When Gene Shepard conjured up his fierce and fanciful Hodag more than 130 years ago, it’s a good bet he never thought the beast would be in the running to represent Rhinelander High School (RHS) through a national contest.
But it’s true. The ferocious icon has been chosen to represent RHS in a competition sponsored by the newspaper USA Today. The contest started last Monday and is aimed at determining the most popular high school mascot in all of America. The winner will be determined by votes from the public, through logging on to a special page on the paper’s website. If the Hodag wins the contest, RHS will receive $2,000 for its athletic programs and a banner worth more than $2,000.
Charlie LaHam, activities director at RHS, was “blown away” when he got a call from an editor at USA Today informing him the Hodag had been chosen for the contest. “At first, I thought it was someone pulling my chain,” he said. “But then the person told me it was for real and started asking all kinds of questions about what a Hodag was and how it came to be our mascot.” And that in itself is quite a story.
The Hodag beast was fabricated by lumberjack Gene Shepard, who came to reside in Rhinelander, while working as a lumber cruiser around 1880. Shepard had an innate talent for determining how many board feet could be harvested from one acre of trees.
Another one of Shepard’s personality traits was his big imagination, and he had a penchant for telling a good story. He held audiences rapt when he opined about a creature he saw in the woods that had a lumbering gait and great, thick horns jutting from its broad head. Sharp and deadly claws sprang forth from its paws and down its spine was a set of horn-like spikes. It had powerful jaws and when it grimaced, its pointed teeth cast a blanket of fear on anyone who was unfortunate enough to be in its path. But lucky for Rhinelander residents, the Hodag beast was elusive and rarely seen. Its diet consisted of white bulldogs, which it only consumed on Sundays.
Although Shepard reveled in relaying his tale of the fictitious Hodag, he decided to actually build one. Its body was made of wood created at the hands of a skilled carver named Luke Kearney. It was 7 feet long, 30 inches high and painted black. Then Shepard covered his monster in ox hides and used cow horns to give it its ferocious nature.
To further his prank, he displayed his creation at the local county fair in a dimly lit tent and had his sons move its legs, emulating a real live anomaly of nature. It is rumored that Shepard finally came clean about his prank after the Smithsonian Institute wanted to come to Rhinelander to document the creature as a new species.
But by then, the Hodag was destined to be part of Rhinelander’s colorful history and the tale of the creature has been retold to generations of area locals and visitors alike. Rhinelander embraced the uniqueness of this beast and not only is it RHS’s mascot, it can be seen on logos, badges and signs throughout the area. It even has a music festival named after it.
And now it is in the running for national recognition. The contest works like this: There are five unique high school mascots chosen from every state (including Washington, D.C.), numbering 225 schools. The Hodag in Wisconsin is in competition with the Kaukana Galloping Ghosts, the Kimberly Paper Makers, the Mellen Granite Diggers and the Ashland Oredockers. The state voting will end at 3 p.m. on March 5. If the Hodag wins this round, it advances to a regional competition that runs from March 6 to March 14. One mascot from each region will then advance to the national contest. All winners are based on the number of votes received from the public. Participants can vote as many times as they want and have to be at least 13 years of age. Click here to vote.
And while Shepard’s carved and hided monstrosity was a draw at the local fair many years ago, another, more friendly version comes to life at almost all RHS sports events and can be seen in parades and at different Rhinelander functions today. That’s thanks to a professionally constructed Hodag costume made possible through funds that were raised through alumni contributions and other donations two years ago. Olympus, the same company that constructs outfits for such notables as Bucky Badger, made the Hodag costume. However, the heart of the Hodag has sort of been fly-by-night. “I usually find volunteers to wear the outfit for games and parades, and sometimes I even wear it,” said LaHam. “I’ve decided, though, that in the near future I’m going to have Hodag tryouts like they do with Bucky Badger. I’m going to open that up to not only high school students, but to anyone who has the athleticism to represent the Hodag at games and in parades.”
The bright green suit itself is not heavy, and inside the massive “skull” there is a bicycle helmet which is strapped onto the wearer’s head to stabilize it. Big mitts with white claws serve as the paws and the feet look like giant green slippers, also adorned with protruding white claws. And the Hodag doesn’t talk, but growls and roars like any wily Northwoods beast.
LaHam is confident the Hodag will make a good showing in the contest, though, and he sees a bright future for Rhinelander’s mascot if it actually wins the contest. “It would definitely put Rhinelander on the map in a national way,” he said. “And that would not only be great for RHS, but for the entire area as well.”