Categories: Our Wisconsin

Packers Heritage Trail Shows How a Team From a Little City Built a Big Following

Get ready for the playoffs with a walking tour that includes favorite haunts of Packer legends.

 It is both exciting and a shame that the road to the Super Bowl runs through Lambeau Field this year.

Our Packers pride feels especially important but disconnected as 2021 begins. We need an anchor of hope and good news—something to believe in, together. And this team is part of our collective identity.

But the pandemic spoils the party. The team stays healthy by playing to a nearly empty house (6,000 fans will fill 10% of the stadium on Saturday). Gone is the deep sea of green and gold, the assist from fans during Lambeau leaps, the absolute significance of home field advantage.  

A lonely Lambeau Field, lacking its traditional sellout crowds on game days. (Photo by Mary Bergin)

Outdoor the statues of Lombardi and Lambeau each wear a face mask. Parking lot tailgating is prohibited. Fan seating will be scattered, into socially distanced pods. All are reminders of these  unprecedented, unrelenting, bizarre times.

This postseason is like no other, but other important things stay the same. The Green Bay Packers unite us, regardless of politics. We share the satisfaction of team ownership, and it has nothing to do with dividends.

We like knowing season ticket sellouts date back to 1960, and that the current wait list has more than 130,000 names.

We like knowing Green Bay—the smallest city to support an NFL team—decades ago earned its “Titletown” nickname with winning ways that include four of five Super Bowls played and nine championship titles before that.

If snow covers stadium seats on game day, we like knowing hundreds will show up to shovel it for $12 per hour.

Regardless of winter weather, there has never been a problem attracting hundreds to shovel snow at Lambeau Field. (Photo courtesy of the Green Bay Packers)

We all have a season ticket to this sense of connection. Some of us used to refer to Bart and Cherry Star as Wisconsin’s version of royalty. We proudly wear Packer gear all year, and we consider Lambeau hallowed ground.

If you are compelled to reminisce further, there’s a 25-stop Packers Heritage Trail that helps tell the story of how a scrappy team turned into perennial champs. Most markers are within a walk of downtown Green Bay. Tucked into the Lambeau-Lombardi trail spur are Curly Lambeau’s grave, Vince Lombardi’s former home, and the Union Hotel in De Pere.

Bronze plaques on the Green Bay Packers Heritage Trail mark 25 hotspots of pro football history. (Photo by Mary Bergin)

The Union Hotelis one year older than the Packers franchise, still owned by the same family, and—in the days before COVID—an unassuming, unadvertised gathering spot for retired Packer greats. Guest rooms above the ground-floor supper club and bar hosted Paul Hornung, Boyd Dowler, and other alums of the Ice Bowl.

“Our family will have survived two pandemics,” notes fourth-generation co-owner McKim Boyd. “We’re still here and on firm financial ground,” but that’s not to say business is profitable. Much of it is takeout orders on a limited menu, from a business with a reputation for stubbornly sticking to established routines.

The pandemic changes some of that. Inside dining at sparsely situated tables is by reservation only. It used to be first come, first served. The cozy bar is closed. Longtime weeknight specials may or may not be offered; “we try to see what sticks” from one week to the next, Boyd says.

McKim Boyd is the fourth-generation keeper of history at the family-owned Union Hotel in De Pere. (Photo by Mary Bergin)

The former math teacher is a diligent, self-made historian who has created three dozen video that tell little stories of Union Hotel history—all found, of course, on their Facebook page. He concentrated on hotel and family history, not sports celebrities who are fans or gossipy Packer lore.

The sole video with a Packers theme is devoted to an equipment manager who for 40 years lived at the hotel. As pro football pay improved, Boyd says the Union Hotel saw fewer players as customers but other Packers employees stay devoted.

As the building’s personality evolves, décor seems frozen in time and owners stay true to their core mission: understated hospitality.

But getting back to the team, we each sift and winnow while accruing the mileage that is our lifetime. One of my own abandoned paths was as a sportswriter, during an era when such lofty dreams—for a girl—were considered odd and frivolous.

I was a scrawny kid in a drafty farmhouse who didn’t pay much attention to football until the mid 1960s, when nobody could ignore how well the Green Bay Packers were playing. Soon I was reading Jerry Kramer’s “Instant Replay” and Lombardi’s “Run to Daylight.”

Only about 10 percent of the football stadium will be filled during this weekend’s playoff game. (Photo by Mary Bergin)

As a sports statistician at UW-Oshkosh, I worked home and away football games. Then I kept my own stats while walking the sidelines at high school games, for the daily newspaper. I was the first woman hired as sports editor for the college newspaper.

The highlight of these deep but short-lived efforts? Covering a Green Bay Packers game.

Didn’t matter that it was preseason, against a new team called the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or that I got the assignment only because everybody else wanted to go to the newsroom’s summer picnic.

I don’t recall who won, but I will always remember being acknowledged afterward by the gentlemanly drawl of the head coach, Bart Starr.

Bart Starr’s legacy has permanent residency at Lambeau Field. (Photo by Mary Bergin)

We all have our stories, and now—to kick off this year’s playoff run— the Packers are looking for yours. A “Letters to Lambeau” promotion encourages the uploading of notes and drawings – well wishes, pep talks, what inspires you as a fan—for a chance to win Packers swag, some of it autographed.

Share your fondest memory before this most unusual season becomes the next chapter of Green Bay Packers’ history.

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Published by
Mary Bergin

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