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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Happy Birthday, Gene Shepard!

This weekend marks the birthday of Wisconsin's most famous practical joker, Eugene Shepard (1854-1923).

Shepard began cruising Wisconsin forests for lumber companies as a teenager in 1870. Over the next four decades, he mapped and assessed the market value of vast holdings of forest lands for lumber companies, making and losing more than one fortune. He was equally at home with lumber barons and Ojibwe elders, and spoke both of their languages. His plat books of Oneida, Vilas and other counties were accepted as the official maps, and he is thought to have named more than 200 northern Wisconsin lakes. He was a first-class surveyor, upright businessman, and flawless cartographer who, paradoxically, was also an imaginative liar, a heavy drnker, and a blatant plagiarist.

On Oct. 28, 1893, Shepard wrote an illustrated column for the Rhinelander newspaper describing how he had captured a live hodag. This ferocious beast had terrified novice lumberjacks for years. It supposedly had horns on its head, large bulging eyes, terrible claws, and a line of sharp spikes ran down the ridge of its back. Although it preferred to eat snapping turtles, it was said not to disdain human flesh when sufficiently hungry. Veteran loggers all knew it was a myth, but the general public was more gullible.

In August of 1896, to spark interest in the first Oneida Co. Fair, Shepard agreed to exhibit a live hodag the following week. He and his friend Luke Kearney crafted one from sculpted wood, cowhide, and cattle horns, and displayed it in a darkened stall. Hundreds of people paid to see the famous beast, which was obscured by curtains, moved by hidden strings, and accompanied by frightening noises. Observers were only admitted momentarily, ostensibly for their own safety.

The hoax was entirely successful. The capture and display of a hodag was covered in a lumber trade journal, and spread from there to newspapers as far away as Philadelphia, often being reported as an authentic scientific discovery. Shepard exhibited it at other fairs that fall and at his Rhinelander home, finally admitting it was a hoax sometime before 1900.

That didn't slow the stream of visitors, though. Tourists still wanted to see the hodag -- not because it was a newly discovered animal, but because it had been such a successful hoax.

In later years Shepard opened a resort in Vilas County. He led his guests from the big city into the forest to find "perfumed moss" (which he had scented the previous night from a jar) and enticed anglers onto the lake by making mechanical fish jump in the distance. He also said he invented Paul Bunyan, but given his reputation for tall tales and his frequent blatant disregard of the truth, this claim is not generally accepted.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on March 20, 2008

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