Calling-up the spirit of Fred E. Hulbert

By Denis Gullickson

The timing couldn’t be better.

After all, we’ve just passed Halloween and plowed through All Saints and All Souls Days. (The latter suggesting that there’s hope for a few of us to slip into our eternal reward under that catch-all category.)

Far less-morbid is the upcoming, first-ever, Green Bay Football History Event set for Saturday, November 8 at Hagemeister Park Restaurant on historic Washington Street.

Fred Hulbert (third row, far left) can’t be misidentified or unappreciated any longer. He’s the guy who started the first football team and organized the first football game ever seen in Titletown. Every fan at Lambeau Field on Game Day should offer a simple prayer of gratitude in Hulbert’s name. Photo courtesy of Elton Cleveland.

Fred Hulbert (third row, far left) can’t be misidentified or unappreciated any longer. He’s the guy who started the first football team and organized the first football game ever seen in Titletown. Every fan at Lambeau Field on Game Day should offer a simple prayer of gratitude in Hulbert’s name.
Photo courtesy of Elton Cleveland.

What these things have to do with one another should become clear shortly.

And — to keep our eyes on the temporal — the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers look like a contender… again.

There’s no time like the present to “séance” the man who started it all. Green Bay Football that is.

No, not Curly Lambeau. Twenty years before Curly, there was another football man in town — Fred Hulbert.

Since the 2004 publication of “Before They Were the Packers.” Hulbert’s begun to get his due in Titletown. Still, not nearly enough people realize that it was Hulbert’s finger that sent the dominoes tumbling to the point where, today, GB football fans can cheer for the greatest story in all of sports — the Packers.

In 1903, the “Green Bay Advocate” described Hulbert as “the first to introduce football in this city.” In a likely case of hyperbole, it further suggested that Hulbert “brought the first football here.”

In the first regard, Hulbert wasn’t so different from a lot of guys just out of college in the 1890s — the era of “King Football.” They’d learned the game at their respective colleges, partook in its dusky scrimmages on the nearest-available expanse of flat ground after classes in the evening, and they wanted to keep on playing.

It was strictly a running game back then — a “gadget” or “circus” play being nothing more than an end-run or a fake toward one side of the line or the other.

The raw-boned game wasn’t all that far-removed from the ubiquitous warfare taking place on battlefields at the time. Guys died playing football. From 1901 through 1907 — exactly 101 guys. Over 1,000 others were maimed.

Hulbert_Photo_Album_Page_002That running game — partnered with a near-total lack of padding — promoted the carnage. For a modicum of protection, guys snuck off before a scrum and stashed wooden laths or newspapers into their moleskin football pants. Dandies donned a crude helmet fashioned for them by the local harness maker.

Games were described as “good old-fashioned, line-smashing” contests — often looking more like hand-to-hand combat that had broken out on an open field than the modern version of the game.

Chicago Born
It’s ironic — given the Packers long-standing rivalry with the Bears — that the guy who started football in Titletown was a Chicago lad. Hulbert was born in the Windy City in 1871. Eventually, his family found its way to Racine where Fred grew up. About 1892, he enrolled at Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam.

Football had been played at Wayland since at least 1888. That year, two teams organized on campus — the underclassmen Cottage Boys and the upperclassmen College Boys. Theirs was strictly an intramural game and no known record exists of that season’s results.

That same year, Wisconsin saw its first intercollegiate contest when Racine College toed up against Illinois’ Lake Forest College for a traditional Thanksgiving Day-game. Soon afterward, Wayland and all other schools across the state took the game on the road, too — giving rise to some college sports rivalries that still burn in the Badger State today.

In 1894 — filled-out and sporting the longish-hair that footballers of the day said softened the constant blows to the cranium — Hulbert took a prominent role as the Wayland eleven did battle with other nearby high schools and colleges.

