Wood carving continues at Otoe County Fair

Kirt Manion
Syracuse Journal-Democrat

Otoe County residents know Mike Riege for his work with the Otoe County Sheriff’s Department. Riege is also known for his great work as a wood carver.

And just as members of the law enforcement community step up in support of one another, the wood carving world does the same.

Due to knee surgeries and complications, Riege hasn’t been able to engage in wood carving and will be missing most, if not all, of the Otoe County Fair this year.

Rest assured, however, the fair will have a carver.

And that goes back to the support from the community of which Riege is a member.

T.J. Jenkins, a friend of Riege’s from Kansas City, will be doing the majority of the carving you see at the fair this year. Riege said he hopes that he’ll be able to carve a little bit too, but that will be a wait-and-see how he feels situation.

Riege is confident that the fair work will be in good hands with Jenkins, who is a full time carver. Jenkins has competed in wood carving and his work has been featured in art shows. He also carves at the Iowa State Fair.

Riege said Jenkins has helped him fill obligations at three county fairs.

While Jenkins steps in, Riege said he still has a desire to carve. And once his body will allow for it, he’s definitely getting right back to work.

Riege said his passion for wood carving and connection to the carving community ties back to Nick Jensen, owner of Papa Bear Carvings. Jensen did a carving for Mike’s mother, Delrosa Riege. The carving drew a lot of interest in the local community. It got Mike to thinking he would like to try his hand at the skill. 

It ended up that Riege, along with a few other interested parties, got a chance to take a lesson in carving from Jensen. The trainees took a day and carved a bear and an eagle. 

Jensen’s sage advice on getting a carving to go right was simple.

“You take the wood out that doesn’t belong,” Jensen said.

That experience set Riege off on carving after carving. An example of Mike’s work is a piece entitled God and Country, which features a flag and a cross. The piece is prominently displayed in a yard on 4th Corso. Riege’s work can also be seen at Hamburg, in Waubonsie State Park and in many other places. One of Riege’s more recent carvings would be a piece that he did for the annual Lourdes fundraising event.

Riege said he has orders to do more carvings and says he’ll get to them as soon as he can. Some have been waiting for a long time and Mike said he would understand if they ended up not wanting the order due to the wait.

The fact remains, Riege is as frustrated he can’t carve as the customers are for not being able to get their order.

The activity of carving is as important as the final product. And that takes us back to the community of carvers. 

Included among Riege’s mentors are Gary Keenan, a regular carver at the Kansas State Fair. And A.J. Lutter, whose work has been displayed at Famous Dave’s Restaurants. Lutter is also famous for being a driving force in getting carving into fair events.

Riege said the carvers enjoy fairs because their work can help to support the fair. The carvings at the Otoe County Fair will be sold at auction and proceeds from that will benefit the fair.

Riege said carvers go to the fair with the goal of making the best product so they can get top dollar and get the most support possible for fair events.

The fair events draw interest as well as money. Fans of carving love to sit down and watch these artists take a non-descript piece of wood and turn it into a masterpiece. 

It’s certainly not as easy as what Jensen said. Making a masterpiece involves hard work and determination, even through those pieces that don’t turn out.

Riege said he has had plenty of those.

“I’ve made firewood that took a long time to get,” Riege said.

When everything goes right, the result can be very impressive.

“Some of these guys just really amaze me,” Riege said.

Count T.J. among those who have impressed.

“T.J. will put on a really good show at the Otoe County Fair,” Riege said.