Ken Keiffer is the handyman of California fairs. After working in festivals for 35 years, he shows up ready to tackle any project, whether it is helping to set up rides, fixing electrical wiring or pouring asphalt.
Keiffer loves everything about fairs — especially his solar-powered train, which he will be driving during the upcoming four-day Grape Festival.
"I'm just a big kid at heart. I just like playing with my trains," he says in a striped blue and red train conductor uniform.
Festival attendees will be able to hop aboard his red train that holds 36 people to learn about the fair's entertainment, foods and rides. Because the train is solar-powered, Kieffer, who goes by "Cowboy Ken," can even drive through the agricultural building to show off different grapes and wine on display. And his tours are always free.
"I always say, 'Whenever you see my train and me, your rides are always free," Cowboy Ken said.
The train conductor started working in fairs 35 years ago after buying a pony to give rides to his kids. In the last 16 years, he started driving trains.
Cowboy Ken has gotten to know families over the years while working at festivals. He is now giving train rides to the grandchildren of some of the kids he took around on ponies.
"It's exciting. The people are wonderful. There are special people who, every year, come to see me," he said.
Over the years, he moved from a gas-powered train, to diesel, to propane, to electric, and now to solar.
His 6-year-old solar train has six batteries that are usually charged by a solar panel on the roof, but he can also plug it in and charge them with electricity.
He can run everything from the batteries, including his wireless P.A. system and Christmas lights. It takes five hours to charge in the sun, and then it will last for seven hours of driving.
Cowboy Ken designed the train over a period of 4 1/2 years before having it custom built in Belgium. It is made out of completely recyclable materials, and if he ever needs a new train, he will send it back to Belgium, and they will use the different parts to build a new one.
It is the only solar, battery-powered train that runs without being on a track in at least six Western states — California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Idaho and Nevada. Cowboy Ken said it might even be the only one in the entire United States.
For the Grape Festival, Cowboy Ken arrived at the fairground early Tuesday morning, and by 3:30 a.m. he was working on fairground maintenance.
"Whatever I can do to help better the fair industry, that's what I'm going to do," he said.
Dressed in blue-and-white striped overalls and a red-and-white striped shirt, Cowboy Ken worked on his 42-foot train on Wednesday morning.
His conductor's hat has the train's name, Rawhide Express, across the top. He named it after his ranch in Cool, which is a small town near Auburn.
He will live on the fairground in a 38-foot trailer, complete with pictures of his children and satellite TV. He usually cooks for himself and avoids fair food.
"I've eaten so many corn dogs, Thai cuisine, kettle corn and ice cream that nothing sounds good anymore," he said.
Cowboy Ken would not disclose his age, but says he thinks he can still outdo most 25-year-olds and he hopes to continue working for fairs for the next 15 years.
"My favorite part is from the moment I drive through the gate until I leave. You have to have a passion for what you do or get out," Cowboy Ken said.
The Grape Festival is Cowboy Ken's favorite fair because of his bond with the organizers. Because it is late in the season, he also said all of the vendors have settled into a routine, so there is not as much cussing or loud noises as earlier fairs.
"It's like coming home to family ... I don't miss too many fairs when I leave, but I miss this fair," Cowboy Ken said.