What is a hodag? Explore the legend of Wisconsin's weird cryptid

What is a hodag?

The hodag is the mascot of Wisconsin’s northwoods, a beast first described by newspapers in 1893 as having “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.”

Like the tales of Paul Bunyan, hodag folklore grew out of the campfire stories of logging camps in the Rhinelander area. They were fearsome creatures born from the ashes of cremated oxen who suffered great abuse at the hands of the woodsmen.

“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,” Luke Sylvester “Lake Shore” Kearney wrote in his 1928 book The Hodag and Other Tales of the Logging Camps. “As the fire died down, there slowly issued from the great pile of ashes, a mystical animal, later to be known as the hodag.”

Hodag illustration by Margaret Ramsay Tryon

Drawing of a hodag by Margaret Ramsay Tryon, 1939

Hodag Legend

More bizarre facts about the hodag were detailed in lumberjack legends.

In Paul Bunyan Natural History (1939) Charles E. Brown wrote that the black hodag (Bovinus spiritualis) lived in the dense swamps of the Rhinelander region, and that it “fed on mud turtles, water snakes and muskrats, but it did not disdain human flesh.”

Brown also noted that the hodag never laid down. Instead, it just leaned against trees to sleep. And the only way to capture one, according to brown, was to cut deeply into the trunk of its favorite tree.

In his 1939 book Fearsome Critters, Henry H. Tryon wrote that the hodag was a “distressingly ugly animal” that was prone to “frequent fits of bitter weeping” at its upsetting appearance.

“This fellow can’t endure being laughed at,” Tryon wrote. “When angry, he is fierce and dangerously aggressive.”

But the hodag has a weakness – lemons. Just two lemons can fend off an entire herd, Tryon claims, and the increased use of lemons in cooking is the reason why the hodag is so rare today.

“I once had a handful of the extremely rare crystallized Hodag tears,” Tryon wrote, “but an acquisitive lady friend collected them, believing them to be fine amber. She had them strung into a neck-yoke—and then went and spilled a Tom Collins on herself. Of course the lemon juice dissolved them instantly.”

The hodag was good for more than just jewelry, according to Tryon. He writes that the poor creature’s large sabretooth-like front teeth were often used for umbrella handles, which may also account for its grumpiness.

What is a hodag?

What is a Hodag? from Explore Rhinelander

Eugene shepard’s Hodag Hoax

A man named Eugene Shepard became synonymous with the hodag legend in 1893.

“On this particular day, just at twilight,” Kearney wrote, “Eugene Shepherd, a naturalist of the north woods, taking his customary quiet stroll into the forest, strode down a favorite trail, breathing the fragrance of the tall pines and hemlocks. Suddenly, he became aware of an unusual odor in the air, which aroused his curiosity. On looking further through the depths of the foliage, he discovered a strange creature, so unlike anything he had ever seen before, that it was beyond description. 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.”

Kearney says that Shepard, trembling and speechless at this “horror of the forest,” went to the nearest village, where he rounded up men from a group called the “Ancient Order of the Reveeting Society” to help him track down and capture the beast.

“Shepard rounded up a band of brave locals to capture the monster and photograph the event,” Holly Hilgenberg wrote for CURB Magazine, “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.

Hodag photo depicting the capture of the elusive North Woods beast, 1893

Capture of the hodag, 1893

Three years later, in 1896, Shepard claimed to have captured another hodag. And this one was alive. Shedpard said he stuck a long pole with chloroform on the end into the cave where the hodag was hiding to render it unconscious.

Shepard kept this one alive and showcased it at the very first Oneida County Fair. This hodag spent years on the county fair circuit, and could be viewed in a shack behind Shepard’s home during the offseason.

News of the creature eventually reached the Smithsonian, and when researchers announced their interest in it, Shepard admitted it was a hoax and retired the Hodag.

But if it was fake, why are people still seeing it?

The hodag statue in Rhinelander, WI

Hodag statue in Rhinelander

Hodag Sightings

In the 2013 series America’s Monsters, nature artist Rodd Umlauf described his snowy encounter with a whole herd of hodags a decade earlier.

Umlauf had been snowshoeing through the frozen forests of Rhinelander one winter. That evening, he came to the top of a hill that looked out over a clearing. There, among the trunks of some dead trees jutting up from the snow, he saw multiple horned, hairy hodags.

“Unbelievable,” Umlauf says. “I’d heard stories about the hodag, but people would just talk about one. But here there’s a group of them.”

No one had ever encountered a herd before.

Umlauf returned home and painted the scene.

Hodag art by Rodd Umlauf

Hodag art by eyewitness Rodd Umlauf

And he’s not alone. Many others have seen the creature for themselves and have no doubt the old lumberjack legend still lurks in the woods of Rhinelander.

“The climactic area, the geography, the geology of the area,” witness Jerry Shidell says, “all lends itself to a creature such as the hodag thriving and existing here.”

In the 1920s, according to Kearney, there was even a man named Mike Essex of Siberia, Wisconsin who had a hodag living in a hill on his property. If you were interested in raising your own, he would happily send you a setting of precious hodag eggs.

Things to do in Hodag Country

So you want to have an encounter of your own. Where exactly would you go to do that? Here are some places around Rhinelander where you are likely to run into one of the curious creatures in the wild.

Hodag Statue

There are numerous hodag statues around Rhinelander, including an upright cowboy hodag in a hat and boots, holding a guitar. But the one you have to stop and snap a selfie with is the big one out front at the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce.

Hodag Specimens

The Pioneer Park Historical Complex is home to a railroad museum, a logging museum, and several full size hodag specimens.

Hodag Merchandise

For all things hodag, including stickers, magnets, t-shirts, plush and more, stop by The Hodag Store.

Chocolate Hodag

Grab some hodag confections at the Fun Factory Sweet Shoppe, where you’ll find solid milk chocolate hodags, edible hodag poop, and more. Get your hodag treats here.

Hodag Heritage Festival

Enjoy a week of hodag-related activities celebrating Rhinelander’s history and its bizarre connection to the toothy green beast of the North Woods. Learn more about the Hodag Heritage Days here.

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