Hometown Tales Podcast

Monday, November 08, 2004

The Rhinelander Hodag

Autumn, 1893: near the lumbering community of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, Eugene Shepard stood face to face with a 185 pound, seven-foot-long, lizard-like beast. Covered with short black hair, the body appeared stout and muscular; its back was covered with spikes. Wisely, Shepard split.

Back in Rhinelander he told the town that he had seen a Hodag. Gathering brave townsmen and willing lumberjacks, Shepard assembled a hunting party to capture the strange beast. 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. Luckily, the hunters had brought along a large supply of dynamite. The lumberjacks lobbed sticks of dynamite at their prey. The explosions ignited a fire that engulfed the monster and eventually took its life.

It was not until three years later that an intrepid Eugene Shepard captured a live one.

In the autumn of 1896, Shepard and a group of lumberjacks surprised a Hodag in its den and took it to the Rhinelander fairgrounds. At the Oneida County 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: "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.

Of course, the Rhinelander Hodag was complete bullshit. A hoax.

Shepard was a woodsman, real-estate broker and the town’s practical joker. The Hodag was nothing more than a carved-up 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.

But people from across the state and region continued to travel up to Rhineland to view Shepard's concoction, despite knowing about the hoax. Soon Rhinelander became known as the Hodag city, and its inhabitants proudly touted its unique identity and the piece of local lore on which it was based.

The Hodag brought people to Rhinelander and, in doing so, helped this small lumber town survive. By the 1920s, an extremely popular postcard portraying the Hodag's capture circulated throughout the region.