How the Green Bay Packers averted financial ruin in a mysterious blaze of glory

Curly Lambeau, second from left, played the role of Green Bay hero for decades, winning six NFL titles. But in the late '40s, tensions began to rise. AP Photo

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Sept. 19, 2013.

PASSING THROUGH THE massive stone gateway that marked the entrance to Rockwood Lodge, members of the 1946 Green Bay Packers felt as if they had been granted admission to football utopia. Up ahead, to the west, were sandy beaches, tennis courts and a boat dock. To the north were 50-plus acres of lush woods, a stocked fishing pond and an outdoor theater. Directly in front of the players stood the grand estate itself, a magnificent 40-room cut-stone mansion set on a limestone bluff 100 feet above the waters of Green Bay. Located 17 miles outside of town, Rockwood Lodge was constructed in 1937 as a retreat for the Norbertine monks. The cross-shaped building featured a striking steeple portico, an oak front door the size of a drawbridge and an expansive lobby with a 10-foot European chalet-style hearth perfect for massive roaring fires.

The majestic estate had mesmerized Curly Lambeau, a Green Bay native and the Packers' founder and coach. One of the game's true visionaries, Lambeau imagined his entire team, and players' families, living at the Lodge throughout the football season. And in May 1946, he persuaded the Packers' top executives to buy the property and transform it -- no matter the cost -- into what is believed to be the NFL's first stand-alone training facility, a living monument to the greatest franchise in sports.

The Packers paid $32,000 (about $380,000 today) for the Lodge, a cost that represented roughly 25 percent of the team's entire operating budget. It cost an additional $8,000 to turn the building into a state-of-the-art football facility complete with lockers, classrooms, dorms and a restaurant-quality kitchen. To house married players and staff, the team shelled out $4,000 more on six prefabricated cottages, which were then named after Packers legends like Don Hutson and Johnny Blood. To help decorate, Lambeau brought in consultants from upscale Chicago department store Marshall Field's. To serve as the Lodge's head chef and full-time caretaker, Lambeau hired Melvin Flagstad, a former cook at Kaap's, a Green Bay institution. Flagstad was said to handle steaks, his specialty, as if they were precious rubies. And each table at his Rockwood dinner service featured a centerpiece of stacked warm white bread just out of the oven. "To those of you who are busily house cleaning and cooking three meals a day plus snacks," reported the society page of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, "the life of a Packers wife sounds a little like paradise."

In many ways, Curly's Camelot was even better. The Lodge had the distinct feel -- stone and wood -- and fragrance -- steak and Old Spice -- of midcentury masculine power and prestige. The guest book immediately became a who's who of football and American culture. Among the early visitors were NFL commissioner Bert Bell, new Kentucky coach Bear Bryant, Chicago Bears czar George Halas, the 1947 NFL-champion Chicago Cardinals and even child movie star Margaret O'Brien, who had starred opposite Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis. At a time when players were still dressing at their hotels and taking cabs or hitching rides to practice, the Packers were living rent-free in a modern-day castle that provided stunning views of the bay and three gallons of ice cream for dessert every night. Decades before the phrase "team chemistry" had ever been used, the Packers and their families gathered in the evening in the Lodge's great room to talk football, listen to the radio or play cards. When the married couples went into town for a movie, the single players often stayed behind to babysit the kids.

Lambeau had already won six NFL titles, more than any other coach. But for him, the ultimate football dream was fulfilled in May 1946, when his players and their families drove onto the immaculate grounds of his football utopia for the first time. "Curly was well ahead of his time with the idea of Rockwood Lodge," says Bob Harlan, president and CEO of the Packers from 1989 to 2006 and now the team's chairman emeritus. "Maybe too far ahead. Rockwood was a beautiful place that in the end turned out to be a total disaster."

FOR NEARLY THREE decades, Curly Lambeau had played the role of hometown hero to perfection. After starring at halfback for Green Bay's East High, he went on to play for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. When his promising career was cut short by a severe case of tonsillitis, Lambeau returned home and founded the Packers in 1919. He then spent the next 27 years building his legend as a player, coach and GM, becoming the father of Green Bay football.

