Shepard's tale of beast made Rhinelander Hodag Country
Already known in lumber camps, people came to fair to see 'captured' animal
By Dennis McCann
In that circle, not many could top the silver-tongued Eugene Shepard, a master at cruising timber stands and estimating their worth. He was also a land speculator, surveyor, resort owner and, when his spending was under control, one of Rhinelander's wealthiest men. Shepard became a North Woods legend when he raised the Hodag up from lumberjack lore by "capturing" one and offering it to the world at large.
And the world lined up to look.
Shepard's life of pranks led some to call him the P.T. Barnum of northern Wisconsin. When he owned a resort at Star Lake, he would rig wooden muskies with wires and make them jump, the better to encourage guests to stay another day.
The exotic scented moss he charged tourists two bits to smell, or more to buy, was later found to be regular moss sprayed with cheap perfume. He imported a pair of moose from Minnesota to pull him through town in a horse buggy.
Shepard did not invent the Hodag, which was already known in lumberjack stories as the horned beast that grew from the ashes of a cremated lumber ox. (Lumber oxen, of course, had to be cremated to rid their souls of the considerable profanity directed their way by lumberjacks.) The Hodag that grew from the ashes was large, mean, horned, fanged, green-eyed and smelled like a combination of buzzard meat and skunk perfume.
If Shepard did not invent the legend, however, he invented the first Hodag anyone ever saw.
In 1896, the Oneida County Fair was hurting for big attractions when organizers wondered whether Shepard had any ideas.
Did he? Shepard arranged the carving of a Hodag from a wood stump, fitted it with hide and horns and announced this beast captured near Lake Creek outside Rhinelander would be displayed at the fair. Come one, come all.
The Hodag was kept in a dark cage in dim light but hundreds came to see what they could, paying their hard-earned 10 cents each to hear Shepard describe the capture. The ruse was so successful he took the Hodag on the road, first to other county fairs but once to the Wisconsin State Fair.
Travelers began seeking out Shepard's house. When they arrived, his sons would sneak into the Hodag's quarters, move its limbs with wires, growl and moan and rattle a fence to suggest the animal's ferocity. Some say P.T. Barnum himself came to view the Hodag and offered to buy it, but one Shepard biographer suggests the Barnum angle was just another layer of the escalating hoax.
Oddly, the Hodag remained an attraction after the ruse was revealed and continued to draw tourists. So Shepard continued telling the story, ever enhancing the grisly details, no matter that each new story contradicted the last.
Shepard's Hodag eventually was lost in a fire but Rhinelander remains Hodag Country to this day. The myth, captured, became real.