What the Heck is a Hodag?
In short, Hodags are prehistoric, black or green, fur-bearing, lizard like creatures that inhabit the pine forests, glacial lakes, and wetlands of Northern Wisconsin, primarily in the Rhinelander area.
Stories of strange creatures!
For thousands of years, Native American people across the Great Lakes region have told stories of “water panther spirits”, an animal they call Mishipishu. Oral tradition describes these creatures as being a cross between a cougar and a dragon, protector of the waters of the north, and copper reserves in the Lake Superior region.
Through the 1800s Lumberjacks from the northern pine belt would tell stories of the reincarnated spirits of dead lumber oxen that would manifest in the forest after the beast of burden passed away from years of hard work, becoming a vicious creature that roamed the deep reaches of the great northern forests.
In the 1870’s a man named Eugene “Gene” Shepard was surveying and cruising timber in the area that became Rhinelander, Wisconsin. He had heard legends of spirits and curious creatures that lived in the forests of the area.
In 1893, Gene Shepard encountered a strange animal deep in the old growth forest with similar descriptions as the Lumberjack oxen legends and the spirit from Native American oral tradition.
A stout snarling beast approximately 7 feet long, and 300 pounds jumped on a white pine log in front of him. This creature was covered in shaggy black fur, was prehistoric and lizard like in nature, had a row of white spines down its back, oxen like horns, two large fangs among a mouth full of teeth, and razor-sharp claws. It was as fast climbing a tree as it was in the water and Gene ran from the forest as to not be eaten alive!
Gene quickly gathered a posse of rough and tumble characters from Rhinelander’s “Hungry Hollow”, and went back into the forest to capture this Great Pine Beast. After cornering the creature, a long battle ensued whereupon the beast was consequently destroyed by dynamite blasts during the fight. Gene Shepard named this creature he had discovered, a “Hodag”.
Several years later, in 1896, Gene discovered another Hodag lair dug into the side of a hill just north of Rhinelander. This time he was determined to capture the beast alive! After bringing the beast under submission using a long pole with a chloroform soaked rag, he brought the large Hodag specimen back to his home in the city of Rhinelander where he proceeded to display this terror of the pines at Oneida County’s first Fair.
Thousands of people left the fairgrounds that year with a new fear of the dark forests surrounding the area. Newspapers across the country printed headlines about the fearsome creature captured in the old growth forest of Northern Wisconsin. People flocked to Rhinelander to see the Hodag held in a pit Gene kept on his property, purportedly feeding it “white bull dogs, but only on Sundays”.
Hodags Draw Interest
Phineas T. Barnum, famous showman from New York, heard about the Hodag and hopped on a train to Rhinelander, determined to offer Gene Shepard a large sum of money to return to New York with the brute. The Smithsonian Institute dispatched a scientific team to Rhinelander to survey the newly discovered animal.
One morning when Gene went out to feed his Hodag, he discovered the chain at the bottom of the pit was snapped, and a trail leading down to the Pelican River where it had presumably swam across and escaped back into the old growth forest from whence it came. This development, along with pressure from local officials concerning the widespread panic among area residents, forced Gene to admit his Hodag was not more than an elaborate “hoax”, thus quelling the fear throughout the community. Gene knowing the truth of the matter felt it was probably best in order to protect this unique animal from angry mobs that would surely bring about its extinction.
Hodag Tradition Carries On
Since that time, for over 125 years, Rhinelander has embraced the Hodag stories, it becoming a much-venerated part the cultural fabric of the community, the Home of the Hodag. Everywhere you go in Rhinelander you’ll find Hodags in effigy and artwork. The high school mascot is a Hodag. Residents of Rhinelander past and present are referred to as “Hodags”. The Hodag legends and lore have made their way across the country and globe as word spread about these unique creatures that live in the woods surrounding Rhinelander.
More recently a Scooby Doo episode and a J.K. Rowling book, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” have featured Hodags. No less than a thousand depictions of the beast can be found in online searches. This information only scratches the surface of the mythology surrounding Hodags.
Hodags have captured the imagination of millions of people all over the world, tens of thousands of which visit the Rhinelander area each year to breathe in its clean pine scented air and enjoy its thousands of clear glacial lakes. Stops at the world’s largest Hodag statue at the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce, Pioneer Park Historical Complex to learn about Hodag history, and The Hodag Store for a souvenir are a must when visiting The Hodag City.
Many choose to believe Hodags are a lumberjack tall tail, a figment of Gene Shepard’s imagination, but those of us that walk the trails through the last of the primeval pines that stand in the Rhinelander area, truly believe Hodags still roam the dark parts of the forests, the shorelines of its pristine lakes, and the magical wetlands of the Rhinelander area to this, very, day.
Who knows, you might just spot one when you’re visiting Rhinelander, Wisconsin!
If you’d like to learn more about Hodags, check out this video and links!
Visit the largest Hodag in Rhinelander at the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce