The Hodag Chronicles: Branding and merchandising in small town America

Usually, I write about media on this blog. I have posted short critical essays, technology reviews, and other academic style work. One thing I have never done is to treat it as a travelog or as a diary. In fact, I started a different blog on Tumblr to share travel pictures, just to keep the personal and the professional aspects of my life separate.

Coming to Rhinelander changed that. It’s a small town in northern Wisconsin, with a population of roughly 8,000 and some inhabitants. Rhinelander is the county seat of Oneida county. It is sorrounded by lush forests and lakes, which are great for those of us who love outdoor activities, like hiking and camping. Yet, to me, what makes Rhinelander really special is a mythical creature known as the Hodag.

Now, if you don’t know what a Hodag is, you are not alone. I had never heard of this creature until I checked into a hotel in Rhinelander. The Hodag is listed as the town’s legend, but more importantly, as the town symbol. Indeed, the Hodag is important enough to have several statues. The biggest one is displayed prominently on the lawn of the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce. This is video I shot of that statue.

It’s safe to say that no one in Rhinelander thinks this beast is real, much to the chagrin of cryptozoologists everywhere. In fact, all the promotional literature about the Hodag explains how Gene Shepard, a logger, created the Hodag as a hoax. This happened in 1896, when Shepard conviced several of his friends that such a creature existed. He had a picture of it, and the evidence was convincing enough to enlist a posse to hunt down the Hodag. As the story goes, the group tracked the Hodag and tried to capture him alive. They ended up killing him, and bringing back the remains to Rhinelander. There is even a photograph, recreating the event.
This picture became a popular postcard in the 1920s (Kortenhof, 2006).

The Hodag also became a popular side show attraction, once Mr. Shepard claimed to have captured the creature alive. He exhibited it at the Oneida county fair, to much success. In fact, the creature brought a lot of attention to Rhinelander. Today, you can consider the Hodag as the town’s brand. There is a Hodag park, a Hodag music festival, a highschool team, and even an entire promotional campaign, built around the Hodag.

This is a great example of branding, and I could not help but wonder what else was out there, bearing the image of a Hodag. There’s the obvious array of knicknacks, plush toys, and t-shirts, which you can buy at grocery stores, Walmart, and the Hodag market place. Here are two videos I shot at the Hodag Market place, and Trig’s Grocery Store.

Now, these things are to be expected, but what I find more interesting are the Hodag statues, which can be found around town. All but one of the statues I have found are prominently displayed in front of business establishments, which just reiterates the connection between the town’s business community, branding, the town’s identity, promotion, and merchandising. The only exception is the Hodag at the public library, which is the only one associated with a non commercial building.

I have to say, furthermore, that none of these statues are the same. One of them, at the Rhinelander Cafe and Pub, has a map of Wisconsin, and a map of the United States painted on its sides. Another pays homage to the troops, and is painted appropriately in camouflage. There is also a Cowboy Hodag, at a BP gas station, and one carve entirely out of a single log, which can be seen outside a real state agency. Finally, there is an entire collection of Hodags at tje Rhinelander Logging Museum.

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Road side attractions are part of the American landscape. Many small towns have them, and it is not uncommon for them to use such attractions as a way of branding themselves. The Hodag allows Rhinelander to build up a unique identity, which for a town this size, or any town, for that matter, is actually quite important. Indeed, the Hodag seems to be more important than John Heisman in this town. Heisman is buried here, and his name is well known to anyone who follows American College footbal, as a trophy is named after him. Yet when you drive into Rhinelander on Highway 8, one of the first signs you see is not for Heisman. It is for the Hodag.

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