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Flashback Friday: Fire destroyed much of popular Brainerd area resort 55 years ago

Updated: July 05, 2019 06:49 PM

Deb Thuringer still remembers the look on the face of her uncle Jack as he sat in the parking lot at Madden's Inn early in the morning of July 4, 1964.

As that holiday Saturday dawned 55 years ago, he'd just watched the bulk of the business that he and his brother Jim had worked so hard to build go up in flames.

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"I think we were all in shock," recalls Thuringer, Jim's daughter, who was 14 at the time.

"My uncle was just sitting there in a patio chair at the far end of the parking lot stunned. People were asking him questions and he just couldn't answer them."

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Answers must have seemed hard to come by after a pre-holiday evening that began so festively ended in disaster.

The resort - located on Gull Lake near Brainerd - opened in 1929, and the Madden's came on-board in the 1930s, weathering the depths of the Great Depression and World War II to continue expanding, opening a convention facility in 1959 and an improved new par 3, nine-hole golf course in the early 1960s.

The night of July 3 had marked the opening of a new bar - known as O'Madden's Pub. But as guests and employees alike celebrated in the new establishment, a blaze started in the utility room - one that at first seemed to have been contained.

"From what I've always understood, the fire started with some rags or something combustible," Thuringer said. "The fire was discovered and people thought it had been put out and taken care of. But it wasn't. And suddenly it was out of control."

By the time it was done, the building at the center of the resort had been destroyed. That included the new pub, the dining room and bar, the golf clubhouse, a few rooms for guests and the reception desk.

"The few rooms that were attached to that building weren't all that significant, but it was the place where people checked in,"  Thuringer said. "It was where the restaurant and bar were, and the pro shop was attached as well.

"It really was the heart of the resort and it was completely destroyed."

Thuringer had been in her family's summer home on the property, not that far away when word of the fire first arrived.

"My sister and I and a friend were having a sleepover," she said. "It was late in the evening, and all of a sudden my dad called. My mother came downstairs and told us to stay where we were and that she'd be back in a bit. So we knew something was up because that was pretty unusual.

"As soon as the coast was clear, of course, we all went out to see what was happening. We walked up a hill and we could see the flames rising high into the air. In the end, the only thing remaining of that building was a steel, curved stairway that had run up the side of the building to the employee entrance to the kitchen.

"What was miraculous though was that there was a big, old, wooden building only about 70 feet away where a lot of the rooms for guests were," she continued. "And that wasn't damaged at all. The firefighters must have done a really good job wetting that building down. Because it didn't suffer any damage."

And thankfully, no one was hurt or injured either. But enough of the resort had been destroyed to require a massive rebuild - a circumstance that may ultimately have proven a blessing in disguise.


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"That's what my Dad always said," said Thuringer, who still serves as the resort's head of design and purchasing today. "It would have taken us years and years to make all the improvements we were able to make right away though insurance and all that."

The redesigned building today houses two restaurants, two lounges, a golf pro shop and the front desk. And it serves as the hub of a resort now located on more than 1,000 acres that includes four golf courses.

There is also a lakeside spa, an art gallery, a large number of on-the-water recreational activities and a total of 285 rooms to accommodate over 600 guests.

The hotel and golf club are now in their 90th year of business, and the fire 55 years ago is certainly a big part of that story.

"It really did change the course of things here," Thuringer said. "It had a huge impact."

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