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November 19, 2019

Jamie Taylor/River News

In this River News file photo, a young girl sits on a Hodag statue during the 2019 Fourth of July event at the Rondele Ranch in the town of Cassian. In the background is a rendering of the Hodag, Rhinelanderís mascot for over 100 years.
Jamie Taylor/River News

In this River News file photo, a young girl sits on a Hodag statue during the 2019 Fourth of July event at the Rondele Ranch in the town of Cassian. In the background is a rendering of the Hodag, Rhinelanderís mascot for over 100 years.
11/2/2019 7:30:00 AM
Hodag heritage hubbub continues as council votes to negotiate with Michigan community

Heather Schaefer
Associate Editor

The Rhinelander community's deep affinity for its iconic mascot, the legendary Hodag, reached new heights this week in response to reports that a community in Michigan is interested in holding its own hodag festival.

As citizens responded to polls on the subject conducted by the River News and WJFW Channel 12, the Rhinelander Common Council voted to enter into "friendly negotiations" with the Michigan community and Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Lauren Sackett announced the chamber board had voted to pursue legal protection of the Hodag legend as intellectual property.

As the week came to a close, city administrator Daniel Guild issued a lengthy press release "regarding recent discussions on the Hodag and its historical and cultural association with the Rhinelander community and its heritage," in which he attempted to shame the TV station over its coverage of the story and went so far as to call on the local business community to "consider this company's actions and judge them accordingly when considering their future purchases."

The tumult began after Guild made an announcement during the Common Council's Oct. 14 meeting advising that city officials had been approached by representatives from a community in Michigan interested in holding a hodag festival and possibly partnering with Rhinelander in a sort of "sister city" arrangement.

"The invitation also presents some concern. The Hodag is obviously a huge part of our community's heritage. It's part of our brand; it's part of our identity," Guild said at the time. "There is some concern that I have, and with some others that I have spoken with, that if this brand gets out, that we will never be able to put it back in the bottle and claim that it's ours. And, if we do want to keep it in a bottle and protect it, claim that it's ours, what are we doing to protect that brand, to protect the identity, to protect the legend and the history as being something exclusive to this community as opposed to anyone who could just co-opt the legend."

A quick primer on the Hodag legend: In 1893, local land surveyor and infamous prankster Gene Shepard claimed to have seen a fearsome green beast roaming local forests in search of white bulldogs. Eventually, