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Jon Weisbrod / By JON WEISBROD 

The Owatonna football team began practice on Monday and wasted little time in implementing their offensive and defensive schemes. The group retains more than a dozen players that saw significant playing time on last season’s state championship team and will look to pick up where they keft off in 2018. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

Steele County Free Fair celebrates volunteers, directors on eve of opening

OWATONNA — After an onerous winter and exasperating spring, the Steele County Free Fair managed to beat the odds and get all of its ducks in a row just in time for the 2019 event.

During the Volunteer Appreciation Dinner — held on Sunday evening before the Tuesday opening of the fair in the Beer Garden on the fairgrounds — the colorful group of individuals that tirelessly work behind the scenes to put on Minnesota’s largest county fair remembered the difficulties as well as the perseverance to move forward demonstrated in 2019.

Since the 2018 fair, the fair family mourned the loss of five individuals who left their mark on the fairgrounds. Gail Arnfelt, wife of former fair board director Paul Arnfelt, died in August ; Dave Fandel, superintendent of indoor concessions, died in January; Dick Schleich, superintendent of information stations, died in April; Steve Stansberry, superintendent of the auto museum, died in July; and Jim Gleason, former fair manager/secretary, died in April.

“I lost a deep friend this year,” said Fair Manager Scott Kozelka as the full Beer Garden remembered Gleason alongside the late manager’s family. “As Jim would say, ‘Thank you guys. Thank you for everything.’”

The fair also said goodbye to the north end of the discontinued race track during the off season, tearing down the old fence and completely reconfiguring the area to include more vendor and show space. Koezlka gave a nod to both the fairgrounds crew and the Steele County staff, who were able to work through the wet spring and summer to get the area ready for show time.

The weather also impacted buildings at the fair, with a record-breaking snowfall in February claiming the roof on one of the 61-year-old cattle barns. The resulting damage led to the Fair Board of Directors voting to demolish both the cattle barns and replacing them with on large barn. Again the rainy weather impeded on the timeline of the construction, but the barn was officially completed in time for 4-H presenters to bring in their show cattle for judging on Sunday.

Despite the trials and tribulations over the last 12 months, there was much to be celebrated on Sunday evening as well. Specifically, the purpose of the night in its entirety is for the fair to extend gratitude to the volunteers who make it all possible.

“Thank you for everything you do. When we go around the country and around the state and they ask why we’re so successful, the first thing we talk about is our volunteers and everyone that makes this happen,” Kozelka said. “The SCFF couldn’t happen without our great volunteers, our great superintendents, our great board of directors, and our great office staff.”

As per usual during the supper, the fair recognized service milestones for various fair volunteers. The recipients of the service awards included the following:

• Glen Meger, Director, 5 years

• Dillion Noble, Superintendent of Organic Crops, 5 years

• Cary Larson, Superintendent of Goats, 5 years

• Naomi Jirele, Superintendent of Fine Arts, 5 years

• Karen VonRuden, Superintendent of Dairy Cattle, 5 years

• Brad Svenby, Superintendent of Insurance, 10 years

• Brent Svenby, Director, 10 years

• Roger Noble, Director, 15 years

• Leo Seykora, Superintendent of Organic Crops, 20 years

• Deb Mather, Superintendent of Hobbies and Data Entry, 20 years

• Pat King, Superintendent of Grains and Grasses, 20 years

• Doug Houghes, Superintendent of Aerial Photography, 20 years

• Denise Lage, Office Staff, 20 years

• Mark Ditlevson, Director, 30 years

• Stephanie Kolbe, Superintendent of Wood Carving, 35 years

• Tim Arlt, Director, 40 years

The largest applause, however, erupted when Dick Reinhardt, director emeritus, was recognized for his 59 years of service to the fair. As Reinhardt stood to be recognized, the entire Beer Garden stood with him.

“Dick has dedicated his whole life to the fair,” said Fair Board President Dan Deml. “He’s been a good, solid gentleman his whole life. He has always had a very realistic look of the fair: what works and what doesn’t and what can be successful. If he ever disagrees, he’s never disagreeable. He is always very professional.”

Reinhardt was first elected to the fair board in 1959 after working with the fair’s treasurer for four years prior as an employee of Federated Insurance, a job he held for 44 years before retiring in 1987. While on the fair board, Reinhardt was the treasurer from 1959 to 1996 — 37 years — and from 1997 to 2016 he served as the director of hospitality and the bank.

After turning 90-years-old in 2016, Reinhardt announced that he would be retiring from the Board of Directors. Following the 2016, the directors unanimously decided to name Reinhardt director emeritus. As director emeritus, Reinhardt is no longer a voting member on the fair board, but is still invited to attend meetings and noon lunches during fair week.

While the evening ended joyously, everyone excited the Beer Garden with butterflies in their stomachs as they prepared to kick things into high gear for the fair’s opening ceremony at 5 p.m. Tuesday. The feelings and thoughts can best be articulated through a fair prayer written by Jim Gleason that was read in loving tribute before Sunday’s dinner began:

Lord, as a new year begins and we start to prepare

Lord we ask for your blessing with this prayer for the fair.

Watch over our fair, keeping it safe.

Provide good weather all over the place.

Fair volunteers are all groups of friends;

Give them courage and strength and a shoulder to lend.

Lord, help us put smiles on lots of faces;

From coast to coast in all sorts of places.

Help us show all our visitors how much we care

And how happy we are they came to our fair.

Cattle Haven: New barn named after Kubicek family, ready for fair week

OWATONNA — A haven is defined as a place of safety or refuge, typically for wildlife. It is meant to described a place where people or animals can feel safe, secure, and most importantly — happy.

Happy is exactly how the cattle at the Steele County Free Fair will be this week, as they become the first group to reside in the Wayne and Betty Kubicek Family Cattle Haven.

The new barn measuring 114-feet-by-152-feet, totaling 17,328 square feet, replaced two 61-year-old cattle barns a roof on one of the buildings succumbed to a record-breaking snowfall in February. In a race against time — and even more so the weather — the new barn was built for 4-H presented to house and show their cattle at the 2019 fair.

For Wayne and Betty Kubicek, however, they are simply pleased to be able to give back in an area of the life that has continually brought them joy.

“We just wanted to do something nice for our community,” said Wayne Kubicek as most of his family fathered on the fairgrounds to see the new barn adorned with their name. “We all survived growing up here and basically live at the fair. It’s seldom that we ever miss a day.”

Both Wayne and Betty Kubicek were born, raised, and educated in Steele County before they met and married. Consequently, they remained in the area to work and raise their family. As it is for many locals, the Steele County Free Fair became a staple in their lives as the most highly anticipated time of the year.

Over the last handful of years, the Kubiceks started to notice something concerning on the north end of the fairgrounds. The two blue barns that were used to house cattle were still “adequate enough” for the fair, but the couple recognized that they were in stark contrast to the newer, neighboring barns.

“We set it up in our estate planning to give back to the fair,” Wayne Kubicek stated, adding that he made his good friend and Fair Board President Dan Deml aware of their plans. “That way if something happened to us, our kids would know that this is something we wanted to help with.”

When the duo heard the news that the heavy snowfall caused one of the barn’s roofs to collapse, Wayne Kubicek joked with his wife that their phone would be ringing soon. Regardless, he reached out to Deml to discuss assisting with the cost of replacing the two aging buildings with a new, larger structure that would complement the others on the grounds.

“We wanted to let them know what we were intending to give to the fair, hoping that it could help make the correct, long-range decision,” Wayne Kubicek said. “We didn’t want them to just put a band-aid on the problem for now.”

“If they would have just fixed the old barn, it would still be old and the money would be gone,” Betty Kubicek added.

Nonetheless, the Kubiceks said that they put their faith in the fair board to make whatever decision they thought was best for the fair. Little did they know that their generosity would make their decision significantly easier.

“When the barn fell down, the board decided to build a new one, but was also considering the option of building a much bigger one to replace both, but we did not have enough money to make that happen,” Deml said. “Because of the Kubiceks, we were able to build the barn we have today that replaced two old buildings instead of one.”

Though their sponsorship of the new building allowed them to have their name plastered across the top of the barn, the Kubicek’s said the recognition was never what they were after.

“No fair in the Midwest compares to Steele County, and that’s not by accident. We are surrounded by good folks who give back to the community that gave so much to them,” Wayne Kubicek said. “We just helped them do what should be done. We just want to see our fair continue to be a strong, good fair.”

A Minnesota native — he grew up in Albertville — Shane Martin will have his full band with him Saturday in the Beer Garden at the Steele County Free Fair, and “we’re really looking forward to it,” he said. “We’re a high-energy, vocal harmony, country-rocking band.” (Photo courtesy Shane Martin)

Man facing vehicular homicide cited for more traffic, boating violations

OWATONNA — A Dodge Center man who faces two counts of criminal vehicular homicide for his role in a crash that killed a Blooming Prairie elementary school teacher and her daughter last September has been ticketed in Owatonna for speeding.

Tanner Kruckeberg, 25, was charged last month in Owatonna for speeding. According to court documents, was stopped and ticketed in the 1200 block of East Rose Street for traveling 41 mph in a zone that is marked with a 30 mph limit.

It wasn’t the first time Kruckeberg had been cited for traffic violations. His record of violations dates back to 2010, when he was just 16 years old, according to court documents.

Nor is it the first time that Kruckeberg has been cited for ordinance violations since he was charged in January with causing the deaths of Rachel Harberts, 43, and her 8-year-old daughter, Emerson, when, according to court records, Kruckeberg rear-ended the Harberts’ vehicle.

In May, Kruckeberg was charged in Albert Lea with operating an unlicensed motor craft and fishing without a license.

Kruckeberg’s driving record shows convictions for 23 separate offenses — not counting the most recent ticket in Owatonna — in six separate counties since 2010, the year he turned 16 and was eligible for a driver’s license. The vast majority of the tickets — 11 in all — were written in Dodge County with eight of the 23 citations for speeding, including his first three tickets, all written for speeding, all written in Dodge County and all written with a year of his 16th birthday.

Among the other citations that Kruckeberg was given were four citations for driving with a suspended driver’s license and five citations for liquor consumption by a minor.

He was also charged with “Using a Wireless Communication Device … in Motion/Traffic” for an incident that occurred in Olmsted County on Feb. 18, 2014. On the traffic citation, the reporting officer wrote that he “observed vehicle move from right to middle lane without signaling. Observed driver accessing data/texting while driving.” And the officer said on the citation that the driver (Kruckeberg) stated he “was looking something up on the phone.”

Kruckeberg was convicted of a petty misdemeanor for that incident.

On Jan. 16, Kruckeberg was charged with the two counts of vehicular homicide for operating his vehicle, a Hummer, in a “grossly negligent manner,” leading to the death of Rachel and Emerson Harberts. Jaxon Harberts, 12, suffered life-threatening injuries in the crash.

The crash occurred shortly after 7 a.m. Sept. 7, 2018, near the intersection of Highway 14 and Dodge County 3, just east of Claremont when Rachel Harberts stopped on westbound Highway 14 to make a left turn. While it was stopped, Harberts’ vehicle was struck from the rear by the Hummer.

Kruckeberg told investigators that he was on his cell phone “speaking to a buddy” and when the call was complete, he looked down to hang up the phone and looked away from the road. When he looked up, the Harberts’ car was “right in front of him” and he crashed into it, according to the criminal complaint.

But Kruckeberg’s cell phone was searched, revealing that at the time of the crash, Kruckeberg was on his phone, using an online banking application.

Kruckeberg is slated to be back in Dodge County District Court regarding the vehicular homicide charges on Sept. 5, two days shy of the first anniversary of the accident that killed the two Harberts.