The Hodag

Rhinelander, Wisconsin

A mythical creature with a fanciful past and the mascot of Rhinelander, Wisconsin

Photos 

The Hodag

This rather less-than-fearsome creature greets visitors at the Rhinelander Visitor's Center.

Photo taken by J.R. Manning

Enlarge

Map 

Description 

The Hodag sprang from the fertile imagination of Gene Shepard, a raconteur, renown timber cruiser and well-known prankster.

He earned his reputation as one of the best timber cruisers in the business, estimating, with uncanny accuracy, the amount of board feet of lumber that could be harvested from an acre of woodland. When he worked, he worked hard. When he played, he played hard, and when he pulled a prank, it was always a duesey. There are several versions of the Hodag legend, and some of them might actually be true. Then again, like many legends, probably not.

The Hodag started out as a practical joke, one legend has it, to be played on an unsuspecting presidential hopeful, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was known to be a conservationist and was supposed to be traveling the Wisconsin River. Shepard supposedly concocted the Hodag to place on the river's shore, in order to scare Roosevelt. Roosevelt he never came, so Shepard made up with other plans for the Hodag.

The original Hodag was the work of a skilled wood carver named Luke Kearney. It was seven feet long, thirty inches high, black, had two horns on its head, twelve horns along its spine, and short powerful legs armed with long claws. Shepard covered it with hair, and wired an articulated front leg to operate it as a puppet.

He started bragging about capturing the fierce beast near Rice Creek, and began spinning an elaborate hoax to convince the unsuspecting public that there really was a Hodag. He exhibited the thing at county fairs, in a dimly lit tent, his sons manipulating the leg of the beast, usually clearing the tent of suckers believing the beast to be alive.

When the Smithsonian Institute planned to send a team of naturalists to Rhinelander to document the beast as a new species, Shepard was finally coerced to admit the fraud.

However, the Hodag took on a life of its own. It became the mascot of the high school and the Hodag is a hail fellow well met in Rhinelander, pictured on squad cars, water towers, businesses and even has a huge music festival named after him.

The original Hodag seems to be lost to the ages, but reproductions abound, including at the Logging Museum, in front of the library and a huge Hodag adorns the front of the Visitors Bureau.

Oh, by the way, if you are ever visiting the northwoods of Wisconsin and you should happen to encounter a Hodag, you have little to fear. Shepard reassured us that the Hodag's entire diet consists of white bulldogs, which he only eats on Sundays.

Long live the Hodag!

Update Log 

  • March 18, 2015: New photo from J.R. Manning
  • May 13, 2012: Added by J.R. Manning

Sources 

  • J.R. Manning - Lugnuts969 [at] gmail [dot] com
  • Holiday Acres Resort - Another version of the Hodag story.