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W-File: hodag.html

Type: Legend
Location: Rhinelander, Wisconsin

Source: The following is derived from LONG LIVE THE HODAG! THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF EUGENE SIMEON SHEPARD: 1854-1923 by Kurt D. Kortenhof (ISBN: 0-9653745-0-5). Copies of this publication can be purchased by contacting Hodag Press at 5552 Jennie Webber Lake Road, Rhinelander, WI 54501. ($12.00 per copy plus shipping) All text within quotation marks is original source material mostly from late nineteenth-century newspapers. For complete citations and bibliography, please refer to LONG LIVE THE HODAG!


The Hodag first made its appearance in the autumn of 1893 near the lumbering frontier community of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Eugene Simeon Shepard (1854-1923), timber cruiser, real-estate broker, and

 community jester stumbled across the beast while hiking near his Rhinelander home. Although a seasoned woodsmen, Shepard had never before encountered a Hodag, the beast so often spoke of in the lumber-camp bunkhouses. The sighting, however, was unmistakable.

Shepard stood face to face with a 185 pound, seven-foot-long, lizard-like beast. Its head was disproportionately large for its body with two horns growing from its temples, large fangs and green eyes. Covered with short black hair, the body appeared stout and muscular; its back was covered with spikes which led to a powerful tail. The four legs were short and sturdy with three claws facing forward and one pointing in the opposite direction. As the beast turned to greet his uninvited guest, its nostrils spouted flame and smoke, and a horrible odor, which Shepard described as a "combination of buzzard meat and skunk perfume," filled the air. Wisely, Shepard retreated in a hurry. Back in Rhinelander he described his encounter to townspeople and lumberjacks. Clearly, Shepard had witnessed the monster that lumberjacks believed embodied the restless spirits of dead lumber oxen--he had seen a Hodag.

Gathering brave townsmen and willing lumberjacks, Shepard assembled a hunting party to capture the strange beast. Armed with "heavy rifles and large bore squirt guns loaded with poison water," the hunting party set out to confront the monstrosity.

Discovering the Hodag near where Shepard had first sighted it, the hunting party dispatched a number of dogs to corner the beast. This proved unsuccessful as the Hodag "scattered about the place" small fragments of the hunting dogs. Like the dogs, the hunting party's weaponry proved of little value in subduing the now irate Hodag. Luckily, the hunters had brought along a large supply of dynamite. After piling birch bark around the cornered beast, the lumberjacks lobbed sticks of dynamite at their prey. The explosions ignited a fire that engulfed the monster and eventually took the Hodag's life. Although the charred remains of this first Hodag were transported to Rhinelander and displayed, Shepard's hunters were unable to capture the beast alive.

It was not until three years later that a determined Eugene Shepard captured a live Hodag. In the autumn of 1896, Shepard and a group of lumberjacks surprised a Hodag in its den and asphyxiated the monster with a heavy dose of chloroform. Shepard then transported the Hodag to the Rhinelander fairgrounds and confined it to a pit resembling its den "in order that the animal would not discover the deception being practiced upon him." Days before the opening of Oneida County's first fair, Shepard announced that he would proudly exhibit his recently captured beast.

The Hodag, displayed near the entrance gate of the fair proved the event's main attraction. On Monday and Tuesday, the first two days of the fair, "the tent was filled with a crowd of curious people throughout the day." On Wednesday, "a large number of spectators gave up their dimes to see this strange animal and hear its history as told by Eugene Shepard himself." Entering a dimly lit tent, and separated from the beast by a curtain and a good distance, the fair-goers witnessed the beast move and growl. Very few left the fair grounds not believing in the authenticity of Shepard's Hodag. From this introduction the Hodag and its boastful owner toured county fairs and even the Wisconsin State Fair in Madison. Furthermore, Shepard displayed his monstrosity in a shed at his Rhinelander home for all to view. In this capacity the Hodag attracted thousands of curious spectators and brought a disproportionate amount of attention to a small frontier community in the uppermost regions of the Wisconsin River Valley.

