#881: Remember Mr. Canoe

January 26th, 2018

A man with dancing cats on his hands first told me about Mr. Canoe.

It was 2012, and I was talking to one of the puppeteers behind the Puppet Bike for a story on this site. Mike was a nice guy, really interested in the project so when we were done chatting under an Andersonville streetlamp, he suggested I should do a story about a man named Ralph.

From a little corner shop in Portage Park, his family’s old blacksmith shop converted to boat-building, Ralph Frese hand-built canoes. Modern, sleek. Classic, replica. He hand-molded birch bark, real or replica, to make traditional forms. He led historic recreations of famous expeditions while dressed as a French voyageur.

I should write about Ralph, Mike the cat-dancer said. It sounded neat, but with freelance hustling, dating and life, it was a few months before I reached out to Ralph.

He had died.

I think it was Mike, but it might have been someone working at the canoe shop in Portage Park. No matter the person, someone mentioned that a few of Ralph’s friends were meeting at the shop in a few days to finish up the canoe Ralph had been working on when he died. I asked if I could come. It ended up being one of my fondest memories of this site.

For hours, we talked and laughed and I watched the men turn birch bark into boat. At the end, I couldn’t bear to edit their “thousand stories of Ralph” down. I ended up posting their audio online so everyone could hear about prank-dumping Ralph in the Gulf of Mexico, German dads, an “addictive” shop and taking the pitch from pine trees to mix with bear grease lard and ash for traditional watertight Ojibwa birch bark canoes.

“He was no saint, that’s for sure. But he was a genuinely caring person, a nice person. And he was a person who liked to share his knowledge with people. And that’s where I came in. If it wasn’t for Ralph, I wouldn’t be doing half the things I’m doing right now,” a friend of his named Rich Gross said. “I’m the product of Ralph Frese, and pretty much everyone that hangs around here was the same way. It was addictive to hang around this place because there’s so many fun things going on, so many interesting people come in.”

That was five years ago. I wrote the story up and tossed it like a letter in a bottle into the void that is the internet.

Time passed, the shop was sold and torn down. I passed it a few weeks ago. Just another development over Chicago’s last blacksmith shop.

But someone found my letter. A few weeks ago I got a note on the site’s Facebook page from the manager of the Chicago Maritime Museum. At 7 p.m. tonight, the little Bridgeport ode to the water will host the premiere of “Mr. Canoe,” a documentary about the life and boats of Ralph Frese.

I never met the man. I missed his life and the only of his boats I saw were being finished by his friends as memorial. But I do remember fondly the experience of sharing a sliver of time with the people who loved him and hearing the stories about why.

This film might be the same experience for you.

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You are currently reading #881: Remember Mr. Canoe by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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