But by 1946, after those six NFL titles, Lambeau's focus was drifting, to say the least. He was at odds with the Packers executive committee, a group of a dozen power-hungry civic leaders that served as the publicly owned team's de facto front office. Lambeau also stubbornly clung to the Notre Dame box offense (basically the single wing) while the rest of pro football had moved on to the far more versatile T formation. And after divorcing his high school sweetheart, the coach's philandering had become notorious around town. Oliver Griese, a lifelong Green Bay resident who owned several local restaurants, remembers being out with his future wife, Mary Lou, one night when Curly joined them for a few rounds. "We were drinking Budweiser, and I had to go to the toilet so bad," says Griese, still mentally sharp at age 103. "But everyone knew you didn't dare leave your girl alone with Curly."

LISTEN: ESPN senior writer David Fleming rekindles a discussion of the mysterious blaze at Rockwood Lodge on the ESPN Daily podcast.

Lambeau started spending entire offseasons on team-funded "recruiting trips" as far from Green Bay as he could get. And in the spring of 1946, just back from California, Lambeau sported a sharp new look: slicked-back hair, tailored suits, saddle shoes, silk pocket squares and a cigarette holder. To complete the transformation, he was accompanied by a stunning new wife, wealthy socialite Grace Garland, who owned estates in Palm Springs and Malibu. The thought of Curly and the Packers going big-time horrified many Green Bay fans, but even more, they hated the idea of having to travel out of town just to watch their beloved Packers practice at Rockwood. Soon, mimeographed fliers began showing up in local bars and barbershops, mocking Lambeau as the "Earl of Hollywood."

Internally, team executives were also getting fed up with their big-spending coach. When Lambeau submitted the exorbitant decorating charges for the Lodge, members of the Packers financial committee threatened to resign. Hiring Marshall Field's consultants had been Grace's idea, and the committee started to think that Lambeau's great experiment was less about constructing a new kind of football utopia and more about him consolidating his power at his wife's new waterfront digs. "I am sure that if fans were acquainted with the facts," Lambeau told reporters, "they would agree that Rockwood Lodge is good for the Packers."

While the Lodge appeared to have it all, there were major issues just below the surface. Literally. The practice fields were made of a thin layer of soil and grass laid over the area's natural jagged bed of limestone. During Lambeau's typical three-hour scrimmages, the unforgiving grounds shredded the players' feet, knees and shins. It got so bad that Lambeau sometimes had to bus the team back into town to practice on softer practice fields next to City Stadium. As former Packers offensive lineman Dick Wildung once said, "Rockwood Lodge was a beautiful place, but it was just no good for football because of that damn rock."

In constant pain, desperate players began to self-medicate. Defensive end Don Wells would sneak out to bars in nearby Luxemburg and stumble back to the Lodge in the middle of the night singing rye-soaked renditions of the gospel song "When the Roll Is Called up Yonder." But every time he woke from a bender, Wells wasn't in heaven. Instead, he was stuck at the place the players had begun to call the Rock, presumably referring to Alcatraz.

Physically wrecked before the games even started, the Packers went 12-10-1 the next two seasons. In 1948 they fell to 3-9, suffering just the second losing season in team history. The Milwaukee Sentinel placed the blame at the front door of Curly's mansion: "What's wrong with the Packers? Rockwood Lodge is No. 1 on the list."

The team had hit rock bottom on the field, and the franchise was headed for financial ruin off of it. Members of the executive committee could barely contain their vitriol for the Lodge or for the man who had stuffed the bill into their shirt pockets and whistled as he danced away in his fancy saddle shoes. George Calhoun, co-founder of the franchise, went so far as to proclaim, "I just want to live long enough to piss on Lambeau's grave."

