Where the Wild Things Are: The Legend Behind the Hodag

In the second part of Environmental Graffiti’s Cryptozoology Series, Simone Preuss examines the story behind the Hodag
the HodagPhoto:
The Hodag
Image via hodagpress

The beast had two horns growing from its temples, large fangs and green eyes. Its stout and muscular body was covered with short black hair and its back was covered with spikes, leading to a powerful tail. The animal fixed its green eyes on its uninvited guest, spouting flame and smoke from its nostrils, followed by a horrible odour…

Described here is a Hodag, a 200-pound beast, seven-foot-long, lizard-like and covered with horns. For centuries, the story of a monster had made the rounds in the deep forests of Wisconsin. The local lumberjacks believed that the Hodag embodied the restless spirits of dead lumber oxen and every child knew the old tales.

But the story really took off in 1893 when experienced woodsman and local prankster Eugene Shepard not only claimed to have encountered the beast but also to have killed it with dynamite with the help of his hunting party. As proof, he circulated the image below to the local press:

Hodag capture in 1893Photo:
Image: Unknown

According to the story that ran in local newspapers in 1893, the monster named Hodag had “the head of a frog, the grinning face of a giant elephant, thick short legs set off by huge claws, the back of a dinosaur, and a long tail with spears at the end”.

Only three years later in 1896, Shepard claimed to have captured another Hodag, this time alive. At the local county fair, he decided to exhibit it – really a piece of carved wood, covered with an ox hide and oxen horns that, from a distance and by use of strings and the voices of Shepard’s sons, appeared to move and growl.

Despite Shepard eventually admitting that the monster was a hoax, thousands came to see the Hodag first at the fair and then at Shepard’s house. In fact, the Hodag proved the most popular attraction at the fair and gave Shepard an idea: He quit his job as a timber cruiser and became a real-estate broker instead, promoting Rhinelander and the Hodag that had put it on the map.

Shepard’s first Hodag drawing published in October 1893:
Image via hodagpress

Since then, the city of Rhinelander calls itself “Home of the Hodag” and has chosen the animal as its official symbol. The Hodag is the mascot of the local high school and has lent its name to many businesses in the area, among them the famous Hodag Country Festival. In fact, it has brought so much business to Rhinelander over the years that a larger-than-life fiberglass sculpture can be found right in front of the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce.

Not pretty but certainly famous:
Hodag statuePhoto:
Image: Lanyap

One thing is for sure: This is one myth that is just not ready to die. New Hodag sightings are reported very frequently and an official Hodag Report is brought out every year. Here’s an eyewitness account from January 2007 where the strange beast is described as “green, whistling and grunting” and not too happy because it sat down in an ants’ nest. Says our witness: “There was nothing I could do, I had already wet my pants”:

With thousands of articles, websites, books, eyewitness accounts and other material, the Hodag is sure here to stay, grinning skeptics right in the face. We’re still not sure what those lumberjacks really saw in the forest those many years ago that gave rise to such extensive folklore.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4