Nerds on Earth writer Abram Towle hails from Wisconsin but I’m too scared to go visit him. Why? He’s in Hodag country.
A Hodag is a fearsome critter with a frog’s head, a fang-filled maw with two tusks and two horns, a spiky dinosaur-like back and tail, stout legs, and an oxen-like body that stands more than two feet high. It is covered with fine, green hair, much like burly Cheeseheads painted up for a Packers game.
J.K. Rowling included the Hodag in her spin-off book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them written under the pseudonym Newt Scamander. According to Scamander, “The Hodag is horned, with red, glowing eyes and long fangs, and the size of a large dog.”
A Hodag subsists on a diet of small mammals, oxen, and mud turtles, but it considers white bulldogs a delicacy. But you don’t need to worry about it unless you live in Wisconsin’s north country, a couple hours north of Milwaukee in the town of Rhinelander. But be warned: If you do stumble into the woods of Rhinelander you’re going to see as many Hodags as there are pounds of cheese in Green Bay.
The Hodag was first discovered in 1893 by well-known Wisconsin timber cruiser and prankster Eugene Shepard, who rounded up a group of local people to kill the beast with dynamite.
Shepard also learned the origins of a Hodag. Oxen were commonly used beasts of burden in the timber camps of Wisconsin’s north woods, and they were often worked literally to death. When an oxen passed, they were often dealt a string of profanity only crass lumberjacks could dish out, because they knew their job just became much harder.
Because the oxen had to absorb that type of profanity in death, the demons that sprang from them had “vile and vengeful” souls, giving rise to a fearsome Hodag.
So that’s how the legend of the Hodag goes. But Eugene Shepard made all that up of course. Or did he? Three years later, Shepard claimed he captured a live beast, which he showed off in a dimly lit tent at the first-ever Oneida County fair.
That the Hodag did not exist was barely an impediment. He and a friend sculpted the beast with wood and reeking hides from a tannery. Shepard’s sons then moved the beast as if it were a puppet, growling and hissing. Shepard quickly hustled people in and out of the tent — for their own safety, he told them.
The timber industry that had made Shepard wealthy had begun to dip, so he began to buy land that had been clear cut, sectioning out parcels to sell to future farmers. But the key to keeping Rhinelander alive and vibrant, he believed, was to give it a little sizzle.
The Hodag created such a spectacle, which attracted more people to Rhinelander and Wisconsin’s Northwoods after the national news media spread the story of the Hodag across the country.
Shepard had polished his storytelling skills as a lumberjack. One did not just take their iPhones and Nintendo Switches to Wisconsin’s north woods in 1893. So while some lumberjacks passed time in the evenings by playing cards, the real entertainment was in telling tall tales around the camp fire. And Eugene Shepard was a master of tall tales.
Yet in the end, it was Shepard who was haunted by demons. In the end, the storyteller and showman became a sad and lonely shell of a person, dying drunk and isolated from his family, friends, and the community he helped create.
But the Hodag lives on. Rhinelander has an entire cottage industry dedicated to Hodag lore. There are gift shops of course. And then candidate John F. Kennedy was gifted a miniature Hodag when he was campaigning in Wisconsin. JFK called it “quite the conversation piece.”
But the Hodag also lives on in the games we play. The excellent Pathfinder roleplaying game stetted up the Hodag as a challenge rating 6 creature. There is even a miniature. I know this because I own two of them.