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House of Lawn Mower Man Burns; Mower Safe

In the summer of 1994, Alvin Straight of Laurens, Iowa, drove 240 miles to visit his ailing brother in Mount Zion, Wisconsin -- on a lawn tractor. Alvin was 73, had bad eyes, no driver's license, and didn't trust public transportation. The trip took nearly six weeks, and when it was over Alvin shunned publicity and died two years later.

But the public loved "the lawn mower man." In 1999, David "Twin Peaks" Lynch directed a film about Alvin's pilgrimage, "The Straight Story." It was G-rated, released by Walt Disney Pictures, and generally surprised its reviewers. Words such as "sentimental," "warm," and "sweet" were used to describe it, which are not usually associated with the work of David Lynch.

Not everyone in Laurens, however, liked the movie. On July 21, 2007, Alvin Straight's empty home was gutted by a fire -- effectively ending an effort by the town's Restoration Committee to open it as a tourist attraction. The local police chief suspects that the fire was no accident.

William Chaffee, a member of the Restoration Committee, is more firm in his opinion. "This was a deliberate arson," he told us. "It might just be some dummy who had a couple too many drinks, or it might be someone who was frustrated because we were making headway restoring the house and figured they were gonna stop that before it got any farther."

Chaffee, who is also the publisher of the Laurens Sun newspaper (and the current owner of Straight's lawn tractor) tried to explain why someone might want to burn down Alvin's house. "They hold a grudge against the movie," he told us. "Some people were very upset because there were dogs running loose in the movie. And they made the hardware store 50 years older than it was, which it wasn't."

"They thought it made us look like a hick town."

One could argue that setting fire to a house because you don't like a movie is precisely what would happen in a hick town. Chaffee was more philosophical. "They couldn't see past the end of their noses," he said of the movie-haters. "Sadly, that's the way people are, every place."

Alvin Straight's lawn tractor was unharmed in the blaze. Chaffee kept the tractor safe -- away from the house, thankfully -- and makes it available for curious visitors. It's a big attraction during town's annual 6.5-mile lawnmower race. Chaffee notes with pride that people have come from all over the world to see it, and that they learn about it through David Lynch's film. "It had no profanity, no sex, and it was just a darned good movie."

Chaffee said that the fate of Straight's house -- what's left of it -- is unclear. "At this point the Committee hasn't made any decision," he told us. "But something will be there. It may be the house, it may be a monument. But something will be there."

Laurens, IA
The mower is owned by William Chaffee. Call him at the newspaper office. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
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