It’s tiny, but Leland has lots to brag about
One of the true pleasures of working in journalism is that you never know where a story might take you.
A perfect example is the entertainment article in this issue. It is about a long-forgotten cowboy movie star named Bob Baker, who was born in Forest City, Iowa, and spent his early years there, much like John Wayne did in Winterset.
At the time I began working on the Baker article, I could have never guessed that the story would lead me to the office of the Iowa governor, and then to one of today’s biggest movie stars.
The trail begins in Leland, a berg of 289 residents (2010 census) just four miles north of Forest City. The little town was named for John D. Leland, who was born in Lane County, New York, and moved to both Ohio and Illinois before coming to Forest City in 1880 to open a law firm.
Leland bought a large tract of land north of Forest City and platted a village, where he set up a general store and practiced law, and occasionally even used his home for a hotel. Since he also served as the postmaster, he called the village Lelandsburg.
John Leland died on May 20, 1911, at age 75. His granddaughter was Ethel Leland … who married Guy Weed in Forest City, and on November 8, 1910, gave birth to a son that they named Stanley Weed. As a tribute to her grandfather, Ethel suggested that Stanley’s middle name be Leland, and her husband agreed.
The Weeds had four more children and eventually moved west, winding up in Arizona. It was Ethel Weed who wrote the letter to Universal Studios (see page 5 of the Bob Baker story) suggesting that her son would be a good movie cowboy in the fashion of Gene Autry, who changed the western movie landscape when he became Hollywood’s first singing cowboy sensation in the late 1930s.
When Stanley Leland Weed was signed by Universal Studios, his name was changed to Bob Baker.
When I pulled up Leland, Iowa, on google to learn more about Stanley’s namesake, I discovered two fascinating pieces of information. First, Leland is the hometown of Terry Branstad, who was raised on a farm there and attended school in Forest City and has become one of the best-known political figures in Iowa history. In 1983, Branstad became Iowa’s youngest governor at age 36, and today he is the longest serving governor in state history.
I contacted local historian Ruth Leibrand to learn more about Leland, and we began chatting about Terry Branstad. She remembers seeing him play football, basketball and baseball at Forest City High School. Ruth also knew a little about Bob Baker and the Weed family. She has been very helpful in helping me sort through the particulars.
While reading about Leland, I was surprised to see that Kevin Costner, one of the today’s top movie stars, brought his band to the little town on January 28, 2009, to play at Mitchell’s Diner. Of course, all Iowa movie fans know that Costner’s connection to Iowa began in 1989 with the hit movie, “Field of Dreams”.
Costner and his Modern West Band tour the country, usually hitting big cities like Tampa, Des Moines and Minneapolis. But one of their songs is about Leland and what life was like there many years ago, so they decided to play there. The song goes like this:
“Take a walk down main street,
have a look around.
Now look in all the windows.
The empty buildings in this town.
Imagine all the people
Who came and had to go.
Look for something better
In the dream on down the road.
You can’t spend a dime in Leland, Iowa,
‘cause every store in town’s run out of luck.”
There’s more to the song, but you get the point. There’s not a lot going on in Leland, Iowa, these days. There are lots of memories, though, and more than a little pride.
So my story went from Bob Baker, singing cowboy star of the 1938-1940 era … to Iowa’s longest serving governor … to Kevin Costner, who also starred in the 1994 film “Wyatt Earp”, playing the title role.
And did I mention that Wyatt Earp lived in Pella, Iowa, for a spell as a youth? But that is a story for another day….
(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal. Born and raised in Waterloo, he retired from a 35-year newspaper career in 2002. He is the author of 21 books and is a public speaker. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton.)