Eventually the Hodag was discovered to be an elaborate hoax, its body, a carved stump covered with an ox hide; its horns and spikes derived from oxen and cattle; its movement controlled by wires; and its growl supplied by Shepard's sons hidden in the monster's lair.

This discovery, however, took nothing away from the Hodag's popularity. People from across the state and region continued to travel up the Wisconsin to Rhinelander to view Shepard's concoction. Although the original creature was destroyed by a fire near the turn of the century, the Hodag continued to gain popularity. By the 1920s, an extremely popular postcard portraying the Hodag's capture circulated throughout the region. Soon Rhinelander became known as the Hodag city, and its inhabitants proudly touted its unique identity and the piece of local color on which it was based.

To the casual observer, Shepard's Hodag ploy was a practical joke pulled by Rhinelander's most celebrated prankster. A more in-depth investigation of the circumstances surrounding the Hodag's creation, however, reveals a far more serious side of the beast. In addition to comprising a known jokester's most successful ploy, Rhinelander's Hodag was, and continues to be, a very serious, preconceived promotional project. To be sure, the Hodag played an important role in making Rhinelander what it is today--the regional industrial center of Northern Wisconsin with an odd twist of local color.

In the autumn of 1896, Rhinelander found itself in the midst of a very significant crisis. Although founded just fourteen years earlier on the sole strength of the lumber industry, the city that grew up overnight had all but depleted the very thing that gave it life--the surrounding pine forests. Indeed, half the city's sawmills had already closed and moved on, and the few remaining were forced to extend their operations farther and farther from their mills each season. Countless other lumbering frontier communities had flourished with the industry and disappeared with the trees. Would Rhinelander follow suit? The city's leading citizens--those who had invested time, money and measureless energy into forging a community out of the northern Wisconsin frontier--were determined that Rhinelander would survive the demise of the great stands of pine. To this end, Eugene S. Shepard eagerly donated his unusual talents and odd personality.

The businessmen who comprised the community's elite struggled to keep Rhinelander growing while the surrounding lumber supply dwindled. Prompted by the city's newspapers, Rhinelander began a tireless campaign of city promotion. Working through organizations such as the Rhinelander Businessmen's Association and the Rhinelander Advancement Society, Shepard and others attempted to attract agriculture, tourism, and non-lumbermill-related industry to the city.

Rhinelander, as the seat of the newly created Oneida County, spearheaded the county's drive toward agricultural development. By 1896 the Oneida County Agricultural Society planned its first annual Fair and Exposition. Unfortunately, the sparsely settled county had very little agricultural produce to exhibit because farming in the cut-over was still unproven and extremely difficult. Even the city's leading weekly confessed, "The farm product and livestock exhibit cannot be expected to be very extensive in a community where agricultural interest has only commenced to be developed." Acknowledging the lack of exhibit substance, the fair organizers appealed to the city's most flamboyant and popular entertainer for guidance. Under these circumstances Shepard created the captured Hodag--to be exhibited at the fair and bring people to Rhinelander.

The city did indeed attract industry, while the county attracted agriculture. Rhinelander bridged the gap between lumber boomtown and industrial center as the surrounding countryside converted its cut over lands into farming fields. In this transformation the Hodag played its part. In addition to being the most unique aspect of Rhinelander's local color, the Hodag is a living reminder of what Rhinelander once was and how it evolved into what it is today. Decades after that fateful autumn of 1896, Eugene Shepard explained why he captured the Hodag:
"By no means is all the progress to be credited to the Hodag, but the Hodag did his bit! Not only hundreds but thousands of people came to view the Hodag...and not one of them went away without having learned a little more about northern Wisconsin, and it is safe to guess that each one of those thousands told others what they had seen and heard. In this way the beauties, opportunities, and resources of northern Wisconsin spread, and many who came out of curiosity only have come to make their home with us. Long Live the Hodag!"

While amusing Shepard and others, the Hodag brought people to Rhinelander. In doing so, the town promoters felt the Hodag fulfilled a crucial step in the process of booster-assisted city growth. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Hodag is that it continues today, over 100 years later, to fulfill a similar promotional role.