The end of Lambeau as Packers coach came sooner than anyone could have anticipated. After a 17-0 loss to the rival Bears in the 1949 season opener, he turned over coaching duties to his assistants to concentrate on the team's dire financial situation. He cut $24,000 off the team's payroll and even reduced his own salary, but the Packers were still deep in debt and needed an infusion of cash to pay their players and their opponents' guarantees for the final three games of the season. And the timing of the financial crisis couldn't have been worse: An impending merger with the All-America Football Conference meant the NFL was looking to eliminate weaker franchises in small markets. "The Packers were very, very close to going away for good," Harlan says.

While the executive committee searched for emergency fundraising ideas, Lambeau sealed his fate -- and that of his beloved Lodge -- with a proposal that was tantamount to treason in Green Bay. The coach said he had four investors who were willing to put up $50,000 each, provided the team was transferred from public to private ownership. Many fans and executive committee members believed that Lambeau, at the NFL's behest, intended to move the franchise to the West Coast.

In January 1950, at the NFL meetings in Philadelphia, Packers team president Emil Fischer, Lambeau's longtime rival, made the coach an offer: a new contract that stripped him of all authority beyond the playing field. Lambeau reportedly glanced at the terms of the proposed contract extension and angrily tossed the papers back in Fischer's face.

The Packers were desperate. They needed a coach. They needed a ton of money. If the franchise was going to survive, even for another month, Green Bay needed a miracle.

Or, maybe, just one well-placed match.

ON TUESDAY, Jan. 24, 1950, strong winds above the bay howled through the empty Lodge. The players had all scattered to their offseason homes. The lone remaining family was that of the caretakers, Melvin and Helen Flagstad. Home from school because of a forecast of freezing rain, the youngest Flagstad children, Danny, 12, and Sandra, 10, had wandered into the cavernous east wing of Rockwood to play blindman's bluff. The children were in the middle of the game, climbing over a stack of mattresses, when Sandra stopped abruptly, a look of terror on her face. "I smell smoke," she cried. Danny walked over and opened the door nearest the source, and a burst of flames knocked him to the floor. Still in their stocking feet, the children dashed down the grand staircase, out the front door and into the waist-deep snow, where they watched the wind-whipped flames engulf the once-magnificent Lodge.

Above the roar of the fire, they could hear the faint cries of Melvin, who had gone upstairs to fight the inferno with a fire extinguisher. "And then the screaming just stopped," recalls Sandra, now 74. "We started genuflecting, and someone kept whispering over and over, 'Say a prayer, say a prayer, say a prayer...'"

READ MORE: ESPN senior writer David Fleming delves into the colorful Rockwood Lodge tidbits that didn't make it into this piece.

Fueled by the wind, the cellulose insulation and the Lodge's expansive wood roof, the ravenous fire had Melvin trapped. Out in front, Helen and her children were nearly catatonic with grief, shivering in the snow, certain of the worst. Then they saw Melvin stumble around the corner, choking for breath but alive. He had pawed his way to a single second-story window, broken it open and jumped down to safety as the fire raged.

Neighboring farmers and volunteer firefighters arrived quickly on the scene, but efforts to save the despised Lodge seemed to lack urgency. The town of Preble sent a tiny truck, but it broke down four miles from Rockwood. The four-man crew from the Duquaine Lumber company in New Franken, armed with a Jeep and 600 feet of hose, made it to the fire but didn't raise a finger. "It was no use," one of the men told the Press-Gazette. "Nothing could have been done to keep that fire down."

The idle crowd of about 40 onlookers, including Packers fullback Ted Fritsch and future Hall of Fame halfback Tony Canadeo, spotted smoke that soared 100 feet into the air and visited the site as though watching a bonfire. "Well, I guess it's back to the Astor Hotel!" exclaimed Canadeo, referring to the team's much-preferred former training-camp home in downtown Green Bay. Later, he added: "Hey, I didn't set the Rockwood Lodge fire, but I was sure fanning it."

