What is a Hodag? The fiercest, strangest, most frightening monster ever to set razor-sharp claws on this earth. The Hodag made his first appearance near this Northwoods Wisconsin city in 1896. Gene Shepard, Rhinelander pioneer and timber cruiser, snapped its picture just before the beast sprang at him from a white pine log.
What a horrible sight the camera caught! A hairy animal seven feet long and thirty inches tall glared ferociously from the photograph – copies of which still can be seen. Its backbone bristled with a dozen gleaming white horns, and wicked looking tusks hung menacingly from its vise-like jaws. The claws on its short, muscular fore and hind legs were long and needle sharp. A party of brave lumberjacks led by Shepard actually captured the monster in a cave by putting him to sleep with a chloroform-soaked sponge tied to the end of a 30 foot bamboo pole. You can still see the pit at Shepard’s house in the Pines where the beast was kept. To this day many say it prowls the country-side at night devouring white bulldogs – a Hodag delicacy. Now all this may seem a bit far-fetched, and the truth of the matter is that Shepard himself was later forced to admit that the Hodag was something of a hoax. Its hairy body was made of wood and ox hides. Its armor of horns once belonged to various bulls. Those vicious claws were bent steel rods. But to Rhinelander, the Hodag is much more than a hoax. It has become a local legend. It is the symbol of the city, “The Home of the Hodag.” It has been stamped permanently in the city’s personality. Rhinelander’s biggest recreation area on Boom lake is Hodag Park. Business places have adopted the name. School athletic teams call themselves the “Hodags” Shepard certainly was a great hoaxter, but he can also be remembered as our greatest early community promoter. His story of the Hodag spread far and wide and attracted visitors to the area. Many of these visitors returned home to share with their family and friends the beauty of Rhinelander and still others enjoyed themselves here so much they became permanent residents.
It has been nearly 110 years since the reported Shepard sighting. Is the Hoax part of the story legend or truth? If you have a desire to explore further you might consider reading; “The Hodag: And Other Tales of the Logging Camps” By Luke S. Kearney and “Long Live the Hodag!” By Kurt Daniel Kortenhof.
Just because Shepard later said he faked the Hodag doesn’t make the Hodag less real. I have seen people dress up like Santa Clause and that doesn’t make him any less real.