Ralph Frese, Class 1/1944
Ralph’s love of nature began at an early age. “I grew up when there were still wetland prairies around here. It was native prairie filled with blooming shooting stars and compass plants, all the stuff that we are now trying to restore.”, he explained, pointing to the area around his canoe shop at Narragansett Ave and Irving Park Road.
It was that love of nature that inspired the fourth generation blacksmith, one of the last working in Chicago, to build canoes in his blacksmith shop in the 1950’s for his Boy Scout Troop. This was the beginning of The Chicagoland Canoe Base. The Chicagoland Canoe Base was known nationwide as the most unusual canoe shop in the United States, attracting visitors from all over the world. For the past 50 years, Ralph was known well in the paddling community as “Mr. Canoe” and has been the pioneer for the conservation of the Chicago-region Rivers.
Ralph founded the Illinois Paddling Council in the early 1950’s. He also founded the annual Des Plaines Canoe Marathon in 1958, and as part of his interest in Illinois history, participated in re-enactments of early voyages by such long-ago explorers as Robert de LaSalle, Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet. As a craftsman, he built the birch bark canoes made of fiberglass, which he built for the re-enactments, and designing the Canadienne, a new type of fiberglass canoe. He was also known for his collection of over ninety native and antique watercraft and thousands of books and ephemera on the subject.
Ralph illustrated lectures on the role of the canoe in Illinois history, on the water trails of the Midwest and the environmental state of these waterways. Ralph Frese has been the recipient of many federal, state and local awards and was recognized by the American Canoe Association to receive the first of a new national award given called “Legends of Paddling”. In 2006, Ralph was the 12th person to be voted into the Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame. The forest preserve district of Cook County, Illinois (the county containing Chicago) designated a section of the North Branch of the Chicago River the Ralph Frese River Trail. It goes from Dempster Street in Morton Grove to Willow Road in Northfield.
In November 2009, WTTW’s Chicago Tonight featured an insightful video interview with Ralph, and subsequently aired the Interview again after for passing in December of 2012. We encourage you to watch these videos, and learn about Ralph.
Ralph passed away on December 10, 2012 at the age of 86.
More links and citations about Ralph Frese:
- Chicagoland Canoe Base Website – http://www.chicagolandcanoebase.com
- Chicago Sun-Times Obituary.
- “In Memoriam.” Des Plaines River Canoe and Kayak Marathon.
- “Ralph Frese on the History of the Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon” Des Plaines River Canoe and Kayak Marathon.
- Megan, Graydon. “Ralph Frese, 1926-2012.” Chicago Tribune. 26 December 2012.
- Bowman, Dale. “Remembering conservationist and canoe-maker Ralph Frese.” Chicago SUN TIMES. 11 December 2012.
- Saith, Seth. “At 85, Life is Still But a Dream for Mr. Canoe, Ralph Frese.” Seth Saith. 14 October 2011
- FPCC Blog. “Ralph Frese, 1926 – 2012“. Forest Preserve District of Cook County
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