LYNCH (AP) - Nearly 200 years after Lewis and Clark discovered the black-tailed prairie dog near here, the town's residents have found a way to capitalize on those pesky rodents.

"They sew them up, stuff them up … make them," said LeRoy Purviance, who leads local tourism efforts when not running his business, Ponca Valley Oil.

The 15 women who gather every Tuesday evening in the home economics classroom at Lynch High School are not committing acts of animal cruelty.

Instead, they form an assembly line and make Lynch Dawgs, 9-inch-tall plush-toy prairie dogs made of synthetic fur, polyester fill and assorted felt body parts.

The final touch is the trimming of extra fur around each dog's face.

"They give them haircuts, and we have fur all over the place," said Jane Faith, the home ec teacher.

The stuffed animals, which cost about $16 apiece, have provided an economic boon to this 269-person village near where Lewis and Clark found what they chronicled in their journals as "barking squirrels" on Sept. 7, 1804. The explorers captured one of the animals seven miles north of town near a landmark known as Old Baldy, a mound near the southern bank of the Missouri River.

Sales of almost 800 Lynch Dawgs have netted about $9,500. The money is being used for community betterment projects as the city prepares for thousands if not millions of visitors next summer during the bicentennial re-enactment and celebration of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery expedition.

Lynch plans a community-wide celebration the first weekend next September, and it will include a locally written play about Lewis and Clark's first encounter with the prairie dog.

There's no way to gauge how many people might pass through Nebraska next year, but some have estimated the number of people following Lewis and Clark's steps westward at 40 million.

Communities near the river have spent most of this year sprucing up for their moment to shine in the regional, if not national, spotlight.

The bicentennial re-enactment is expected to reach Nebraska next summer, ending with events in the northeast part of the state in August and September before moving into South Dakota.

There is no estimate of the bicentennial's economic

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impact to Nebraska, but it will pay dividends down the road, said Paula Rhian with the Nebraska Division of Travel and Tourism.

"The long-term affect is showing people that we have a lot of things in Nebraska," she said. "We have a lot of reasons to visit."

What is most impressive, she said, is that Nebraska has events planned next year over more than 250 miles of the Lewis and Clark trail as the Missouri River forms the state's eastern and northern borders, from Richardson County in the southeast to Lynch near the South Dakota border.

"We're discovering we don't have a gap," Rhian said. "A lot of states have big empty holes, and we don't."

Retirees Bill and Gail Hastings hope not too many tourists come through. The Jupiter, Fla., couple set up camp at South Sioux City's expansive riverside park a month each summer to visit relatives and to escape Florida's oppressive heat and humidity.

Next year, they might have to find other arrangements or just sweat it out at home.

"Hopefully, they won't be here," said Hastings as he recently parked his recreational vehicle at the 134-acre acre scenic park that also features an 850,00-thousand gallon pool, 18 soccer fields and five baseball diamonds.

South Sioux City will draw people in with a late August celebration in conjunction with bicentennial activities across the river in Sioux City, Iowa.

In anticipation, South Sioux City has added 20 RV spaces, making room for up to 90 RVs to park there. But that will only provide temporary housing for a fraction of the visitors predicted to descend next year on the area.

"We're hoping that we could throw electric lines somewhere if we need to," said Jack Wardell, the city's parks and recreation director. "We're just waiting to make sure this is going to be as big as it supposed to be."

Shana James has no doubts.

"They're going to show. I hope all 40 million come through here," said the manager of the Corps of Discovery Welcome Center, two miles south of the Missouri River and Yankton, S.D., on Nebraska Highway 12.

It's already started.

About 20,000 people last year visited the center, located in a former rest stop with a scenic overlook of the river valley.

"It makes sense to me. If you love your country, why wouldn't you go through and look at it," said 75-year-old Jim Wagner, who drives 50 miles three or four times a year from his home in Winnetoon to volunteer at the center.

Wagner and other docents dole out information to visitors about the area and Lewis and Clark sites for free.

Other communities, both large and small, also are preparing for the bicentennial.

In Lynch, the community celebration planned for early September is billed as old-fashioned family fun, with a parade, a horseshoe tournament, children's games and a tug-of-war.

Along the river near Ponca, the $8 million Missouri National Recreation River Resource and Education Center opened this summer at Ponca State Park. About $14 million in additional improvements are in the works, including building a grand lodge.

Capitalizing on the bicentennial depends on a community's location. Some just a few miles from the river worry they will lose out.

That's why 12 Nebraska communities partnered to create the mythical Shannon Trail to draw some people off the river. The 240-mile route is a scavenger hunt to retrace the steps of Pvt. George Shannon, a Corps member who got lost for 16 days in northeast Nebraska in 1804.

Other towns from South Sioux City to Valentine are promoting Nebraska Highway 12 as the Outlaw Trail. One stop in Lindy, an unincorporated community named for famed aviator Charles Lindbergh when founded in 1928, claims to have a hideout used by Jesse James and his gang.

Even Wayne, 35 miles from the river, is using the bicentennial to promote its annual Wayne Chicken Show in July, which will carry the theme, "Lewis and Cluck," next year.

South Sioux City's event will be called Fish Camp II. When Lewis & Clark camped out in the area 200 years ago, they fashioned a drag and caught 318 fish.

The city had a dry-run of its celebration featuring food, entertainment, speakers and a fishing tournament in August.

"We had a terrific event," said chamber director Donna Goodier, "and plans are under way to make that bigger next year.

"We hope the tourists will come," she said.

On the Net:

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