What is a Hodag?
The Hodag is a ferocious beast from lumberjack lore, a town mascot, a high school mascot, and a country festival. There are monster hodags and human hodags, I am a human hodag.
- The Hodag legend is most notable as lumberjack lore from the near turn of the century in Northern Wisconsin and was made 'famous' by a lumber scout in the late 1800s named Gene Shepard who was first 'attacked' by one, and then successfully 'caught' one.
- The Hodag is the official mascot of the small Northeastern Wisconsin town of Rhinelander, which means for those of us who grew up in Rhinelander, or for those that have made the Northwoods their home, we're all Hodag's too.
- The Hodag is the Rhinelander High School's mascot, which means if you attended RHS, you too, are a human hodag.
- Further, the Hodag Country Festival is a popular music festival held in Rhinelander, WI every July. This has given a lot of visibility to the hodag over the past 48 years but has also added some confusion. Attendees often don't know that the Hodag is a far larger story than just the name of their festival. Also, did anyone catch the Happy the Hodag appearance on Neil McCoy's live FB feed as he was driving into the festival in 2018!? #hodaggoals
Believe me when I say that every human Hodag has had to explain the hodag many, many times. (That's actually why I wrote Tales From The Trees to be a quick overview of the lore, I created it for kids and adults so I could stop explaining it so much!)
Let's get into the details:
Gene Shepard was a major booster of my hometown Rhinelander, Wi as it was becoming established. As a land surveyor and timber scout he watched first hand as Rhinelander grew into a booming timber town. Gene was well known in the Northwoods as a bit of prankster and it’s because of him and his magnificent hodag-centered prank on the locals that the official mascot for Rhinelander, WI is in fact, a Hodag.
The story goes that Gene was first attacked by a strange, foul-smelling beast while hiking in the forest but managed to get away, returning to town to gather a hunting posse, and it was his crew that was then able to capture the mysterious beast. They called it a Hodag. Gene caged the beast and allowed people to come and see it in a poorly lit barn on his property called 'The Pines.' Rumor is that there was a tunnel between his house and the barn and that when there were visitors his children would use that tunnel to sneak to the barn, rattle the cage, and make growling noises to amplify the prank.
Gene went on to exhibit this Hodag in a darkly lit tent around various county fairs and the tale of the Hodag traveled fast. People came from all around to see the beast and it wasn't until the Smithsonian wrote to Gene requesting a special visit that he finally admitted his Hodag capture was a hoax.
Luke Sylvester Kearney published a very detailed recount of Gene Shepard's Hodag capture in his book, The Hodag. Published in 1928 under his nickname Lake Shore Kearney, The Hodag and other Tales of the Logging Camps states that the Hodag is actually a beastly reincarnation of an abused ox.
"It was at the end of the seventh year of the cremation of an ox which had led an unusually hard life that an event was to happen, which would cast its shadow upon every man who witnessed it. As the fire died down, there slowly issued from the great pile of ashes, a mystical animal, later to be known as the hodag...
Though a student of woodlore and of both prehistoric and other wild animals, Mr. Shepherd could not classify the monstrosity, which was gazing at him with glowing, green eyes and sniffing from nostrils of flaming hue.
The animal's back resembled that of a dinosaur, and his tail, which extended to an enormous length, had a spearlike end. Sharp spines, one and a half feet apart, lined the spinal column. The legs were short and massive and the claws were thick and curved, denoting great strength. The broad, furrowed forehead was covered with coarse, shaggy hair and bore two large horns. From the broad, muscular mouth, sharp, glistening white teeth protruded.
This strange animal of the woods had an alert movement and the swish of his tail made the earth tremble. When he exhaled, an obnoxious odor penetrated the atmosphere for some distance. Mr. Shepherd was trembling and speechless as he gazed on this horror of the forest. The great naturalist who had conquered all before was at his wit's end. Ruminating on a plan by which he might capture this animal, he hastened to the nearby village and disclosed his startling information to the Ancient Order of the Reveeting Society.
In the ancient tent of this mysterious order of the Reveeting Society, behind the closed flap, he related his experience, to those great, world-renowned men, selected from the farthest corners of the earth, men of great courage and chivalry. They were men, who in the rough and tumble fight with a bear, would toss their guns into the brush, stick their bowie knives into a nearby tree and give the big bruin both underholts, in their desire not to take advantage of the beast. This was the type of men he selected to help him capture this formidable nondescript..."
–Excerpt from The Hodag by Lake Shore Kearney
There are many different depictions of Hodag's in my hometown of Rhinelander, WI and when I was growing up all of these Hodag's were shown to be mean and scary. I decided to add a new kind of Hodag to the landscape and in 2006 I created Happy the Hodag to be a friendly Hodag for kids and adults.
Crafted to exhibit traditional Hodag characteristics but in a more accessible style for children, Happy the Hodag stars in my first children's book Tales From The Trees which is an introduction to the Hodag legend for children. I published a second Happy the Hodag book in 2007, a prequel called A Monster Misunderstanding, further expanding on and diffusing the legend of this green beast for little readers and Hodag enthusiasts.
Happy the Hodag is as chill as a Northwoods Spring evening, as sharp as a Blue Spruce pine needle, and allows very little to harsh his hodag mellow.
HODAG, my third Happy the Hodag book, was released in 2016 for Happy's 10th birthday and is dedicated to Hodag's everywhere. A departure from the linear storyline of my two previous books, Hodag is a book I had been thinking about for a long time and I finally executed in 2015 for Happy the Hodag's 10th birthday in 2016, it's a Hodag homage.
HODAG, Color The Seasons is my fourth Happy the Hodag book and features eight new hodag depictions. It’s the exploration of what hodags are up to season by season in a keepsake coloring storybook. (2019)
You can find my happy the hodag stuffed animal and other hodag merchandise in Rhinelander, WI at Mel's Trading Post, Fun Factory Sweet Shoppe, The Logging Museum and, of course, The Hodag Store on Lincoln Street.
The most photographed Hodag in Rhinelander, WI is the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce Hodag sculpture found at the entrance of Rhinelander just off of Kemp Street. This Hodag was created by local artist Tracy Goberville around the same time I was creating Happy the Hodag. Full disclosure, Tracy is a friend and her sister is one of my high school besties :)