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Hodag History
Thursday, April 29, 2010
 
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HODAG HISTORY
IN WISCONSIN REPORTS
The Hodag is a legend in the Rhinelander area which dates back to the late 1800’s.  The creature is a horned beast which allegedly inhabited the Northwoods. It is generally credited to the imagination of Eugene Shepard, a logger in the area during that era.   However, research by In Wisconsin Reporter Art Hackett reveals the Hodag may date back centuries ago and come from another tradition. Evidence along the Lake Superior shore could change the way you think.
Hodag History
TRANSCRIPT
Patty Loew:
We begin this week with a quest to find the hodag. It has a reputation as a fierce beast with a mysterious past. Kind of like Bigfoot. It's a legend in the northwoods and even though Art Hackett has been to Oneida County many times, on this trip he may have uncovered the truth about this mythical or not so mythical creature in Rhinelander.

Art Hackett:
The hodag permeates the culture of Oneida County seat. The critters are all over downtown, a hodag is the high school's mascot, souvenirs, you want them, Rhinelander has got them. Then there's the big hodag in front of the chamber of commerce office.  

Art Hackett:
On a foggy day, the hodag can look like the fearsome creature of the woods it was when the legend began.

Woman:
We were cross country skiing outside of Rhinelander. All of a sudden, something big crossed the trail.

Art Hackett:
The legend is spoofed in ads aimed at attracting tourists.

Man:
After a beautiful day of riding the trails in Rhinelander, we saw it.

Child:
It ate half a donut.

Art Hackett:
The official story is that the hodag is the product of the imagination of an early logger in northern Wisconsin. However, "In Wisconsin" has discovered what may be the real story of the hodag. First, the traditional version. We tracked down Chris Dries, a local photographer.

Chris Dries:
I'm the unofficial hodag researcher.

Art Hackett:
He also played a bit in the hodag TV commercials. At least we think it's him. There are a lot of elusive elements in this story. Where does it come from?

Chris Dries:
Well, pretty much went back to 1893 with Eugene Shepard. He was a lumberman, a logger, businessman and apparently had heard rumors of the hodag or a creature of such and they developed the story accordingly.

Art Hackett:
Pay attention to the words heard of the hodag. That will be important later on in this story.

Chris Dries:
It developed over a couple of years and then they actually had an official showing of the hodag and a public exhibition of the creature. About 1895.

Art Hackett:
The official historical society plaque notes this was a wooden puppet controlled by wires. There is this picture of the capture of a hodag. It is the basis for occasional pageants where the event is recreated. This one was in 1950. An actual hodag, no one claims it is.

Art Hackett:
This was just basically a tall tale told by loggers?

Chris Dries:
Well, apparently there had been prior to Eugene Shepard's discovery, it had been rumored throughout the UP that there was a creature in the woods similar to a hodag.

Art Hackett:
Dries runs a website. Hodagsightings.com. So for purposes of this story, he is our guy.

Art Hackett:
We have what we think may be a hodag sighting.

Chris Dries:
Oh, my goodness. That's wonderful.

Art Hackett:
This is an actual photograph.

Art Hackett:
A photograph taken about 350 miles northeast of Rhinelander in Lake Superior Provincial Park in Ontario. The photo was taken right at water level on the shore of the Great Lakes’ greatest lake.

Art Hackett:
Hodag or not a hodag?

Chris Dries:
That's a hodag. Definitely.

Art Hackett:
Actually, it is misshepehieu, a figure drawn by Ojibwa. Bob Birmingham is an anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha.

Bob Birmingham:
Misshepehieu is a part of a tradition that extends throughout the eastern part of the United States and even going into the Great Plains of a great manitou or spirit being or beings that inhabit water.

Art Hackett:
The Ontario ministry of natural resources estimates the pictographs were created between 150 and 400 years ago. The representations of the spirit are common enough that one is seen in an effigy mound near Bob Birmingham's home in Madison.

Bob Birmingham:
Head, leg, another leg here, body coming across here and then terminating in a very long tail.

Art Hackett:
Dr. Theresa Schenk of the UW Madison Native American Studies department is Ojibwa. She agrees misshepehieu was a powerful spirit.

Theresa Schenk:
It’s often translated as a panther or lynx, even a lion, who lives at the bottom of the sea, this could be one of the Great Lakes, and who draws men down to their death.

Art Hackett:
But she had to look up a picture of the hodag.

Art Hackett:
Did the pictures of the hodag you saw remind you of misshepehieu?

Theresa Schenk:
No way. He was composed of too many animals.

Art Hackett:
Theresa Schenk says people are thrown off by the projections on the creature's back.

Theresa Schenk:
I know that everybody wants those things along his back to be something connected to a lizard, but it's really the way they depicted the hair.

Art Hackett:
But Birmingham, who is a former state archeologist says Eugene Shepard did likely meet Ojibwa.

Bob Birmingham:
It is possible they came across paintings of this particular image. Many of the loggers themselves were Ojibwa or part Ojibwa.

Art Hackett:
They may have told a European there was a cat-like being.

Theresa Schenk:
On the lakes but not in the forest.

Art Hackett:
When we showed Chris Dries the photo, he was intrigued.

Chris Dries:
That indicates some of the research I've done as well, Art. I have some manuscripts that go way back by the French explorers that indicate in French, the language, that there was a creature as rumored when they came through here.

Art Hackett:
When you're in the business of promoting Rhinelander to visitors, an exotic, cultural connection sells, if there is one.

Theresa Schenk:
Oh, no. I think they created their own hodag.

Patty Loew:
To add to the mystery, after our interview, Theresa Schenk did more some checking and found references to a water spirit that had serpent-like qualities. But she did not find anything in Native American tradition like the hodag that combines serpentine and feline characteristics.
 
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