Tribute to activist Ralph Frese at the Chicago Maritime Festival

Ralph Frese
Ralph Frese

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

The Illinois Paddling Council wishes to pay tribute to its late founder, Ralph Frese, at the Chicago Maritime Festival to be held Saturday, Feb. 22, at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., Chicago. Daytime activities are from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and an evening concert will be from 7 to 10:30 p.m. Tickets may be ordered from the website, listed below.

The festival itself has an illustrious history. According to its website (, the first Chicago Maritime Festival was held in 2003. It “promotes awareness about and fosters connections between the maritime community in and around Chicago, through the state of Illinois, across the nation, and around the world. It is held each year on the last Saturday in February at the Chicago History Museum. Festival goers enjoy over 40 seminars and workshops, a maritime music concert, plus ship models, displays and demonstrations presented by the individuals and organizations that make up the maritime community in Chicago and beyond.

Festival outreach programs serve community groups, libraries, schools, people with disabilities, and senior citizens in the weeks preceding the Saturday event. Members of the Chicago Maritime Festival Speakers present to the community throughout the year.”

Remembering Ralph Frese’

In a special session called “Remembering Ralph Frese,” some of the friends who knew him will celebrate his life in stories and personal recollections. One of those is Tom Kastle, a singer, songwriter, tall ships captain, and teller of tales based in the Great Lakes who has traveled the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe and the Pacific. He toured extensively as part of Tom & Chris Kastle for two decades, producing a dozen recordings and a soundtrack for PBS (WTTW-TV Chicago). His hands-on background with tall ships and maritime music led to an invitation to be a “professor” at “Folk University” at the 2009 International Folk Alliance Conference in Memphis. He remembers Frese not only as the founder of the Illinois Paddling Council, but so much more.

Ralph was a really good friend, not only to the maritime community, but to everybody he ever met,” recalled Kastle. “He was a staunch supporter of anything having to do with the waterways ecology. He was a total dreamer who literally sowed wildflowers in the woods on the weekends. He started a canoe career by building several hundred boats for the Boy Scouts over a period of years. He was a passionate historian. He did more research and writing about paddling in the Great Lakes than anybody I know.”

When Frese died in December 2012, the Chicago Tribune obituary noted that he had begun building craft canoes for the Boy Scouts in the 1950s. He had also participated in re-enactments of early voyages by early explorers such as Robert de LaSalle, Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet.

He not only participated in the trips but built fiberglass replicas of some of the birch bark voyageur-type canoes used by those early settlers, some as long as 34 feet,” the Tribune said.

Tom Kastle has fond memories of conversations with Frese. “He was a frequent figure around the table whenever we were planning an event of any kind having to do with the Maritime Festival,” said Kastle. “Always a staunch supporter, always there with whatever help you need. Just an amazing guy. I don’t think we’ll see the likes of him ever again. He was a third-generation blacksmith.” (The Tribune said he was a “fourth-generation blacksmith” who had a working shop adjacent to his Northwest Side canoe shop, using a forge to make tools for stonemasons and sculptors.)

He was a link to the past, and he also forwarded the future at the same time,” said Kastle. “He wasn’t a stuffy re-enactor. He was always writing and blogging on the computer as much as he was working at the forge. He was a Renaissance man, definitely. At the Maritime Festival, we did one session that turned out to be so popular that we decided to make it an annual event — ‘Rememberig Ralph Frese.’ This is a session where there are no PowerPoint presentations, no videos, just people sitting around telling stories about Ralph. I was inspired by this, by an organization called ‘Tall Ships America.’ There is a tall ship figure by the name of Lane Briggs. There is a Lane Briggs Memorial Cocktail Party at the Tall Ships America conference (formerly American Sail Training Association). The whole purpose is for people who knew him to tell stories for Lane’s kids, as they are all professional mariners. It struck me that along the way, there will eventually be no one who knew Lane Briggs or Ralph Frese. It is important for the stories to go on.

To me personally, Ralph was a mentor, and he was a really good friend, and he accomplished many things when it comes to environment and history and paddling in Chicago and Illinois,” Kastle said. “He started the Des Plaines River Marathon. He started the Happy New Year’s Day Canoe Paddle … the north branch of the Chicago River is the Ralph Frese River Trail.”

From the Jan. 15-21, 2014, issue

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