Canoe designer leaves historic legacy

December 18, 2012 3:31:04 PM PST
Canoe lovers in the Chicago area lost a dear friend last week. Ralph Frese, who designed and built canoes died at the age of 86.

Seventy one years ago Chicagoland Canoe Base on the Northwest Side was a blacksmith shop before it turned into the making and selling of canoes in the late '50s. A talented designer named Ralph Frese was the man behind the operation and with his death last week at age 86 an era has passed. The Chicagoland Canoe Base is being liquidated.

"We're having a sale and you know everything is going to get sold and maybe sometime in the spring the building will be put on the market," said Mike Otter. "And just the Canoe Base as we know it is going to be no longer at this location."

The inventory will be sold at 30-50 percent off and the profits will go to Ralph's family. Many friends will then start another smaller version at another location. There they will continue Ralph's work of building replicas of the historic American Indian canoes Ralph had a favorite saying about his beloved canoes.

"It was the canoe is the only mode of transportation that can go through nature and not leave a trail," Otter said.

Last summer, Frese began restoration work on an authentic Chippewa Indian canoe from the late 1800's. Now that kind of work is being done by friends like Bill Derrah, who's working on Frese's last canoe and he's still listening to his mentor.

"Two weeks ago he was giving us directions on how to finish the boat, from his hospital bed," Derrah said.

Frese's great grandfather was a blacksmith, as were his grandfather and his father and of course, so was Ralph. It was in his DNA and that just might be why he was so great and building canoes.

"He could visualize the complex shapes that a canoe has and then build them," Derrah said.


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