In terms of acceptance on the era’s college campuses, football represented something akin to the anti-war protests of the 1960s — though paradoxically-opposite. While students and some faculty ballyhooed the game for its excitement — college presidents decried it for its violence.

Most suggested that the gory game was unbecoming of students at their institution of higher learning. And that vociferous theme clamored and echoed resoundingly … until someone from the athletic department handed the college president a wad of cash from a recent contest on the spruced-up cow pasture at the far end of the campus.

The next season, even the college president and his straight-laced wife were waving pennants at those Saturday contests — a new science building and dormitory wing were underway in their names thanks to the income of that now-heralded athletic department.

After graduating from Wayland in the spring of 1895, Hulbert traveled to Green Bay for a job. He took up rooms at the Broadway House on the northeast corner of Broadway and Dousman Streets and found a position as a clerk and deliveryman with the Union Laundry down on Pearl Street.

That summer, Hulbert also accepted a position as the trainer for the West Side Athletic Association. Green Bay’s YMCA was actually located on the west side then — at the northwest corner of Walnut and Chestnut Streets. There, Hulbert gathered the city’s first football crew ever and began teaching them the game’s fundamentals.

His football “material” came especially from the hard-hewn sons of the Irish railroad workers at the Chicago and Northwestern yards strewn along the Fox River north of the train station. Sprinkled in were a few young men from the mercantile class doing business along Broadway.

As summer inched into autumn, they’d emerge from their homes and workplaces nestled in the neighborhoods around St. Patrick’s Church and join Hulbert for practice. He’d put them through their paces while explaining the finer points of the game, the various positions, the plays and the potential ravages of the competition.

Most evenings, they’d collide on the vacant expanse along the west side of North Chestnut Street between Dousman and Kellogg streets — just east of today’s Fort Howard Elementary School.

That First Game
One could debate how much those finer points of the game of football have changed since Green Bay saw its first game on September 21, 1895. The simple fact is that, 120 years later, the game is still won and lost “in the trenches” — no matter how much fancy stuff is hung up around the edges.

Back then, passing was illegal. If a runner was forced out of bounds, the ball was put into play a slim yard in from the sideline. There was no huddle — signals were shouted by the quarterback who often stood behind the guard and didn’t necessarily touch the ball.

“Port Hard, John” might tell the full back to get the snap — which was, at first, actually kicked backward to start the play — and plow headlong into the left side of the line. “Riggie Waterstradt,” was a friend’s kid brother’s name telling the halfback to snatch the ball and run around the right end.

Like most college men who’d tried to meld a clutch of ruffians for the dirty work in the trenches and a handful of fleet-footed guys — often college men with some training to platoon as utility backs — Hulbert had his work cut out for him.

Keeping the game from breaking into an all-out melee was the toughest test. “I like football,” one of the toughs was heard to say early on. “You can bust a guy in the chops and not get thrown in jail for it.”

Meanwhile, Hulbert and other college guys insisted on the game’s “science” — taking a shine to the more ethereal aspects of the sport.

As GB’s first football game approached, some ancient seer wrote in the “Sunday Gazette:”

It is safe to say that once the game is introduced it will be one of the most popular amusements ever seen in Green Bay. It is predicted that the first game of football played in Green Bay will be more largely attended than a ball game, and that each succeeding game will bring out a crowd.

And so it was that Hulbert put plans together for the very first game of football ever seen in Titletown — incorporating guys from both sides of the river. That scrimmage was set for a Saturday afternoon — consistent with most college games being played across the nation at the time.

That first game took Green Bay somewhat by surprise. While it got a little ink, it was hardly widely-publicized or anticipated. As a result, it seems to have simply unfolded on the designated afternoon.

The exact location of that game is likely lost between the pages of history. It was played somewhere at old Washington Park — at the far-eastern end of Walnut Street — which included everything along Baird Street from the East River to Crooks Street.

Since much of what is now Joannes Park and East High School was then a mile-long harness racing track and the area near the East River was essentially wooded — chances are that the game was played somewhere adjacent to the track.

