In search of the Hodag

by Holly Hilgenberg

It was a beautiful fall day, the air unseasonably crisp and the leaves on the trees seasonably colored. My mother and I were side by side in her black Volvo station wagon, returning for the first time in ten years to a place of both our childhoods: Rhinelander. While Rhinelander is a typical small northwoods town in many ways, to us it's more than a dot on the map. To me it means being incredibly bored at my grandparents’ log cabin, no running water, bunk beds that smelled like musk and mucky Loon Lake. To my mother, it means her childhood summer “vacation,” her five siblings, pets and friends stuffed into a packed station wagon, spending a week equally contained in the two-room cabin as it inevitably poured rain. Beyond our personal experiences, Rhinelander had something else no other small town can claim, the Hodag. It was the Hodag, Rhinelander’s most famous hoax, that was leading me back to a place and a time that no longer exists. 

Unlike the impersonal metropolises that litter the country, small towns often rally around the cherished histories that cement their identities and reasons for being. Small town pride, similar to intense radical patriotism, is exemplified in rivalries between high school football teams and screaming matches over blue-ribbon rhubarb pie at county fairs. Rhinelander, with its population of 7,873, is no different. But for this small town its “special sauce” is something that never even existed, except in the minds of many persuaded by a pile of ox hide and bull horns that the fierce Hodag beast did indeed live. 

The Hodag was just one part of the business elite’s plan to help the community survive in the late 1800s. Like many Wisconsin northwoods towns, Rhinelander was founded mainly by its logging industry. Many similar communities were in crisis during this period, as their once seemingly endless supplies of pine and hemlock were rapidly depleted. It was a matter of sinking or swimming as towns scrambled to find other industries and methods of money-making and Rhinelander was determined to swim - with a little help from a made-up creature. In 1893, Eugene Shepard, a local prankster and timber cruiser began spreading his tales of the Hodag around the community. It was described as “the fiercest, strangest, most frightening monster ever to set razor sharp claws on the earth.” In other words, it looked like a mix between a bulldog and a dragon. Curiously, it was believed that the Hodag would eat white bulldogs, but only on Sundays. In a clever pre-public relations measure, Shepard rounded up a band of brave locals to capture the monster and photograph the event, proving to all not only the beast’s existence but also the strength of Rhinelander folk. Such a task did not prove easy, as the group resorted to dynamite to kill it. The photograph of charred Hodag remains, along with Shepard and his crew, was published and the tale of the Hodag was born.

Three years later, Shepard captured another Hodag; this time he left it alive but sedated. Unveiled at the first Oneida County Fair, this Hodag was to spend the rest of its years on display at county fairs and in a shack at Shepard’s home. Thousands came to see the Hodag, and despite the eventual admission by Shepard that the Hodag was indeed a hoax, Hodag fervor caught on in the town of Rhinelander and helped secure the community’s future. Entirely unique and rooted in the legacy of its survival, Rhinelander has willingly adopted the strange, supposedly frightening - but to some “adorable” - beast as its mascot. 

Rhinelander, in promotional materials and the minds of residents alike, is known as “The Home of the Hodag.” Its streets are littered with locally-owned stores named after the beast, such as the charming Hodag Gun and Loan, and at local sporting events one can see the youth of Rhinelander confront their opponents as the fearless Hodags. A gargantuan Hodag statue greeted us as we made our first stop in Rhinelander at the Chamber of Commerce. It looked a little silly—this huge, green monster with glowing yellow and red eyes positioned in front of the homey country-style building. Still, it was a message to everyone who drove on Business Highway. 8 that they were entering the town of Rhinelander. The Hodag’s influence extends beyond its home’s borders. It has been recognized in places as far away as London and has graced Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris. The Hodag is a marker to everyone, worldwide, of something from a small town in northern Wisconsin.       

It was to this small town we were returning, the place of Fourth of July fireworks displays and the Hodag water ski shows. Though there would be no visit to the cabin, no campfires, no using the powder-smelling, bug-infested outhouse and no bathing in the lake, my mother and I were excited to revisit this place that had only existed in our minds and photographs for the better part of a decade. We found in its place something different from what we had remembered. 

Though it was inevitable that what we encountered as Business 8 turned into Lincoln Street would eventually take over the town, I naively did not expect it. There was something that invaded Rhinelander, under the pretext of bringing change, much the same way the railroad did in the town back in the 1880s. This something was glaringly obvious driving into town, so impossible to ignore that my mother and I became silent as we were surrounded by what everyone in America has become accustomed to: Home Depot, Auto Zone, a brigade of fast food chains and the granddaddy of them all, Wal-Mart. 

Even though my mother shops at such places, reasoning that she can save five bucks, she muttered “Wal-Mart” under her breath in a disgusted tone as we drove by it - as if the corporation was personally responsible for ending the innocence of her childhood in Rhinelander. More likely, it was that Rhinelander, like us, had changed.

Of course, there were still aspects that remained true to Rhinelander’s small town. People still moved slowly and left their doors unlocked, the “best sandwiches in town" were still served in a bar with mirrored beer signs and one local asserted that there were no gangs in Rhinelander because the youth knew their mothers would find out if they were misbehaving. Despite the small town elements that remained intact, I saw the effects of the recent growth of the shopping centers as well. Judy Bromman, a Rhinelander resident and employee of the Chamber of Commerce, lamented the fact that the community was losing some of its small town feel. The old downtown of Rhinelander was silent and empty, as there were now better places for locals to shop. It was evident that, for better or worse, the town has changed.

Like its home, the Hodag also has changed. While it has been used for quite some time as a promotional tool for the area, it is now heavily controlled.  Hodag merchandise is officially licensed and sold through a variety of vehicles including the Officially Licensed Hodag Merchandise Online Store, the Chamber of Commerce and, of course, Wal-Mart. Despite the inclusion of Rhinelander’s most famed beast into the commercialization of the town, it continues to connect Rhinelander to its past, serving as a marker for the community that sired it and as a reminder of its small town roots. 

Our return trip ended with a halfhearted search of a souvenir Hodag statue, to take home as a token reminder of the experience, as well as a little something to remind me of my past in Rhinelander.  Though I returned home empty-handed, I realized that the very fact that the Hodag still reminded me of a time which is now gone proves the power of its legacy.  The Hodag will always remind me of walks in the woods, the tiny frogs littering the sandy ground at my grandparent’s cabin, s’mores at night and reading my grandma’s bird watching books when I had nothing else to do.  Huber had mentioned how amazed she was that even in light of its fakeness, the legacy of the Hodag continues today.  Perhaps that is what is so powerful about it.  Even though I will probably never return to the cabin, and Wal-Mart will continue to change Rhinelander and its people, there is a piece of the past that remains.  Luckily for Rhinelander, its past exists beyond memories, and the town owes that to the Hodag.


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