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'Mr. Canoe' To Be Honored with Street Sign After 50 Years of Paddling

By Heather Cherone | September 21, 2013 8:47am
  Irving Park Road and Naragansett Avenue will be renamed Saturday for Ralph Frese, a conservationist.
Mr. Canoe Honored with Street Sign for More than 50 Years of Paddling
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DUNNING — Mr. Canoe is getting his own street.

The corner of Irving Park Road and Naragansett Avenue, home to Ralph Frese’s Chicagoland Canoe Base shop, will be renamed Saturday for Frese, a world-renowned canoe builder and conservationist.

Frese, known as Mr. Canoe for exquisitely crafting the gracefully curved vessels he loved to paddle along the Chicago River, died in December at age 86 from cancer.

“He would be so thrilled,” said Rita Frese, 82. “He fought so hard for the environment. He should be remembered.”

When Frese opened his shop in the 1950s, the still mostly rural far Northwest Side of Chicago was better known as Frogtown.

Ald. Tim Cullerton (38th), who spearheaded the push for the honorary street sign, said Frese dedicated his life to the community.

“He was a fixture on the Northwest Side,” Cullerton said. “He was really deeply involved. He’s definitely part of our local history.”

Frese volunteered with dozens of community groups, including the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, teaching them about the river and the plants and animals that live there — and the importance of protecting them.

Frese’s store at 4019 N. Narragansett Ave. was also likely the last working blacksmith shop in Chicago. Frese was a fourth-generation blacksmith, Rita Frese said.

“But it was canoeing that captured his imagination,” Rita Frese said, recalling how her husband disliked paddling alone so she often went along. “We did everything together.”

The Canadian Canoe Museum named Ralph Frese one of the "most influential canoeists in the world.”

Frese designed and made modern canoes, but his passion was replicas of the birchbark canoes used by the first settlers of Chicago, his wife said. More than 100 of his canoes are part of the collection of the Chicago Maritime Museum.

“It is a dying art,” Rita Frese said.

Ralph Frese was most proud of his work to restore the Chicago River, which was a “garbage dump” before his efforts to fight pollution and rampant development, Rita Frese said.

A section of the North Branch of the river from Willow Road in Northfield to Dempster Street in Morton Grove was renamed for him.

In addition, the American Canoe Association gave him a Legends of Paddling award and the National Mississippi River Museum honored him with a lifetime achievement award. Frese was also a member of the Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame.

In 1958, Frese launched the Des Plaines River Marathon and the New Year's Day Canoe Paddle in 1985.

After her husband’s death, Rita Frese sold the store. His canoe-making equipment and other tools are in storage, as the newly formed Ralph Frese Family Foundation gets off the ground.

Rita Frese said she is writing an account of their lives together — hoping to keep their story alive for their children and grandchildren.

Plans to redevelop that corner are in the works, Cullerton said.

“With the store gone, the street sign will be the only thing left,” Cullerton said. “It is an important part of our heritage.”