Wherever it happened, the game surely jostled the Victorian Age-sensibilities of Green Bay’s bluebloods. It would irritate some for years to come, until — like those college presidents — they began to realize the potency of adding a winning football tradition to the town’s economic engine.

Folks promenading through the park that afternoon were probably startled by the game and the spectators gathering around it. Indeed, most would have thought that brouhaha had broken out between two groups of men and that the growing crowd was merely watching the action until police arrived to break things up.

There was very likely no defined yard markers or sidelines and the onlookers probably pressed as close to the action as they dared. This direct involvement in play on the field would continue well into the later town team days of the nineteen-teens and, even, the early NFL.

Accounts exist of spectators cold-cocking opposing players they felt had infracted the rules of engagement governing the sport. Whether any of men in the Washington Park crowd jumped into the fray that day is not recorded, though that wasn’t too likely until fans became familiar with the sport.

That first game ended and history was made. In reporting the contest, that same ancient seer wrote: “Football has received its introduction to Green Bay and henceforth the ‘gridiron field’ will be the mecca of the amusement-loving public until snow flies.”

Finding Fred
What Hulbert had done that day was substantial. Historic. Earth-shaking, perhaps. He’d introduced football to a small town that would embrace it for all time. A small town that would fight tooth and nail to keep its team — a team that would do battle on behalf of that town to the point where the town and the team would become nearly synonymous and, ultimately, inseparable.

One couldn’t possibly know if Fred sensed the significance of his contribution; he was never one to boast. In fact, his business connections as well as his football contacts referred to him as “Genial Fred.” He was a quiet, steadfast leader; one who set high expectations for himself and others, but also stepped back to let others take the lead. His involvement in the burgeoning canning industry was marked by solid deals based on earnest words and good-as-gold handshakes.

As football began to take hold in GB and the game faced the inevitable ebb and flow of the sport’s survival, Hulbert’s name would nearly become an elixir — prescribed whenever the town’s football future seemed to flag — as though the whisper of his involvement alone would assure its continuance.

Hulbert lived on GB’s west side for most of his early career — not far from his team’s first practice field and across from another a bit further west on Dousman Street . He would marry Lucille McBean and have a daughter, then a son. In 1904, he would eke out enough time to help organize the Northern States Football League, of which GB was a member. Sadly, that would be his last year involved in football in Titletown.

The canning industry eventually took him to nearby Seymour where he may have had a hand in organizing a town team there. Then, he moved to Fall River where his children, Virginia and McBean, attended high school. Next, Hulbert and his wife became majority owners in the short-lived Capital Canning Company.

Eventually, he would oversee the operations of a canning concern in Saukville where a factory accident ultimately cost him his life in October, 1937. At the time, the Hulberts lived in a fine home on Grand Avenue near downtown Port Washington. By then, Fred Hulbert seemed to have faded from memory in the town where he’d started the first town team.

And so it was that this writer sat down one Friday evening to find the man who started football in Titletown.

On the table was a picture of GB’s 1897 town team — basically a third-season regeneration of the team Hulbert had assembled in 1895 along with a couple of new superstars like T.P. Silverwood and Tom Skenandore.

It seemed apparent from that fall’s newspaper clippings that Hulbert should have been in that 1897 picture. It also seemed possible that Fred Hulbert had heretofore been confused with GB’s native son, Fred Hurlbut — who may have played football, too — but was usually identified in that famous photograph.

A trip to Wayland had cleared that mystery. The 1894 team photo from Wayland — with Hulbert’s name written boldly across his visage — indicated that “Fred Hurlbut” in the 1897 GB town team picture was, undoubtedly, Fred Hulbert instead.

A copy of the obituary of Hulbert’s son, McBean, put Cincinnati, OH into focus.

