BROWN COUNTY – We know all about the storied past of the Green Bay Packers. But some believe that past may include arson. In 1950, the Packers training facility Rockwood Lodge burned down. The Packers received $50,000 in insurance money. That money helped save the franchise.
The picturesque site along the shores of Green Bay is home to one of the greatest mysteries in professional sports: What or who caused the fire at the Rockwood Lodge?
“If it wasn’t arson then the Packers are the luckiest franchise ever in any sport,” said author Larry Names.
“I find it preposterous that somebody started it,” said sportswriter Cliff Christl.
Today, the site is home to Bay Shore County Park. But 64 years ago, it was the center of the Packers universe.
Rockwood Lodge was the site of the Packers first real training camps. It was also home to many players during the season.
“It turned out to be a boondoggle,” Christl said.
Christl covered the Packers for decades. He says Rockwood Lodge proved to be controversial from the start.
“Fans of Green Bay were unhappy that the players were no longer living downtown and being part of the daily scene,” he said. “The executive committee felt that they had paid a lot of money for it and it didn’t turn out as they expected.”
One man who knows the lodge firsthand is Ken Kranz. The former Packers defensive back lived at Rockwood Lodge during the 1949 season. Now 90 years old, Kranz lives near Milwaukee.
“I know people in the area were deadly against it. They didn’t want it,” Kranz said in an interview with FOX 11.
The lodge was both unpopular and expensive. Not a good combination, especially in late 1949. Christl says the Packers were in financial trouble.
“They had to play an intrasquad game on Thanksgiving Day in 1949 to raise enough money to finish the season,” Christl said. “They were deeply in debt.”
Facing an uncertain future, the Packers caught a break on Jan. 24, 1950. That’s when fire tore through the lodge. The Packers received $50,000 in insurance money.
Names, who has written several books on the history of the Packers, says the fire saved the franchise.
“That insurance check paid the bills,” he said.
Newspaper accounts from 1950 describe a “…howling inferno…” that “…shot out through the roof…” of the lodge.
Ellyn Katch Kehoe remembers the scene well.
“When I got to the corner with the flames shooting into the air, I just had tears running down my face,” Katch Kehoe said. She is the oldest daughter of Melvin and Helen Flagstad, the caretakers at Rockwood Lodge.
Kath Kehoe was in Green Bay when the fire broke out. She came to the scene and met up with her family. The Flagstads lost everything in the fire.
“Absolutely everything,” she said. “If we’re alive, nothing else matters.”
Her parents and two younger siblings were inside Rockwood when the fire started but escaped. Her father was injured when he jumped from a second story window.
The only fire crew at the scene was made up of four men from a local lumber company. But one of the men told a reporter, “It was no use. Nothing could have been done to keep that fire down.”
A fire truck from the town of Preble broke down on its way to the fire.
What started the fire at Rockwood Lodge? Most likely, we will never know. FOX 11 tried to find any records or reports on the fire. But after contacting the Green Bay Fire Department, the State Fire Marshal’s Office, even the Neville Public Museum, FOX 11 found no record of any investigation into the fire.
When Cliff Christl wrote an article on the fire for Voyageur magazine in 2008, he came up empty, too.
“Based on my research there never was an investigation,” Christl said.
The only record of the fire is found in the newspaper from the following day. In an interview at the scene, caretaker Melvin Flagstad blamed the fire on faulty attic wiring. His daughter says the lodge did have problems with the electrical system.
“Lights went out, they flashed,” Katch Kehoe recalled. “There was an electrical problem before the fire.”
Katch Kehoe, who also spent years researching the fire, believes that is the most likely explanation.
When asked if she is sure that the fire was electrical, Katch Kehoe replied, “Oh, I am sure that it’s an electrical fire.”
Ken Kranz admits he doesn’t know for sure, but he has his suspicions.
“I think that something made a deal to do it, paying someone, that’s what I think,” Kranz said.
Larry Names says it had to be arson.
“They needed that money desperately and all of the sudden some angel burns down Rockwood Lodge and they get an insurance check out of it?” he said.
Names even claims that he was told by a former Packers board member, who is now dead, that the fire was intentional.
When asked if there is any proof to back the arson theory up, Names replied, “Oh no, they don’t do that. They don’t leave proof. I’m only telling you what people told me.”
Names admits we’ll never know for sure, since there is no record of an investigation.
“It was a big joke, which one of the executive committee members went out there and set that fire. Well, none of them did that. They weren’t arsonists. These were businessmen. It takes a professional to start a fire and make it look like an accident,” Names said.
“It was so fortuitous that people almost wanted to take credit for it. But it was a joke,” Christl said. He doesn’t think there is any evidence to support the arson theory.
“That’s how people get lured into Nigerian internet scams and ‘catfishing,’ isn’t it? Some people will believe anything,” Christl said.
When FOX 11 asked Christl how sure it was the fire was an accident, he replied, “100 percent. I think it’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise.”
But without an investigation, there’s no way to know for sure.