The only official response from the team came from Frank Jonet, the Packers secretary-treasurer. He eagerly confirmed that the Lodge was fully insured and estimated the initial losses to be at least $50,000 -- which just so happened to be almost the exact amount of the Packers' debt. Says Harlan: "Rumors were rampant at the time that the Packers set that fire because they needed the money more than they needed the Lodge, but they certainly were never proven."

Melvin Flagstad theorized that the fire was caused by faulty wiring in the attic. The lights at Rockwood frequently dimmed and flickered, and in an extensive 2008 Voyageur Magazine story, Melvin's oldest daughter, Ellyn, recalled that there had been concern about bare wires in a linen closet.

Could that have caused the fire? Maybe, but the Lodge was supposed to be empty at the time of the fire, and it's unlikely such a low demand for electricity would be enough to overload and ignite the wires. "They torched it," says Ken Kranz, 90, a defensive back in 1949 who's one of the last living Packers players from the Rockwood Lodge era.

Larry Names, a Wisconsin-based author who wrote the definitive early history of the Packers, says he once found a source close to the team who said he knew who set the blaze. The man, however, died suddenly of a heart attack before passing along the information. Later, Packers executive committee member John Torinus told Names that when he joined the Packers, the first thing his colleagues told him was, "Don't ask us who set the fire." He didn't need to. "Everyone in Green Bay knew at the time that they went out there and burned that place to the ground to save the franchise," says the author. "Torching Rockwood Lodge didn't help the Packers survive -- torching Rockwood Lodge is what allowed the Packers to survive."

No report on the official cause of the blaze has ever been uncovered, and only circumstantial evidence remains. The insurance money immediately brought the franchise back from the brink of bankruptcy and protected the Packers from being disbanded by the NFL. Which means Rockwood Lodge was home to either the most perfectly timed spark of good luck any destitute franchise has ever known -- or the most fantastic crime in NFL history.

Eight days after Rockwood burned, even though he had promised Bob Hope in a national interview in December 1949 that he was returning to the Packers, Lambeau extinguished his 31-year relationship with the team to take over as GM and coach of the Chicago Cardinals. According to Lambeau biographer David Zimmerman, before the coach and Grace departed Green Bay for Chicago, he took one last look around, then muttered "Screw 'em" as he boarded the train. The feeling was mutual. "We've had two good breaks in Green Bay the last two weeks: We lost Rockwood Lodge and we lost Lambeau," sneered executive committee member Gerald Clifford.

Lambeau coached the Cardinals for two seasons and then the Redskins in 1952 and '53. But his teams never again finished higher than third place in their division. In 1961, before Lambeau was enshrined as a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, his summer home in Fish Creek, Wis., also mysteriously burned to the ground. With it, so went the manuscript for his autobiography, which he had titled "Forty Years of Mistakes."

"When that Lodge burned, so did Curly in a sense," Zimmerman says. "The fire was the end of the Lodge, the end of Curly and the end of the most infamous era in Packers history."

BESIDES A GREEN davenport sofa, the only thing salvaged from Rockwood Lodge was a charcoal portrait of Lambeau that to this day hangs over the bar at Curly's Pub inside the atrium of Lambeau Field. The newly renovated stadium now holds 80,750 fans and has raised the value of the franchise to more than $1.18 billion.

On the eve of the first 2013 preseason game at Lambeau, almost 20 miles to the northeast, the former site of Rockwood Lodge is once again awash in green and gold. Purchased by Brown County in 1974 and renamed Bay Shore Park, the land where the Lodge once stood is now a favorite pregame camping spot for Packers fans, most of whom are blissfully unaware of the history and controversy embedded in the rocky soil under their feet.

Many fans wait for the Packer-yellow sun to set below the greenish waters of Green Bay before returning from the bluffs to set up camp for the night. The order is always the same: Packers flags are unfurled first, then the camping gear. And as dusk blankets the woods in darkness, the fans honor the Green Bay Packers the same way they always have here on the site of Rockwood Lodge.

By lighting fires.