By Ruth A. Ringelstetter
At the end of September, Joann and I took a trip to northern Wisconsin. We didn’t have Internet access until the last night of our trip. We didn’t really miss it since we were having too much fun, but it does mean we missed the blog last week. And we spent this past weekend chasing the last of the fall color in western Wisconsin in this year for the weather record books.
Last year on an early fall trip north, we stopped in Rhinelander to photograph some old buildings and signs. I asked Joann if she wanted to hunt up the Hodag. Neither of us was familiar with the legend.
In the late 1800’s, Rhinelander was a frontier lumber town. Lumberjacks had long spoken of the large beast that lived in the forest, which they believed embodied the spirit of dead lumber oxen. When Eugene Simeon Shepard came to town and told everyone that he had seen the creature on a hike in the woods near his home, a group of men went out to the woods to hunt and capture the creature.
The group failed in capturing the creature but did end up killing it and bringing its charred body back to town. In 1896, Shepard captured a Hodag and brought it to the Rhinelander fairgrounds to display to all who paid a dime to see the creature. After this introduction, he took the Hodag on tour at other county fairs and at the state fair in Madison.
After returning to Rhinelander and displaying the beast at his home, it was discovered to be an elaborate hoax. Its body was a carved stump covered with ox hide and its horns were taken from oxen and cattle. Movement was controlled by wires and the growls of the beast were provided by Shepard’s sons who were hidden in the beast’s lair. Even after the discovery of the hoax, people continued to travel to Rhinelander to see the Hodag.
This year the famous Hodag even made an appearance in Scooby Doo as the villain in the episode “Hodag of Horror”.
If you visit Rhinelander, be sure to stop at the visitor center to see the Hodag, and think about encountering one of those in your hike in the Northwoods.