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Cruising NWKS: Work pays off in smiles





La CROSSE -- There are many traditions at the Rush County Fair -- some old, some new, some borrowed, some green.

The fair itself is the first, with 102 years of history behind it --  and many of those years have involved the Keener family.

"I've been there all my life," George Keener said of the fair. "My folks worked at the fair a lot. It's part of my life, I guess you'd say."

Keener became part of something new this year when the 4-H concession stand's regular ice cream machine broke. He built his own ice cream machine after seeing a similar one at the state fair a few years ago.

"I said our community needs one, and I made that," he said.

He hardly gets to use it, but a phone call from his daughter-in-law and 50 gallons of ice cream later, the hundreds who flocked to the fairgrounds east of La Crosse last week made for some happy customers.

Keener was part of the team that brought a home-owned carnival to the Rush County Fair a decade ago. The carnival featured a new ride this year, but some of the same dedicated volunteers.

"We've been doing this for probably five years," JoAnn Tomecek of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Timken said about volunteering.

Tickets are cheap for children to get on rides and play games at the carnival, and it's one of Keener's favorite parts of the fair.

"I like to see the smile on people's faces in the evenings, the little kids especially," he said. "The smile is our profit because there's no profit in what we charge for tickets."

Across the fairgrounds, volunteers have put together a slow-pitch softball tournament, which is usually an all-nighter for teams.

"It's a lot of fun. You're a little tired the next day, but it is fun," said Kim Jay, the tournament organizer.

Though this year's tournament wasn't an all-nighter because of the way the fair schedule worked out, there still were eight to 10 teams participating, with many made up of local residents.

"They have fun out here doing it," Jay said.

Money raised from this year's tournament will be donated to the La Crosse Lions Club to help fund additional lights at the ballfields at the fairgrounds.

But it's not all fun and games at the fair. County 4-H'ers put in a lot of work all summer before bringing their foods, posters, arts and crafts, steers, chickens and everything else to the fair.

"Fair time's stressful, that's for sure," said eight-year member Eleanor Cornwell of the Lone Star Rangers.

She cut back this year, but still found herself with more exhibits than she could count on one hand.

"You gotta remember that the more time you put in ahead of time, hopefully you'll get more ribbons," she said.