From: American Folklore
Classification: A creature from American Folklore that is now a monstrous mascot.
In 1893, newspapers reported the first sighting of a Hodag in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. It 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”. The reports originated from by well-known Wisconsin land surveyor and timber cruiser Eugene Shepard. Shepard reported that he had to gather a group of loggers to hunt down the beast and once confronted had to use dynamite to kill it. A picture of the creatures charred remains was sent to the media at the time and the statement of It was “the fiercest, strangest, most frightening monster ever to set razor sharp claws on the earth. It became extinct after its main food source, all white bulldogs, became scarce in the area.”
Three years later in 1896 Shepard claimed to have caught a live specimen of a Hodag. According to Shepard he and several bear wrestlers cornered the monster at it’s cave and used a long stick with a chloroformed soaked rag at the end to knockout the beast. Shepard said the Hodag that he captured was a female and in her cave he found a nest of 13 eggs. Once the eggs hatched he planned to teach the baby Hodags tricks and would travel around with a Hodag Show. But until than he was happy to display the mother Hodag. His first showing of the female Hodag was at the Oneida County Fair where it was reported that thousands of people came to see the beast. After the fair Shepard constructed a small shanty at his home where he could house and display the monster.
As the story spread it began to capture the imagination of the nation and the Hodag even appeared briefly in some of the Paul Bunyan Tall Tales and began appearing in American animal publications. It was this sudden exposer that caught the attention of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.. The institute announced that they were heading to Rhinelander, Wisconsin to investigate the matter and to launch their own study into the creature.
With the news of the Smithsonian Institute coming to visit, Shepard finally came clean and revealed that the whole thing was a hoax. The creature photographed and on display was a wooden creature he made and for the visitors to his home he used simple strings to make the creature move and scare the already skittish people.
But maybe not all of the folklore surrounding the Hodag are a hoax. Maybe Shepard heard of the myth before embarking on his elaborate prank.
Native North Americans have a long tradition of stories regarding the Mishibizhiw, an underwater panther. Some tribes, particularly Anishinaabe, Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi, of the Great Lakes region of Canada consider this being as the most powerful underworld being. The Ojibwe held them to be the master of all water creatures. Some myths include this water lynx in their creation legends.
With the body of a cat, usually like a lynx and the horns of a deer, it also sports scales on it’s back and sometimes even bird feathers. In most of the stories they also have a very long tail. Looking at the rock painting above it is believed that the spike like marks running down the creatures back and tail are either feathers or hair and not spikes. But to the causal observer the do look like spikes, so could have Shepard seen a painting like this before creating the Hodag? There are similarities between artworks like this and the creature that Shepard created.
Since the raise and fall of Eugene Shepard and the Hodag in the late 1880s, the Hodag has gone on to become a celebrity in its own right. Adopted by Rhinelander, Wisconsin as the town’s mascot and also the High School mascot, the Hodag is embraced and loved by the locals. Everything from car dealerships to the annual Country Music Festival use the name of the Hodag. The love for the monster is so strong that statues dot the main street area of the town and other landmarks areas and feature paint jobs by local artists.
But the biggest and best statue resides outside of the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce building .
The Hodag has also been featured in an episode of Scooby Doo and has appeared in numerous role playing games and cryptozoology books.
What Eugene Shepard started in 1883 may have been a simple prank but that prank has turned into something beautiful. The Hodag now fuels the imagination of a community and is a common bond that they share. Seeing a whole town embrace a creature from folklore and own it as theirs fills my heart with joy (silly, I know). To live in a place with so much whimsy and imagination sounds awesome to me. If only we all had a monster to call our very own.
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