The sun was beginning to dip in the west as folks took their evening walks and relaxed after the toils of the day.
But the work was just beginning at the Rush County Fairgrounds in La Crosse on Wednesday last week. With the first night of the fair carnival only a week away, fair board members and volunteers continued to prepare the grounds and get the rides operational after a year’s exposure to the Kansas elements.
George Keener, 85, Rush Center, sat in the cab of his pickup. His door was open, and his left foot was perched halfway out of the cab while his right elbow rested on top of the steering wheel.
“I’m really not very interesting,” Keener said with a grin.
Keener, with the support of the Rush County Fair Board, Rush County Amusement Company Inc. and the help of countless individuals in the area, has built an impressive carnival exclusively owned and operated by the local organizations.
“Nobody really likes my opinions,” Keener said. “But I continue to give them.”
Keener said that’s how the carnival began approximately 15 years ago. It became increasingly difficult to get a traveling carnival to come to the Rush County Fair. Carnivals didn’t believe they would make enough revenue based on the population size; therefore, the Rush County Fair didn’t have a carnival for four or five years — although they did have some homemade games for children.
Keener believed the fair board should purchase its own carnival equipment and operate it. Not everyone agreed at first.
“I kept bringing the thought up at fair board meetings, and everybody thought it was more than we could handle,” Keener said. “But one thing my wife Evelyn always said was, ‘The words “I can’t” don’t exist,’ so I just kept bringing it up.”
One night, after bringing the idea up again at a fair board meeting, Gary Kay, whose wife Peggy was on the fair board, called Keener on the telephone.
“Gary told me, ‘Find what you want and buy it; I don’t care what the check is, we’ll somehow make it work,’ ” Keener said.
Keener proceeded to look into new and used carnival equipment. He went to Wichita to a manufacturing company that makes new carnival equipment. A woman who worked there gave him a brochure of the carnival equipment they had, and the rides in there were $200,000 to $400,000 each.
“Them damn things are high priced,” Keener said.
Keener told her there was no way they could afford that, so she gave him the business card of a salesman who sold used carnival equipment. A few weeks later, the salesman called Keener and said there was a family-owned carnival that was going out of business.
So Gary Kay, Fred Lohrey, Gerald Bittel and Keener went to look at it.
“We had to buy everything,” Keener said. “I mean everything, and it was in pitiful condition.”
Keener’s son, Tom, agreed.
“They brought home pictures and said, ‘We bought this. Can you help us get it home?’ ’’ Tom said. “Once I saw the condition, I thought, what did you guys buy?”
Nothing they bought at that time remains in its original condition. Everything has been broken down and rebuilt in some capacity. With the help of Bittel finding what they needed online and local trucking companies transporting the equipment home with minimal cost to the local organizations, Keener’s vision became a reality.
“You have to get community involvement,” Keener said. “We’re lucky enough to have community involvement, and that’s what makes this thing work.”
During the last 15 years, the fair board has rebuilt all the buildings at the fairgrounds and completely upgraded everything.
“There were two separate entities involved,” said Jason Dellett, Rush County Fair Board treasurer. “One was the Rush County Fair Board, and the other was the RCAC, so the groups worked together to make these projects possible.”
The RCAC worked on the carnival side, while the fair board worked on the buildings and grounds.
“It’s amazing who shows up to help,” Dellett said. “Whether it’s for a night or an hour, we have so many people in the community willing to step in.”
The carousel is a shining example of many individuals working together to create something handcrafted and unique.
Keener constructed it, and his brother, Bill, carved the horses. Vern Melton, Rush Center, polished the horses and did fine-tuning. Mary Ann Pechanec, La Crosse, and Gloria Anders, Liebenthal, then hand-painted the 12 wooden horses in Mary Ann’s garage with the help of a few others.
“The machine itself, I made,” Keener said. “I only worked on it in the winter time, and it took me two winters.”
Keener made the gear system for the carousel that first winter. And by made, that means Keener made every tooth on every gear.
“Oh good God, you try that sometime,” Keener said with a laugh as he rubbed his forehead. “Getting everything to work just as it should, I spent days adjusting it and adjusting it.”
A retired farmer, Keener said he’s done work like that all his life.
Keener’s own father helped with the Rush County Fair when it was in Rush Center, so the fair always has been an important event for the family.
“I think I’ve been to every Rush County Fair, except for maybe two, in 85 years,” Keener said. “And I only missed those because I was in the service.”
Keener was inducted into the Kansas Fairs and Festivals Hall of Fame in 2002. Keener’s wife, Evelyn, died a few months before.
Since then, Keener passes the time by “tinkering” on more projects. In addition to the carousel, Keener constructed the “tin-lizzie” car ride and the gear systems for the little tractors before Flame Engineering in La Crosse rebuilt them.
Keener said he has learned more than he’s ever wanted to know about carnival rides.
“Did you know that a carousel turns four revolutions a minute?” he said. “Those are things you just don’t think about until you go to work on one.”
Keener said he believes there are approximately 15 to 20 other community carnivals in the western part of the state due to low population.
“We’re able to do all this on 50 cents a game and $1 for rides,” Dellett said.
Keener said there’s no profit at all, they just have to pay for the insurance and electricity — with the insurance being the biggest expense.
“The smiles are the profit,” Keener said.
Some of the first rides included a Ferris wheel, an octopus and a bullet, which are considered to be more “high-risk” rides due to height. The insurance on the bullet ride alone was $5,000.
“When we found that out, we shut that thing down right away,” Keener said.
Now their rides are much lower to the ground, which makes the insurance more manageable, in addition to their safe record through the years.
Duane Moeder, Rush County Fair Board president, proudly displays his T-shirt from last year’s fair. On the back is a list of sponsors that nearly fills half of the shirt.
“Each sponsor on this list probably gave at least $500,” Moeder said. “That’s how we’re able to make improvements and make our fair a success.”
Dellett said the fair buildings will be completely full when the fair begins this week.
“It’s what they remember,” Dellett said of people who return for the fair. “It’s just as successful as in years past.”
After the fair this year, some cars for the rides will be removed, and some rides will be partly disassembled. But the majority will remain in the same location they have stood for close to 15 years.
It’s a symbol of fun, community, pride and resolve that will return every August.
“You just can’t do something like this on your own,” Keener said. “Our communities are responsible for all of this.”