The Living Legend of Rhinelander's Hodag

by Kurt Daniel Kortenhof

-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 Jenny 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 towns people and lumberjacks. Clearly, Shepard had witnessed the monster 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 chard 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 monstrocity in a shed at his Rhinelander home for all to view. In this capacity the Hodag atracked 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 accross 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 continue 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 over night had all but depleted the very thing that gave it life - the surrounding pine forests. Indeed, half the city's saw mills had already closed and moved on, and the few remaining were forced to extended their operations further and further 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 anxiously 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 Business Men's Association and the Rhinelander Advancement Society, Shepard and others attempted to attract agriculture, tourism and non-lumber-mill-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 as 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 north Wisconsin and it is safe to guess that each one of those thousands told others what they had seen and heard and in this way the beauties, opportunities and resources of north 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 it 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.

Copyright (C) 1996, Kurt Daniel Kortenhof

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