Deep in the woods of Rhinelander lives a mysterious beast. He's rarely seen but has been around for more than a century.
When you think of Your Town Rhinelander, you think of the legendary Hodag, but the history of the creature is not as well known.
Rhinelander may not have become what it is today without the Hodag lending a hand, er claw.
The Hodag is the brainchild of Gene Shepard, who moved to the northwoods city from New London as a young man in the late 19th century.
According to a passage he wrote in a book on Paul Bunyon his daughter wrote, Shepard had done a lot of traveling but it was Rhinelander's woodland beauty that captured his heart.
As a way to influence others to experience the scenery he fell in love with, he came up with a story. He told friends he'd encountered a Hodag in the woods; it was 7 feet long, with horns, spikes and sharp claws.
For awhile, the known practical jokester had people going, but even after they discovered the Hodag wasn't real, their Hodag enchantment was.
Lara Reed, the executive director of the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce says Shepard took his myth to the next level, visiting county fairs with his Hodag replica.
"He would try to convince people at the fairs that this animal from Northern Wisconsin was real," she said.
His original goal of drawing people into the area worked, and ever since citizens and visitors have been charmed by the green beast.
Today, the Hodag's image is everywhere. Dozens of statues can be found throughout the city, and several businesses sell Hodag merchandise. Some businesses are even named after the Hodag.
"So many businesses have decided to use the name, we have tons of events in the area that have a Hodag in it, even this past summer we saw Scooby Doo had an episode," Reed said.
She says a few of the producers of the kids show were from Chicago, a key marketing region for Rhinelander, they had heard of the Hodag and decided to write it into the show, bringing even more notoriety to the beast.
Each summer thousands of people crowd the grounds of the Hodag Country Music Festival where big name acts entertain for a week.
The Hodag is not only Rhinelander's pride and joy, it's marketing gold.
Reed says normally communities have to work hard to find a brand as rewarding as this green monster, but the Hodag has been built into the community since the beginning.
"I think absolutely it's a benefit for us and keeps people talking and when you're in the business of attracting people to the area that's always a great thing," she said.
The Hodag has also evolved over the years, beginning as a ferocious beast, but then developing a softer side.
"The poor Hodag got a bad rap when he was first created," she said. There was a story and the legend is that he would eat white bulldogs and so that's maybe a little scary sometimes."
An author and graphic artist, Jill Kuczmarski, created Happy the Hodag books, where the beast is best friends with a bulldog named buddy.
A recent Chamber brochure describes the creature in a more relatable way; his tears make the best lemonade, he enjoys a fresh Wisconsin fish fry, and when he turns his head a certain way he broadcasts the Milwaukee Brewers.
"You never know why some stories catch on and others might not but I think it's a lot of fun and we have a lot of fun and we've really embraced it," Reed said.
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