The Living Legend of Rhinelander's Hodag
BY: KURT KORTENHOF
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.
BLACK HODAG - Eugene Shepard's first published drawing of the Hodag appeard in the October 28, 1893 issue of Rhiinelander's weekly paper, the New North
Gathering brave to wnsmen 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.
THE HODAG CAPTURE - This photograph became the popular Hodag Capture postcard during the 1920s. According to the August 7, 1952 issue of the Rhinelander Daily News, this picture was taken in 1899. Eugene Shepard is standing on the far right holding a stick. Mary Kosloske, Eugene Shepard's granddaughter, confirms that the child laying in the foreground is her father Layton Shepard. In 1899 Layton Shepard was seven years old.
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.
Shepard's Hodag - The above caption is Shepard's handwritten note describing the Hodag, circa, 1899.
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.
Carnival at the Oneida County Fair - Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Circa, 1910.
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.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING
Kearney, Luke S. The Hodag: And Other Tales of the Logging Camps. Madison, WI: Democrat, 1928.
Kortenhof, Kurt Daniel. Long Live the Hodag! The Life and Legacy of Eugene Simeon Shepard: 1854-1923. 2nd Edition. Rhinelander, WI: Hodag Press, 2006. ISBN: 0-9653745-4-8
Olsen, T.V. Our First Hundred Years: A History of Rhinelander. Rhinelander, WI: PineView Press, 1981.
--------. Rhinelander Country Volume Two: Birth of a City. Rhinelander, WI: PineView Press, 1983.
Peterson, Dave. Hodag: A New Musical...Based on the Exploits of Gene Shepard, Wisconsin’s Greatest Trickster. Madison, WI: The Wisconsin Idea Theater, 1964.
Shepard, Eugene Simeon and Karretta Gunderson Shepard. Paul Bunyan: His Camp and Wife. Tomahawk, WI: By Karretta Gunderson