When entering the small, rural city of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, via Highway 8 traveling eastbound, you will approach a fork in the road. There you may catch sight of large statue of a creature—one that might feel at home in Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are.”
The strange creature dominates the front lawn of the Rhinelander area visitors center. This is your introduction to the Hodag, a mythical creature of tremendous influence on the local culture of this city in the woods of Oneida County.
The menacing beast is described 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.” This larger-than-life sculpture depicts an animal that was, according to local lore, 30 inches tall and 7 feet long, subsisting primarily upon white bulldogs.
Though later exposed as a hoax by area prankster Eugene Shepard, Shepard’s initial reports of Hodag sightings in this area in 1893 and 1896 brought the city and region national acclaim, even earning a mention in some Paul Bunyan stories of American folklore from that era. Shepard came clean about his “discovery” after scientists from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., announced they would be visiting Rhinelander to study the strange creature.
Throughout Rhinelander and its surrounding environs, there are many businesses, establishments, and events that have embraced the Hodag name, ranging from restaurants, car dealerships, and the local high school’s sports teams to an annual music festival, the Hodag Country Festival.
The “Chamber Hodag”—this fiberglass sculpture, created by a local artist—is perhaps the largest representation of the monster, but there are over a dozen throughout the area.
A far smaller Hodag was given by community leaders to then Senator John F. Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy in 1959 when they visited Rhinelander during the early months of his presidential campaign. In a letter to Henry J. Berquist, the Democratic county chairman who presented the gift, Senator Kennedy remarked, “We find the Hodag to be a very provocative conversation piece and are delighted to have so interesting a souvenir of our visit to Rhinelander.” Indeed.