Source: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 5, 1998

Shepard's tale of beast made Rhinelander Hodag Country

Already known in lumber camps, people came to fair to see 'captured animal'

By Dennis McCann of the Journal Sentinel
February 5, 1998

The Hodag, like Paul Bunyan, grew out of the can-you-top-this storytelling of rough and tumble lumber camps, where out-lying the next man was both accomplishment and evening's entertainment.

In that circle, not many could top the silver-tongued Eugene Shepard, a master at cruising timber stands and estimating their worth. He was also a land speculator, surveyor, resort owner and, when his spending was under control, one of Rhinelander's wealthiest men. Shepard became a North Woods legend when he raised the Hodag up from lumberjack lore by "capturing" one and offering it to the world at large.

And the world lined up to look.

Shepard's life of pranks led some to call him the P.T. Barnum of northern Wisconsin. When he owned a resort at Star Lake, he would rig wooden muskies with wires and make them jump, the better to encourage guests to stay another day.

The exotic scented moss he charged tourists two bits to smell, or more to buy, was later found to be regular moss sprayed with cheap perfume. He imported a pair of moose from Minnesota to pull him through town in a horse buggy.

Shepard did not invent the Hodag, which was already known in lumberjack stories as the horned beast that grew from the ashes of a cremated lumber ox. (Lumber oxen, of course, had to be cremated to rid their souls of the considerable profanity directed their way by lumberjacks.) The Hodag that grew from the ashes was large, mean, horned, fanged, green-eyed and smelled like a combination of buzzard meat and skunk perfume.

If Shepard did not invent the legend, however, he invented the first Hodag anyone ever saw.

In 1896, the Oneida County Fair was hurting for big attractions when organizers wondered whether Shepard had any ideas.

Did he? Shepard arranged the carving of a Hodag from a wood stump, fitted it with hide and horns and announced this beast captured near Lake Creek outside Rhinelander would be displayed at the fair.

Come one, come all.

The Hodag was kept in a dark cage in dim light but hundreds came to see what they could, paying their hard-earned 10 cents each to hear Shepard describe the capture. The ruse was so successful he took the Hodag on the road, first to other county fairs but once to the Wisconsin State Fair.

Travelers began seeking out Shepard's house. When they arrived, his sons would sneak into the Hodag's quarters, move its limbs with wires, growl and moan and rattle a fence to suggest the animal's ferocity. Some say P.T. Barnum himself came to view the Hodag and offered to buy it, but one Shepard biographer suggests the Barnum angle was just another layer of the escalating hoax.

Oddly, the Hodag remained an attraction after the ruse was revealed and continued to draw tourists. So Shepard continued telling the story, ever enhancing the grisly details, no matter that each new story contradicted the last.

Shepard's Hodag eventually was lost in a fire but Rhinelander remains Hodag Country to this day. The myth, captured, became real.

Source: The book Giants In The Land by Dennis Boyer.

Dennis Boyer's Introduction:

The Hodag tale has been told so many times that it could not bear retelling here were it not for my source's extensive knowledge of the creature and his presentation of new information. Join me as I pull over at a Highway 13 wayside near Park Falls. There, a rotund fellow is selling berries and woven baskets out of the back of his truck. Big Dave in the stories for free.

Big Dave's story:

The old Hodags are dead!

My granddad was from over by Rhinelander, so we were brought up on Hodag stories. He saw the last big one die north of Antigo.

Yup, he was a believer in them all his life and did all he could to straighten out the b.s. and distortions that other people tacked on. I guess you could say I'm carrying on the family tradition.

The whole Hodag story is a messed up deal. It's so goofed up you'd think the legislature down in Madison was in charge of it. It's not often such a simple story gets turned butt upwards - unless you count religion.

If you sort it out, you find that there was such a rare creature. Then you have some scam artists blow it up into something else, pull a sideshow hoax, and make some money off of it. That discredits the whole story. Next, the big breed dies off in northeast Wisconsin, so of course no one can find a specimen.

