The tourism industry in western Wisconsin can thank John Raleigh and his family for much of its early success.
Raleigh was the eldest son of Jack and Alice Raleigh, whose sautéed frog legs, chicken livers and pan-fried chicken drew thousands of inner-tube riders to their River's Edge restaurant on the Apple River in Somerset. In addition to the restaurant and tubing business, the family operated a campground and hosted outdoor concerts and weddings
Raleigh, of Somerset, died Saturday at Boutwells Landing in Oak Park Heights due to complications related to kidney failure. He was 76.
"Owner. Manager. Bartender. Maitre d'. Piano player. Accordion player. He did it all," said Janelle Sutherland, his youngest sister. "He did all the training. He did all the ordering. He ran the tube stand. He was a fixer. If something would break down - the ice machine, the blender, the broiler - John would fix it. The guy could fix anything."
If there's a world record for inner-tube rolling, Raleigh would be in the running, said Bill Cardinal, a longtime friend and former employee.
"He probably rolled more tubes than any human being in the world," Cardinal said. "He loved rolling tubes. He'd put a pretty good slap on 'em, and he could roll it 6 feet, 20 feet, you name it. He had the rhythm. ... Think about rolling a quarter across a table, that's what it was like. He had the perfect roll."
Raleigh ran the tube shop during the day and then worked the restaurant every night, said Cardinal, who worked for the Raleighs from 1970 to 1984 and from 1996 to the present.
Raleigh, the second of Jack and Alice Raleigh's eight children, started helping out at the family restaurant when he was 8 or 9 years old and learned to bartend at a young age.
"He was a great bartender," Sutherland said of her brother. "He made the best margaritas I've ever had in my life. He was wonderful behind the bar. He loved talking to people and hearing their stories."
Raleigh, who graduated from Hill High School in Maplewood, was at River's Edge seven days a week. "Even on his off days, he would be there," she said. "He would talk to the customers all the time. The customers were his No. 1 priority."
Raleigh supervised the restaurant and tubing operation at River's Edge, which the family sold in December, said Billy Raleigh, his nephew.
"He loved it," Billy Raleigh said. "He devoted his life to the place. He was a family person and carrying forward what his father and mother started in 1945 was important to him."
When John Raleigh's brother Bill Raleigh Sr. died in 2013, the family closed the restaurant. The new owner, Steve Kaufman of Cedar Lake Speedway in New Richmond, plans to reopen the restaurant this spring, he said.
"It seemed like it was the right time to sell," Billy Raleigh said. "The family was ready to see the business go to the next level with some new blood. (Kaufman) seems like a great fit to blend the old legacy with new ideas and concepts."
River's Edge hit the big time in the early 1970s when CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt and his "On the Road" crew did a segment on River's Edge and its frog legs and tubing.
"Charles Kuralt would find these crazy little hidden places, and he came out and fell in love with my Grandma, who was one of those people who loved to take care of you and make sure you were fed," Billy Raleigh said. "He went on a tubing trip, and after that went in and had a great dinner with frog legs and drinks and had a great time."
The fame brought thousands of people to Somerset almost overnight.
"Imagine just in one day ... your life changing like that," he said. "Things were good and growing nicely, and then all of a sudden it was like the Wisconsin Dells overnight. It went from nothing to 'Oh, my God, this is more people than we've ever seen in our life.' We would have tens of thousands of people on the river every weekend, people from all over the country."
In 1986, John Raleigh married Carol Peine; they later divorced. Their son, Jack Raleigh, lives and works in Washington, D.C.
Raleigh also is survived by sister Jeanne Fabiano of Stillwater.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 11 a.m. Jan. 19 at St. Anne's Catholic Church in Somerset. Visitation will be from 9:30 a.m. until the service. Burial will be at St. Anne's Catholic Cemetery.