Frank Benson was a local hero for young recent immigrants to Ely, Minnesota in the 70’s and 80’s. He scouted out garden tools and fishing gear and just about anything a newly minted local could use but couldn’t afford at retail. Frank knew the right connections to find a rake for $2, a useable shotgun for $30 or a worn-out refrigerator to use to smoke white fish for $1. He made life on the edge of the wild possible with the gear we all needed but most of all he was our friend.
Frank grew up in Robinson Lake. Not in the lake but in a small settlement on the railroad line from Tower to Ely called Robinson. He worked on the railroad for years and knew the land west of Ely around Bear Head State Park like the back of his hand. He had a favorite lake in the woods at the end of a grassy dirt trail where Frank’s boat was always pulled up on a log ready to fish. The 10′ rowboat was just big enough for Frank the guide and any one of his young proteges lucky enough to have time to join him for a late afternoon spin. Frank knew well the fish we caught were largemouth and smallmouth bass, but he had his own vernacular, green ones and brown ones.
I visited Frank’s landing for the first time in maybe 30 years this week. The old steel rowboat was still there, sunk in the shallows, a bitter reminder that we lost Frank in the early 90’s. We, who are now some of the elders of Ely, not yet really locals, but at least longtime residents and experienced woods people. We’re the ones greeting, employing and passing on the love Frank showed us when we were young, eager and clueless. We all need a sometimes-tearful reminder that we didn’t make it all on our own. We had Frank Benson in our corner to help, to encourage us and to take us fishing on warm summer afternoon. Thanks Frank.