RUSH CENTER — What started more than 20 years ago as a fundraiser has become a Sunday tradition in this small Rush County town, population approximately 150.

At times, that’s about how many people can be found, at a monthly baked potato bar hosted by the Walnut Valley Senior Center, 220 Washington. Attendance typically ranges from 70 to 90, but has been as high as 150, said Monie Smith, one of approximately 25 senior center members.

“They sit here for quite some time and visit,” Smith said. “We serve from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. usually. And as they get out of church — we’ve got two more groups coming that aren’t here yet.”

The senior center serves all of Rush County.

Some attendees come every month right after church, others come with family members. And some even travel in for the buffet-style lunch from nearby towns including Great Bend, Ness City and Plainville.

The baked potato bar typically is held the third Sunday of every month, with the exception of June to August, when they take a break during summer wheat harvest. And during the break, members often hear from residents who are sad to miss the lunch, Smith said.

The event also is rescheduled in March to accommodate the town’s traditional St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

The senior center members prepare all of the food, featuring large potatoes with a wide assortment of toppings, including chili, gravy and melted cheese. There’s also a variety of homemade salads and side dishes — and never a shortage of homemade pie.

“We prefer pie,” Smith said.

Cost is $8 per adult and half price for children, though young children eat for free. Proceeds from the event help members pay for utilities and operating expenses.

The members also offer the building for special occasion rentals and prepare funeral dinners for local families in additional efforts to raise funds.

In addition to meeting for weekly social activities, the group strives to offer a variety of services to its members and the community, also housing a small museum filled with relics of Rush County history. There’s also a game room featuring pool and ping pong tables, and an exercise room offering bicycles and a treadmill.

A room full of books functions as a community library, and a senior center member leads a regular story time for local children. The center also lends out some durable medical equipment for area residents in need.

In recent years, the senior center’s membership also has seen growth, which was welcome at a time when the youngest members were in their 80s, said Betty Misegadis, the center’s first vice president.

The potato bar was suggested as a fundraiser more than 20 years ago by the senior center’s first president, who since has passed away, she said.

“And a lot of the members thought it was totally foolish,” she said with a chuckle.

But clearly, the idea has caught on.

“It’s a good place for a good meal and sociability,” Misegadis said. “A lot of people like to just sit and visit after they’ve eaten.”