Legendary Hodag to make triumphant return to county fair
Gene Shepard is at it again! Well, at least the modern-day version of the iconic Hodag mastermind is.
It was nearly 116 years ago, in the autumn of 1896, that the original Shepard, a notorious entrepreneur, businessman and noted prankster, and a group of lumberjacks surprised a Hodag in its den and asphyxiated the monster with a heavy dose of chloroform. Shepard then transported the Hodag to the Oneida County Fairgrounds. Days before the opening of Oneida County’s first fair, Shepard announced that he would be exhibiting his recently captured beast.
According to the book “Long Live the Hodag!” by Kurt Kortenhof, the Hodag, displayed near the entrance gate of the fair proved the event’s main attraction. On Monday and Tuesday, the first two days of the fair, “the tent was filled with a crowd of curious people throughout the day.” On Wednesday, “a large number of spectators gave up their dimes to see this strange animal and hear its history as told by Eugene Shepard himself.”
Entering a dimly lit tent, and separated from the beast by a curtain and a good distance, the fair-goers witnessed the beast move and growl. Very few left the fair grounds not believing in the authenticity of Shepard’s Hodag. From this introduction the Hodag and its boastful owner toured county fairs and even the Wisconsin State Fair in Madison. In this capacity the Hodag attracted thousands of curious spectators and brought a disproportionate amount of attention to a small frontier community in the uppermost regions of the Wisconsin River Valley.
Now, more than a century later, another well-known Rhinelander businessman and entrepreneur, Jerry Shidell, is hoping to recreate Shepard’s magic at the 2012 Oneida County Fair. Shidell, playing Shepard, and his assistant, Steve Richardson, will again offer fair-goers the opportunity to get up close and personal to the Hodag.
Shidell, a former Rhinelander mayor and local history enthusiast who’s played the role of Shepard at various events for the last decade, said the opportunity to re-enact Shepard’s role in the first county fair will be a fun and intriguing experience. He said he and Richardson, along with another local history buff, Mike Skubal and Nicolet College Theatre Director Jim Nuttall, have met off and on for months to perfect the attraction.
“We’ve actually talked about doing something like this ever since Mike wrote his play about the Hodag about 10 years ago,” said Shidell. “We kind of got together a few months ago and decided to give it a go for this year. The whole act started out as a pretty simple idea, and escalated from there.”
Shidell admitted his representation of Shepard is “very politically correct and family-friendly” compared to the real-life version of the lumberman.
“The real Shepard, while energetic and innovative, was also a drunk, very vulgar and a womanizer-not a real great guy,” said Shidell. “He did know how to flip on his ‘showman’ side, though, and that’s what we’re using for this attraction.”
Here’s how it works: Shidell and Shepard will be out in the fair crowd performing their best “snake oil” sales pitches to hawk “Hodag Magic Elixir” a bottle of water that is “guaranteed to cure all your ills,” according to Shepard’s character. Anyone purchasing the elixir (really a traditional bottle of water with a special souvenir label) for $1 gets a free pass to see the Hodag. If you don’t want the elixir, that’s OK…admission is just a quarter. Once you enter the tent, that’s where the magic, and the mystery, begins.
“Gene Shepard charged a dime to see the Hodag in 1896, so we’re talking about some pretty substantial inflation,” joked Shidell. “He did make more than $1,000 at one of the fairs back then, though, so he must have been doing something right.”
Shidell said that all the funds raised throughout the fair will be donated, split evenly between the fair itself and the Oneida County Humane Society (“To show people that the Hodag is now a friend to animals,” joked Shepard/Shidell.)
Obviously, the Hodag was eventually discovered to be an elaborate hoax, as Kortenhof wrote, its body a carved stump covered with an ox hide; its horns and spikes derived from oxen and cattle; its movement controlled by wires; and its growl supplied by Shepard’s sons hidden in the monster’s lair. This discovery, however, took nothing away from the Hodag’s popularity. People from across the state and region continued to travel up the Wisconsin to Rhinelander to view Shepard’s concoction. Spurred by Shepard’s original showmanship, and the general public’s love of mystery and suspense, not to mention a little campy humor, the Hodag continued to gain popularity. By the 1920s, an extremely popular postcard portraying the Hodag’s capture circulated throughout the region, and can still be found today. Soon Rhinelander became known as the Hodag city, and its inhabitants continue to proudly tout its unique identity, and the piece of local legend on which it was based.
“You just don’t see old-time, campy sideshows as a part of county fairs anymore,” said Shidell. “That’s why we think this is going to be so much fun. We have one of the greatest, most iconic images in the world associated with this town, and it was originally a sideshow act. The whole idea is fun.”
Editor’s note: The first show will take place Thursday, Aug. 2, at 5:30 p.m., following the opening of the 2012 Oneida County Fair. For additional show times, and to see the rest of the schedule, look for the Oneida County Fair insert in this week’s Star Journal.