On the table next to the pictures was a glass of scotch and the telephone. People finder on the Internet listed all of the Hulbert’s in “Cincy” with public phone numbers. The dialing began.

“I’m looking for the man who started the first football team in Green Bay, Wisconsin,” I said to each person who picked up. “The team that eventually became the Packers. His son’s name was McBean and McBean died in Cincinnati.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” was the typical response.

Toward the end of the list, with building frustration and another dash of scotch decanted, I made the next call.

“My ex-husband’s middle name was McBean,” said a woman on the other end. “That S.O.B.”

“I can’t stand him either,” I said frantically. “Please don’t hang up.”

She didn’t. “His sister, Nancy, lives in Cincinnati. Her last name is McCue,” she added. I thanked her profusely, promising to send her flowers. She declined.

My next call was to Nancy McCue.

“Yes,” Nancy said. “My grandfather started the Packers.” I’d hit a historical researcher’s equivalence of pay dirt — a miracle, last-second touchdown.

From there, my contact with Nancy led to an aunt, Ethel Evrard, in Milwaukee, who opened up her family scrapbook and showed me the page on “Uncle Fred.” There it was: “Founder of the ‘Green Bay Packers’ Foot Ball Team and Himself Played on the First Team.” This little adventure had come full-circle.

These days, I count Nancy as a friend. I’ve even has some contact with that brother of hers.

T.P. Silverwood, et al
It’s tough to throw this much love toward Hulbert without quickly adding Thomas P. Silverwood’s name to the discussion. Silverwood came to Green Bay in 1896 – according to his granddaughter, Judith Silverwood-Sharpe and family lore — on a bicycle.

In his pocket, he held a fresh license to practice law from UW-Madison and in his heart he held a love for the game of football — which he’d played there. In the first part of the 1896 season, he actually took the train from GB up to Oconto to coach the team there.

By season’s end he was playing with the GB guys — including in a contest against an Oshkosh crew in which a forward pass (illegal at the time) was allowed to stand. Genial Fred gladly turned the reins over to Silverwood for a couple of years afterward. In 1897, Silverwood basically coached and captained the team — the roles were nearly synonymous back then — as the team hauled in its first championship.

Silverwood would go on to practice law for many years in Green Bay.

After Hulbert and Silverwood, several guys would take a turn at the helm — Casey, Sensiba and Burns — to name a few. But — even with Curly Lambeau in mind — there’s no denying that Hulbert deserves the real title of  “Father of Green Bay Football.”

Fred’s picture is going up in the 1919 Room at downtown Green Bay’s Hagemeister Park Restaurant and rightfully so. He’s also now conspicuous in the 1897 town team photograph — as though he has resurfaced from the deceased after all these years.

Last Call for First History Event
If you’re grabbing up your copy of Scene the first weekend in November, you’re not too late. Saturday, the 8th, will see the first-ever gathering in honor of Titletown’s gridiron legacy — an event where guys like Fred Hulbert will be celebrated for their contributions to the most popular game in town.

Don’t miss it. Tickets can be purchased by calling Hagemeister Park at 920-884-9909. Otherwise, try your luck at the door. There’s a matinee presentation at 1 p.m. and an evening show at 5 p.m.

$27 includes a “4”-course meal in honor of Brett Favre. The feature is Michael Neelsen’s film on Brett Favre “Last Day at Lambeau,” though the rest of the lineup is equally-impressive.

You won’t be disappointed.  That’s my personal guarantee.

Denis Gullickson is an educator, speaker, farmer and horseman. He writes and lectures on these topics, as well as philosophy, history, football and Packers history. He talks about the Packers in Wisconsin Public Television’s “Hometown Stories — Green Bay.” His books include “Before They Were the Packers: Green Bay’s Town Team Days,” “Vagabond Halfback: The Life and Times of Johnny Blood McNally,” and “The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men.” He is currently working on a stage play on Johnny Blood as well as several book projects.

Leave a Reply

Scroll To Top