home to the Ertl Toy Factory, the National Farm Toy Museum, and a handful of smaller international companies.

The town was founded in 1847 by James Dyer, an Englishman who was determined to turn it into a commercial center. But the economic base wasn't there to support it. So he eventually sold out to German Catholic farmers who turned the area into a thriving agricultural community.

Out of gratitude, they built the St. Francis Xavier Basilica - an imposing double-spired church that defines the downtown and marks it for miles on the gently rolling plains.

In the last 20 years, Dyersville has gone through some wrenching economic changes: from the farm crisis in the 1980s, to the loss of industrial jobs to other nations. But like Americans in other parts of the country, the people here have persevered, adapted, and now seem to accept the way their lives have changed.

View from Nurre farm

That sentiment is clearly evident on the Nurre farm, three miles out of the center of town. The 140 acres have been in the family since 1948. Mike Nurre was raised helping to milk the cows and plow the fields.

They live in a neatly tended white-clapboard house - the classic Midwestern tableau - in the middle of fields of alfalfa, oats, and corn. "I'll be the last one on here farming," says Mr. Nurre. "Maybe my son will have [the place], but he'll probably live here and work somewhere else."

As farming has become more of a high-tech big business, it has become difficult for the kind of small farmers who built the town to survive. To make ends meet, either the husband or wife usually has to take a job off the farm. Mike's wife, Trudy, cleans houses full time.

"Sometimes I wish you were here when I needed some help," says Mike turning to his wife.

Like many other American families, the necessity of another income has put strain on the Nurre household.

Doom on horizon?

But overall, Mike and Trudy are still optimistic. Mike does worry about the economy, noting that it has "only one place to go, and that's down."

But he chalks it up to the regular economic cycles. And while he sees as a "lack of discipline" in some children, he believes the country is in much better shape than 10 years ago.

"We'd go fishing in the Mississippi River and everything was so dirty and the environment stuff was so bad, but it's been cleaned up quite a bit," he says. "Over the last few years, we've also been doing different things on the farm to help control erosion and pollution."

Pollsters are also finding that Americans are becoming more self-reliant and looking less to government for solutions. And as they do that, they're turning more inward, toward family and traditional values.

Kari Whittmeyer is a case in point. Born and raised in Dyersville, she left for college and then the big city - Peoria - vowing she'd never come back. But 4-1/2 years ago, she returned. Now she's a driving force in Dyersville's business community.

"I had to leave to realize the quality of life I was missing," says Ms. Whittmeyer, who heads the Dyersville Industrial Development. "Where I lived, people didn't care about their neighbors, their houses. They didn't have that work ethic - work until the job's done. No, it was: 'It's 5 o'clock. I have to go home.' "

Not as many toy tractors

Whittmeyer now works full time to ensure Dyersville's economic base stays sturdy, despite the loss of hundreds of manufacturing jobs at the town's biggest employer, Ertl Toys.

The company, which moved to Dyersville in 1959, has been central to the town's identity. But it's also responsible for some difficult economic times. Ertl has laid off almost 1,000 people since the mid 1970s, when millions of toy tractors rolled off the production lines. Most of those jobs moved to Mexico, China, and Macao.

"The commitment that this company has made is to keep all the jobs we can here," says Jim Willey, Ertl's marketing director. "If you don't manufacture where you can do it the most cost effectively, then ... pretty soon you've got nothing left for anybody."

Mr. Willey was born and raised an Iowa farm boy - and played with Ertl tractors when he was growing up. He believes the company has done what is necessary to compete in the global market. He also credits people like Whittmeyer for their initiative in going after new industry to pick up the slack.

The town's unemployment rate is now less than 3 percent. "I don't know if it's because there are so many baby boomers who are starting their own businesses," says Whittmeyer, "but I think people have come to realize they can have the good old American dream - they can try to make a go on their own and succeed."

Indeed, the Roper Reports found "new evidence of a rebirth of self-reliance." Almost 60 percent of Americans now credit the America's free-enterprise system, its constitutional form of government, and its hard-working people for its greatness.

But out at the Field of Dreams, owners Don and Becky Lansing also credit the simple, straightforward goodness they see in the tens of thousands of Americans who come to their field every year.

"It's almost sacred ground to them. You look around and you hear people whispering like you were in church," says Mrs. Lansing. "You don't see litter. People really respect the place.

Indeed, many are moved by what it represents - all that is still good in America.

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