Gard and Sorden in Wisconsin Lore call that breed the Black Hodag or Bovinus Spiritualis. It should have been called the Great Hodag or Bovinus Spiritualis Maximus. They're all dead now.

Those writer fellows got it about half right, but you can tell that they were poking fun at the whole thing by throwing the Hodag in with made-up and distorted creatures.

Wisconsin Lore lists twenty-nine rare creatures of the Wisconsin Northwoods. And for verification they cite the lying sack of bear turds that made up the story about Paul Bunyan's camp being in the Onion River country. Onion River camp, my buttcheeks! Paul Bunyan only used that spot as a toilet. Everyone knows his real camp was near Park Falls on the Flambeau River.

That spread a lot of misinformation. It created a belief that the only place you could find such things in Wisconsin was in that corner of the state. It elevated the status of some stories that were simply logging camp hallucinations resulting from bad corn liquor. And it lumped into the fanciful category some things that should have been investigated more closely.

Some of those toxic alcohol visions came out as sightings of Hangdowns, Hidebehinds, and Pumptifusels. If there were any real creatures behind those tales it was simply a matter of drunk lumberjacks seeing a Hodag.

On the other hand, there were things like the Gumberoo and the Luferlang that had something behind them. At least like the Hodag, you had earlier Indian stories of something similar that provided partial corroboration.

But all this confusion did nothing but cover up the fact that there were two Hodag breeds and that one of them survived. That's right, Bovinus Spiritualis Minimus, the Lesser or Little Hodag.

Most of them run about collie size. By the way, they love to eat collies, but they subsist mainly on stray cats and rabbits. A baby of this breed is about cat size, and a few old ones might get close to a hundred pounds if they have a steady food supply.

The Great Hodag was not as big as the stories made it out to be. Mostly they were in the bear-size range -- that's what they were often taken for in the dark woods. Oh, I heard of an eight-hundred-pounder once, but who knows? The stories and the big hoax made them out to be the size of dumptrucks.

Now with the Little Hodag, there are signs that they are becoming more accustomed to humans. Sort of like the coyotes on the edges of cities. But they're still seldom seen because no one is looking for them.

On top of that, they're a threatened, if not endangered, species. Like their bigger extinct cousins, they were hunted and trapped without mercy. But the Little Hodag, being a smaller and more elusive target, is making a partial comeback. Some say it's because hunters and trappers thought the Little Hodag was just at the puppy stage so they left them to grow.

There is a lot of confusion about what a Hodag looks like and what its habits add up to. That goes back to the hoax and sideshow.

They are carnivorous. But unlike the hoaxers, I'd never say they eat human flesh. I know for sure that the Little Hodag doesn't. And the Great Hodag never killed people. They just picked on some frozen lumberjack carcasses during sparse feed conditions during some really bad winters.

The Great Hodag lived in the dense swamps of Oneida and Vilas counties. The Little Hodag was pretty much the same way over here in Price, Iron, and Ashland counties. But now it's turned to culverts, abandoned farm buildings, and tumbled-down hunting shacks. The surviving Little Hodags range throughout the Chequamegon National Forest and down to Ladysmith.

As far as what it looks like, it's pretty much like the Great Hodag. Just a little lighter in color in the summer and kind of a silver gray in winter. But it has the characteristic spearlike tail, spikes along the spine, shaggy hair, two horns, and short but powerful legs. Kind of a souped-up armadillo on steroids.

Old Menominees told my granddad that there was once lots of Indian stories about the Hodag. But I've been over to Keshena to ask and all they could tell me is the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce story.

In this neck of the woods, it's a little different. The Chippewa tell me stories - when they're not spearing my fish - about strange creatures in the woods. Some of them sound like Little Hodags.

But I think those Chippewa are on to something you should check out. They say that things like the Hodag can take many shapes. So one minute it's a Hodag, the next minute it's a lynx, and the next it's a thing not seen in ten thousand years. Some even tell me it could be the gal who appeared out of nowhere on her Harley and took me to a mobile home for two days.

The whole point is that there's a wild spirit in these things. It runs through the accounts of all the rare creatures. That wild spirit is Wisconsin.

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