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40 years ago: Kuralt story changed Somerset

Charles Kuralt is pictured tubing down the Apple River in 1972. His report on the Walter Cronkite hour proved to be great publicity for Somerset and the surrounding area. Over the years, Kuralt would return to Somerset to tube and enjoy the local cuisine. Photos courtesy of America Academy of Achievement1 / 2
Pictured during Charles Kuralt's original visit to Somerset in 1972 are, from left, CBS cameraman Isadore Bleckman, CBS electrician, Alice Raleigh, Jack Raleigh, Pat Raleigh and CBS soundman. Photos courtesy of America Academy of Achievement2 / 2

July 3, 1972, is the day that changed Somerset forever.

That night, television reporter Charles Kuralt used his weekly "On The Road" segment to highlight what locals already knew. Tubing down the Apple River was a fun summertime activity.

That night upwards of 52 million people were watching the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and many were introduced to tubing for the first time. Somerset and its business community almost immediately felt the impact of the positive publicity.

"That's what really put us on the map," said John Raleigh, one of the sons of Jack and Alice Raleigh, who owned River's Edge Restaurant and tubing business at that time.

Kuralt's visit was made possible after a telephone call with Pat Raleigh, another of Jack and Alice's sons.

"When me and my brothers got out of the service in the early 1970s, business was terrible," Pat recalled. "Those were some bad times."

So Pat decided to send out a bunch of brochures and press releases to news organizations around the region and across the country. He happened to send some information to legendary sports writer Heywood Hale Broun, who eventually passed the story idea on to Kuralt.

On Friday of Memorial Day weekend in 1972, Alice Raleigh was rushed to a Twin Cities hospital for treatment of a diabetic black-out. The restaurant and tubing business was hopping and Pat and his staff were scrambling to keep up.

When the phone rang, Pat said he picked up and Kuralt was on the other end. He recognized the TV man's distinctive voice immediately.

"The phone just about fell out of my hand," he recalled. "I couldn't believe it."

Turns out Kuralt (1934-1997) and his crew were just finishing up with a story in Prairie du Chien and wanted to stop by Somerset to check out what the tubing craze was all about.

The Raleigh family made Kuralt's visit a media event. Twin Cities journalists, along with radio and television personalities, were invited out to Somerset as well. The local newspapers were also included in the blitz.

"They came out to do a story on Charles Kuralt doing a story," Pat said with a laugh.

Kuralt intended to stay just two days, but he hung around Somerset for a total of four days.

"My dad and mother treated him royally," John said. "He (Kuralt) came to love this place. He came back no less than 10 times."

Area residents were alerted that Kuralt was in town for a story. They were encouraged to show up and tube on the day Kuralt intended to shoot film for the story.

On that day, temperatures dropped to around 65 degrees, making the experience on the Apple River a bit chilly. Still, more than 500 people showed up to be a part of the day's filming.

"We had just a nice crowd," Pat remembered.

During his stay, Kuralt also attended the release party for a new pop single, "Tubin' in Somerset," by Cookiefoot. He ended up using the song as a backdrop to his story.

On Kuralt's last day in Somerset, the Raleigh boys crafted a special floating platform for the veteran newsman and he spent some time trout fishing. Kuralt apparently loved the sport and caught five or six fish. The Raleighs cooked up the catch and shared a final meal with the reporter and his crew.

When the final edited tubing piece appeared on national news, the cat was out of the bag. Within the next three years, Pat estimated, more than 500 newspaper, radio and television stories were eventually written and aired about the Somerset tubing craze.

"It had a tremendous impact," Pat said.

"His visit was what really put us on the map," John added. "It gave the whole town exposure and we could hardly handle all the people that came. It changed the direction of Somerset."

River's Edge had the greatest amount of exposure in the story, as Kuralt ended the segment by personally endorsing the Raleigh's restaurant and the sautéed frog legs they served.

Every time Kuralt returned to Somerset, he'd stop by the restaurant for another order of his favorite dish.

As the 40th anniversary of Kuralt's story approaches, Pat said it's fun to look back on the impact that moment had on the community.

Things have changed since the boom turned a bit sour in the mid-1980s, John said, when new tubing and alcohol rules were implemented along the Apple River.

"It never has returned to the way it was before," John said.

Pat lamented that the drinking crowd has spoiled the tubing experience for a lot of potential patrons.

"It's driven away a lot of the family crowd," he commented.

Still, Pat adds, were it not for Kuralt and his three-and-a-half-minute long story, who knows what Somerset would look like today.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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