La Crosse developer Mike Keil was a bit taken aback Thursday when asked whether he was wearing Buck Naked underwear.

“That’s kind of a personal question,” he said with a grin.

Keil pondered the question shortly before the Timberworks Lumberjack Show signaled the grand opening of the Duluth Trading Co. in the Doerflinger building that he and his wife, Karen, bought and began renovating in 2004.

After pausing with an expression indicating his mind was spinning faster than a chain saw in search of a response, Keil said, “Well, just between you and me and the La Crosse Tribune, yes I am.”

Keil, in a show of loyalty to a tenant many predict will be a boon for downtown, noted that his shoes, pants and shirt also were from Duluth Trading’s shelves. He revealed a convenient hidden mesh pocket in the shirt capable of holding large, bulky items.

“I could work the floor for these guys,” he said.

Unlike Keil’s show of allegiance to his new tenant, store manager Troy Hegge admitted that he wasn’t wearing the Buck Naked drawers that are one of the chain’s signature items.

Cool as a cucumber, Hegge added, “I’m wearing Armachillos. I’m a huge Buck Naked fan, but I bought these last week and saved them for today.”

Asked the significance of the day for wearing undies that Duluth Trading touts for its “revolutionary cooling technology,” Hegge smiled and said he wanted to make sure he stayed “cool under pressure” for the grand opening.

The store was crowded between the noon and 5 p.m. lumberjack shows, with many buying and others just checking what all the hoopla is about in the Duluth Trading Co.’s selection of La Crosse for the 10th store in its chain of locations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota.

One of the sources of the hubbub in La Crosse is that Duluth Trading becomes the second retail store downtown that will be open until 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. The other is Wettstein’s, the hometown appliance, furniture and mattress store that touts its evening hours as a customer convenience, although it closes at 6 p.m. on Saturdays. Sunday hours for both are 11 a.m to 5 p.m.

Duluth Trading isn’t just testing the waters for evening hours. “That’s the way we do business,” store manager Hegge said, promising that other businesses will follow suit when they see the traffic the store spurs.

“We’re like the pied piper of what’s going to happen,” said Hegge, a La Crosse native who graduated from Logan High School. “We’re a destination location, and we know it.”

Downtown Mainstreet Inc. executive director Robin Moses echoed that assessment, saying that Duluth has a reputation as an anchor store that routinely attracts people from more than 100 miles away.

“It’s a recognized national brand with an authentic feel that is locally minded and gets involved with the community,” Moses said.

Evening hours may spur the same from other stores, some of which now are open until 7, Moses said.

“We’re really encouraging them to stay open later to see if it’s a beneficial opportunity for us to have another first impression,” she said.

Stories abound about Duluth Trading’s customer loyalty. Patrons’ perseverance persists despite the chain’s upscale prices, such as $18.50 apiece for women’s underwear, men’s underwear ranging from $19.50 to $29.50 apiece, shirts ranging from the high $20s to $65 or so and some pants nearing $100. The stores and the company’s website, www.duluthtrading.com, also feature a variety of gadgets and other items you never knew you needed until you saw them.

Moses attributes Duluth Trading’s high ratio of four- and five-star customer ratings to the quality and durability of its products. Customers put a premium on such sturdiness, from a long-term economical and environmental perspective, she said.

The noon lumberjack show drew more than 200 gawkers, from kids plunked on the curbs of Main Street — shut down for the occasion — and retirees in lawn chairs, to downtown workers on lunch break and still others seeking a free lunch of the sumptuous Boar’s Head barbecue sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, and cole slaw.

Emcee Sue Hastedt divided the crowd into two teams — Logging Camp No. 9 and Logging Camp No. 13 — to cheer for lumberjacks Dave Weatherhead and Adam LaSalle. The crowd oohed, ahhed and hollered “yo-HO,” as Hastedt had coached them to do, when they approved of their designated lumberjack’s maneuvers.

Weatherhead, who’s from Nova Scotia but now lives in Hayward, Wis., and LaSalle, a former collegiate lumberjack champ now living in Mount Horeb, Wis., and touring on the pro circuit, traded wins in sawing and chopping contests. (Was the fix in?)

But the mountain men generally tied in the number of mirthful groans, as well as applause, they drew from the crowd in the contests that combined stand-up comedy with flying sawdust.

Called upon to use a chain saw for a rapid carving, LaSalle merely sawed off a sliver from the end of a log.

When Hastedt challenged his claim that it was a rabbit, LaSalle said it looked just like one he had seen that morning.

After LaSalle ran over the rabbit, he said, it looked “tired.” After he then backed over it, it looked “exhausted.”

Ba-da-bump.

Taking over at the carving station, Weatherhead responded to Hastedt’s order for more detail with a reference to a rabbit’s tail. When he botched an attempt to chainsaw an eyebrow, he blamed Hastedt, alleging that “you made me cut a hare too deep.”

After the jacks of the lumber trade had finished carving, lo and behold, Weatherhead turned the creation upside down to reveal a small “hare chair,” with the ears serving as legs.

They picked Hailey Rusak of Brice Prairie from the crowd to gift the chair, delighting the 7-year-old girl.

A real crowd-pleaser was LaSalle’s “Angry Beaver,” a chainsaw he made himself with a motorcycle engine for power.

The Beav, which delivers 9,000 rpm, sounded like a crotch rocket after he cranked it up. He sliced a large log three times as if it were butter.

After the contest, people from the crowd flocked into the street to retrieve pieces of wood for the lumberjacks to sign, to the delight of young and old alike.

Duluth Trading traces its lineage to two brothers who were construction tradesmen in Duluth in 1989 and invented a canvas tool organizer that fit on a drywall bucket. The continued creating tool gadgets they sold under the brand name of Portable Products, headquartered on a refurbished barge on Lake Superior in Duluth’s shipping district.

Expansion to other products led to the name Duluth Trading, and the brothers’ creation of a long-tailed T-shirt to solve the embarrassing problem of what is called plumber’s butt set a higher trajectory for success.

The company retained the Duluth Trading name when it moved its headquarters and distribution center to Belleville, Wis.

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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