Occupation: Retired, Former Museum Curator
Residence: Kelseyville, California
Date of Performance/Collection: May 1, 2021
Primary Language: English
This story came from lumberjack camps In Northern Wisconsin. The Hodag was first reported in the late 1800s, and since has become a figure representative of the region surrounding its supposed place of origin. During my informant’s youth, the town just north of him, Rhinelander, used the Hodag as its symbol, also acting as the high school mascot there. They even have a huge country music festival called the Hodag.
The informant, my grandfather, says that the Hodag is an important piece of lore to everyone in North Wisconsin. So much so, that my grandparents had their first kiss at the Hodag music festival, and my grandpa’s band played there. Early accounts of the Hodag were even published in the local newspapers, so it’s an important and ever-present aspect of the culture there.
“So the Hodag is this weird creature that has like a frog kind of head, a fat, squat lizards body, with bulldog-like legs, with big horns protruding out of its head and down its back, and a big horn at the end of its tail, so it was a weird-looking thing. So there were–it was supposed to roam the north woods of Wisconsin, and probably where the story came from was in the lumberjack camps in Northern Wisconsin. Um, one guy–I don’t know his name–it’s said that he actually caught a hodag and burned it. And they published a picture with ashes and a pile of horns. Some people believed that, but to make it really convincing they actually made a taxidermy one and toured it as a sideshow with the circus. When the Smithsonian sent someone to verify it, the guy who created it admitted it was false. Later I was doing some research as the director of Marathon County Historical Museum and reading through some old papers from the 1890s, and there were a couple articles I found really interesting. One claimed that “all kinds of mischief” was going on in the lumberjack camps in Northern Wisconsin, North of Rhinelander. I don’t remember much detail, but there was a bunch of chaos in the camps and the lumberjacks thought there was Hodag in the woods near them. And the other instance, there was a lumberjack that disappeared in the woods and it was blamed on the hodag–they said it ate him.”
Following some more digging, I was able to find out that the Hodag is believed to have come about as a response to the abusive treatment of animals, especially oxen, in lumber camps (Kearney). This seems reasonable because it was not the only terrifying beast to have originated from such camps. As a giant lumberjack, early Paul Bunyan stories also often featured the Hodag. What I find particularly interesting, however, is how this manifestation of abuse and cruelty made its way into the hearts and minds of so many locals in the area. Although it may have sprung from cruelty, the fact that the Hodag once made it into state and even national news headlines completely transformed it. When it had been seen by the nation, outsiders began to think of Rhinelander as the home of the Hodag, thereby associating the two. Because the legend of the creature had been scaled up, it grew from its original representation of cruelty to become a symbol of pride for the locals of the area.
For More on the Hodag and Other North American Beasts:
Kearney, Luke Sylvester (1928). The Hodag and Other Tales of the Logging Camps. Madison, WI. pp. 9–17.