Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Oct. 15, 2010
The tracks led from the airport terminal through the parking lot to the nearby woods, but husband Art and I didn't see the creature that had left them.
But once in town, we spotted several of the beasts. The largest was guarding the Chamber of Commerce building. With a paw raised as if it was about to strike, the critter had large horns on both temples, a mouth full of fangs and dinosaur-like spines along its green back and tail. Many smaller ones were encountered throughout Wisconsin's north-woods town of Rhinelander.
The first report of an actual encounter with one of these odd-looking critters appeared in the local newspaper in 1893, although mention of such a creature had circulated through the region's lumber camps and even among members of the local Ojibwa Native-American tribe. At the core of the newspaper account was Gene Shepard. He was a well-known Wisconsin timber cruiser - an occupation requiring him to spend much time in the woods estimating the amount and type of lumber available in a tract of land. Shepard rounded up a group of local people to capture the animal. But the reports said that when they were unable to do so, they resorted to using dynamite to kill it. A photo of the remains of the charred beast was released to the media. According to accounts, it was "the fiercest, strangest, most frightening monster ever to set razor sharp claws on the earth." It was called a Hodag - rhymes with "no bag" - although where the name came from is unknown.
Shepard captured a live Hodag in 1896. He said he and several bear wrestlers placed chloroform on the end of a long pole. They worked it into the creature's cave and it succumbed to the fumes.
Shepard displayed this Hodag at the first county fair and thousands of people traveled to see it. When it moved, onlookers ran away in terror.
At first, stories about the odd creature appeared only in other nearby papers, but eventually the Hodag's fame spread throughout the state and finally to the nation at large. Eventually a small group of scientists from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. announced they would travel to Rhinelander to inspect the odd beast. Their announcement forced Shepard to admit that it was all a hoax. The beast was made from wood, ox hides, bull horns and steel. The specimen he had displayed at the fair had been confined to a dimly lit cage that hid the wires he had used to make it move.
But to residents of Rhinelander and the surrounding area, the Hodag is no hoax. With the area's virgin white-pine forests cut and the local soil inadequate to support much in the way of commercial agriculture, the Hodag has been a bit of an economic savior. Hodags have become Rhinelander's version of Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster or Babe, the Big Blue Ox.
It's the official symbol of the town and the mascot for Rhinelander High School and lends its name to countless area businesses, including Hodag Lanes, Hodag Express Lube and even the Hodag Farmers Market. The Hodag Country Festival is an annual country music affair that attracts more than 40,000 people per year.
The Chamber of Commerce and other area shops sell all things Hodag - T-shirts, key chains, Christmas ornaments, snow globes, magnets, postcards and stuffed animals.
Rhinelander native Jill Kuczmarski, who lives in Chicago, said she wanted to present a friendlier version of the Hodag story to children.
"I wanted my nieces and any other children passing through the Northwoods to be enchanted by this Wisconsin legend, not intimidated and that is why I created my characters and started writing my books. I wanted to impart as much of the child friendly folklore as I could while still capturing the spirit of the Hodag myth."
Two of her books, Tales from the Trees and A Monster Misunderstanding, feature Happy the Hodag and Buddy the Bulldog.
As Art and I wandered about the city of 8,000, we encountered one named "Bounty" that had various fruits, vegetables, other plants and livestock painted on its sides. Another - "Historic Rhinelander" - depicted the town's logging history. "The HeART of Rhinelander" held an artist's palette. Still another, painted with camouflage colors, held a plaque, "In Memory of Those Who Served." Two-dimensional versions appeared in various places from business signs to the side of city police cars.
Just before we were to leave town, we even saw a license plate that said, "4Hodags." I wondered for a minute if it meant the car belonged to a family of four, the driver supported the local school or he was supportive of Hodags in general. My hunch is that it was all of the above.
So the Hodag - a sometimes misunderstood creature - has progressed in a bit more than a century from being prankster Shepard's hoax to providing the basis for the town's hijinks.
Left, airport Hodag tracks; center-top, recycling Hodag in business district; center-bottom, vehicle license plate
seen at local business; right-top, marker in front of Rhinelander high school; right-bottom, historical Hodag.
Daughter Mariya, Nadja's boyfriend Tim, daughter Katie and "adopted"
daughter Nadja with Chamber of Commerce Hodag in July 2008.