Frank Freels loved his wife Geri, their children and the St. Croix River—not necessarily in this order.
The Freelses spent decades rowing on St. Croix and docked their cruiser at Sunnyside Marina, south of downtown Stillwater. The cruiser’s depth ranged from 36 feet to 53 feet. Frank Freels died in 2012 at the age of 95. He was a brigadier general of the St. Croix Yacht Club and served twice as the former president of Sunnyside Marina; Geri Freels served as the vice president of the Yacht Club.
She said that Frank Freels fell in love with St. Croix the day he moved from Peoria, Illinois to Minnesota. “He always said he had crossed the (Interstate 94) bridge and thought the river was so beautiful. This is the love of my husband’s life — I hope, second only to me.”
The couple own and operate many different businesses, including Distinction in Design in Plymouth. They retired in 1994 and moved to the Oak Glen community in Stillwater.
“We feel that we are very lucky in life,” she said. “We started from scratch and worked hard for everything we have. It can be done in this country; it just can. Many times our business could go bankrupt, but they didn’t. God bless us so that we can bless others.”
The couple held fundraising events and donated to many causes, including the American Cancer Society, American Red Cross, Mayo Clinic and Saint Vincent de Paul.
But it was an article by Pioneer Press in November 2020 that reminded Geri Freels of a lasting legacy: donating $1 million to the city of Stillwater for the restoration and restoration of the Lumberjack Landing, the city’s newest park. Former Aiple houses.
The plan called for the renovation of the 4,000-square-foot house belonging to the late Elayne Aiple to include public toilets, a community room, a scull storage area, canoe/kayak rental vendor space, and a picnic terrace/gazebo.
“Not everyone can afford a boat,” Friars said. “When I found out that there would be facilities like kayaks and picnic shelters, I thought,’Oh, this is perfect for people who want to come to Stillwater but can’t afford to live here. s Choice.’ “
On Tuesday afternoon, the 84-year-old Friars visited the park of the future for the first time with Mayor Ted Kozlowski and city planner Abby Wittman. “It’s so beautiful,” she said, walking around the split-level house. “I saw it from the river, but not from the land. …I like the fact that you are planning a fishing pier.”
Happy memories on the river
She said her happiest memories included the time spent on the river with Frank and friends. The St. Croix Yacht Club has two beaches on one side of the Wisconsin River, and the couple will park their cruiser on the beach for the night.
“We will spend the whole weekend from side to side,” she said. “Sometimes we are a foot away from the next boat on the beach. We all know each other very well. This is how I camp.”
The couple started with a 36-foot cruiser and then bought a 42-foot houseboat. From there, they graduated as a 53-foot cruiser and finally a 51-foot coastal cruiser. She said that everyone was named Geri-Anne.
“Our business is in the city, so we are by the river on weekends,” she said.
Almost every Friday night during the boating season, the couple would walk through the Aiple barge property with friends from Sunnyside Marina and dine at a restaurant in downtown Stillwater. “In the end, we felt a lot like part-time residents of Stillwater, and when Frank finally retired, we built a home in Oak Valley,” she said.
Friars will present a check for $800,000 to the Stillwater City Council on Tuesday night; the remaining $200,000 has been deposited into a trust account that will be provided to the city government after her death.
According to the terms of the donation, the money can only be used to improve the building. She said that before moving to Stillwater, the couple lived in Plymouth and Frank Friars served on the Plymouth City Council. “We have seen many times that the funds are used for other purposes, not for donations,” she said.
This 15-acre park has nearly three-quarters of a mile of coastline. Wittman said that in addition to multiple river access points, there will be an accessible kayak/canoe launcher, an accessible fishing dock and multiple trails, including connections to the adjacent Brown Creek State Trail.
“It will allow pedestrians to enter the river in a way that other public land in Stillwater does not have,” she said.
The park is open to the public, but there are currently no facilities. The barrier-free kayak/canoe launch project will start next year; Wittman said the city received a grant of $50,000 from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for the project. Future plans require picnic areas, benches and places overlooking the river and fishing; a barrier-free trail next to the property’s pond; the expansion of the park and parking lot south of the trail; and the renovation of the house.
Wittman said that the protected easement on the property limits the city’s ability to develop the land, so the plan calls for passive and non-motorized recreational activities. Most of the woodland will be restored to its natural state and will not increase the number of impervious surfaces on site.
Aiple, who had lived on this land for decades, sold the property to the city government and Washington County in 2014 for $4.3 million; she died in 2015. The plan calls for spending US$3.25 million in the development of the new park in the next 10 years.
Live happily together
Geri Powell, a young single mother of two children, met Frank Freels during a trip to Spain arranged by the Minneapolis Travel Club in 1969. She said that Frank Freels, who is divorced and has three children, took his youngest daughter on a trip as a graduation gift.
“He is dressed beautifully,” she said. “The plane was late. He walked up to my girlfriend and me in the lobby and introduced himself. He wanted to know if we were going on the same trip. I said to my girlfriend,’Let’s go have a drink. That guy is Trouble. I can tell.
“He is just an amazing person,” she said. “We have a wonderful marriage and many happy years. I just hope it can be more.”
The couple divided their time between Minnesota and the Gulf Coast of Florida, including Cape Coral, Fort Myers and Punta Gorda.
Gifts push up the schedule
Witman said that Friars’ gift meant that the city could begin repairing Aiple houses “faster than expected.” “This is really exciting because the renovation of this building is not expected to happen for another 10 years.”
“I don’t want that,” Friars said.
“Now, because of Geri, we should be able to do this in the next five years,” Wittman said.
One of Friars’ requests was to place a plaque on the building to let people know that the Friars family helped save it. She said: “I hope our children and grandchildren can come here to see it and know what we did.”
Kozlowski said that Stillwater officials had been looking for possible sources of funds to renovate the building when they learned of Friars’ gift. “We would not be able to do this without your help,” he told Freels recently. “We want to do this, we know we need to do it, but we are paying for it and trying to figure it out. We can’t do this without you, Geri. We just can’t do it.”
Last week, when walkers strolled on the path west of the house, Kozlowski said that the park has been used a lot. “People are putting up hammocks and spending a day on the river,” he said. “From here, look directly at the river, almost as if you are on a boat. You can see cliffs, cliffs, bird’s nests and all the birds. …this is one of the most beautiful spots on the St. Croix River .”
He said that anyone interested in donating to the park is welcome to contact Kozlovsky.
“I think there are others who are interested in helping this city protect it and make sure it is open to everyone,” he said. “This is a great place to leave a legacy, as Geri discovered. Their love for the river prompted her to help us build this park. In a way, it almost makes me jealous because they will do something forever. Things that are good for our community.”