A strange, mischievous creature from Wisconsin folklore, the Hodag is one of the most bizarre tales to emerge from the ‘fearsome critters’ tales of the American frontier.
Tales of fearsome critters first emerged predominantly in lumberjack camps around the turn of the century. Frequently more comical than truly frightening, many critters possessed one specific trait that characterised them. The hidebehind was known to stalk loggers by hiding behind even the slenderest of trees, the teakettler gets its name from the strange sound it makes and the steam it emits from its mouth, while the sidehill gouger adapted to life on steep mountain slopes by possessing two legs longer on one side of its body than the other.
Equally bizarre, the hodag is described as possessing the head of a frog, face of an elephant with a distinctive, broad grin, short, thick legs with large claws, the back of a dinosaur and a long tail tipped with spears. With green eyes, large fangs and two distinct horns, the hodag is said to breath fire and smoke and has a unique smell, a strange combination of ‘buzzard meat and skunk perfume’. The critter is closely associated with the city of Rhinelander, the county seat of Oneida County in densely wooded northern Wisconsin. While early accounts suggested that it ate mud turtles and water snakes, the more common version of the story is that it would eat only pure white bulldogs. Tragically aware of its own foul appearance, the hodag would often weep in frustration at its ugliness.
While the tale of the hodag may have originated amongst the lumber camps that were common across Oneida County during the late 1800s, it became more widely known due to the stories of Eugene Shepard, a well-known Wisconsin land surveyor and lumber man. In 1893, newspapers reported that Shepard had successfully killed a hodag, trapping it with a large group of men using hunting dogs, rifles and squirt guns loaded with poisoned water. Finding it almost impossible to kill they eventually resorted to dynamite, which proved successful. A photograph purported to be the charred remains was circulated to local newspapers.
Three years later, Shepard claimed to have captured another hodag. This time, he said that he had recruited a number of bear wrestlers to assist the hunt. He asserted that the group eventually captured the beast by wrapping raps soaked in chloroform around the end of a long pole before jamming it into the critter’s cave, overcoming it with the fumes. The hodag was displayed at the first Oneida County fair, where thousands of people came to see it. As media interest grew, a group of scientists from the Smithsonian Institution announced they would travel to Rhinelander to document the discovery. As a result, Shepard admitted that the creature was a hoax, the creature nothing more than a figurine of wood and leather fitted with bull’s horns, using wires to give the impression of movement.
While Shepard’s two account proved to be hoaxes, the hodag remains popular in Rhinelander. It is the mascot of Rhinelander High School, the official symbol of the city, and lends its name to an annual music festival. Statues depicting the creature are found across the city, with a large fibreglass creation outside the city’s chamber of commerce drawing thousands of visitors annually. Many residents maintain that the creature lingers on in the woods around Rhinelander, blaming it for disappearing golf balls at Rhinelander Country Club and Northwood Golf Course and for stealing fish from angler’s lines.
Feature image: The statue of the Hodag outside the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce. Image: Gourami Watcher/Wikicommons