What is a Hodag?



What in the world is a Hodag?
 
By Jill Kuczmarski

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. The Hodag 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 North Eastern Wisconsin town of Rhinelander. The Hodag is also the Rhinelander High School's mascot which means for those of us who grew up in and/or attended RHS, we're Hodag's too.

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 42 years but has also added some confusion. A lot of attendees don't always know that the Hodag is a far larger story than just the name of their festival. 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!) 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

 

Gene Shepard's Hodag

Gene Shepard was a major booster of my hometown, Rhinelander, Wi as it was becoming established. A surveyor and timber scout, Gene watched first hand as Rhinelander grew into a booming town. Gene was well known in the Northwoods and managed to pull a magnificent hodag centered prank on the locals and is the reason the official Rhinelander, WI mascot is in fact, a Hodag.

The story goes that Gene was first attacked by a strange, foul-smelling beast in the forest but managed to get away. Gene returned to town to gather a hunting posse and that crew was able to capture the beast. They called it a Hodag. Gene allowed people to come and see his Hodag 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 his children would use that tunnel to sneak to the barn, rattle the cage and make growling noises when there were visitors. Gene went on to exhibit his Hodag in a darkly lit tent around various county fairs. The tale of the Hodag traveled fast and people came from all around to see the beast. It wasn't until the Smithsonian wrote to Gene requesting a special visit that he finally admitted his Hodag capture was a hoax.

 

Lake Shore Kearney's Hodag

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

 

E.R. Stoltz's Hodag

E.R. Stoltz finished carving his hodag replica in 1952 at the request of local business people and the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce.

It is the hodag featured in the hodag capture reenactment photo floating around the internet and Stoltz's nephew, Don Pecor, plays the victim laying on the ground, covered in ketchup.

Stoltz recounted on the carving of the replica: "...I deemed it my civic duty because of my ability to create sculpture and my special personal interest in creating a true replica of the Hodag from the data on size, appearance, and characteristics. I felt I was the most and best-qualified one to do the job for my home town."

Don Pecor, Stoltz's nephew, allowed me to transcribe some of his uncles' writings which I think add some wonderful color to the Hodag story:

"The original Hodag was the brainchild of “Gene” Shepard and the first model was created by Luke Kearney and others under the direction of Gene Shepard. The original was a wood and wire framework, over which was stretched dried cow and ox hides, then dried and cured until stains, dyes and paints could be applied, the horns were ox and cow horns, matched and tied on the beast, the claws, and eyelashes were metal and wire, the eyes were glowing red paint and the teeth and tusks a dirty yellow paint.

This original model was exhibited and shown chained in a large cage at farms and public doings throughout the area. One time Shepard who was representing the Lumber Industry at our legislature in Madison, Wis took the beast down there in the baggage compartment of the train, all through the legislative season, he had the Hodag in its cag[e] in the balcony and would upset the proceedings at intervals with his horrendous growls and screams ant the rattling of the cage with chains and an iron rod.

Needless to say, the legislators were so disturbed by this action that the Lumber Industry complaint wasn’t even introduced or acted upon. Much to the delight of the lumbermen who didn’t want the legislation to be enacted.

The original Hodag was lost in a resort fire on his own property where at the time, he was away at a meeting of area lumberman. Shepard was considered the most knowledgable and informed lumberman of the times, in fact, he was the mill owner’s advisor on quantities and supplies of timber available in the area and where the best area to move into or plan to operate in."
—E.R. Stoltz ,1979

 

Jill Kuczmarski's Hodag

 

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.

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 sharp as a tack, chill as a snow cone, 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.

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.

 

Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce Hodag

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 :)

JK Rowling's Hodag

JK Rowling added the Hodag to her Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them in the 2017 update. Yes, we were all very excited!

Mishipeshu Pictograph

There is also this other entity, much older than the Rhinelander Hodag that looks an awful lot like some of the early drawings of the Rhinelander Hodag. Take a scroll through this post on themidwestival to learn more about the pictographs of The Great Lakes tribes Hodag-like creature in and around Canada.

Camp Bovey

According to Caroline Arnold, author of The Terrible Hodag, Camp Bovey used to be called Camp Hodag and I occasionally hear rumors that they still have a Hodag as a camp mascot :)

More Hodag Legend Links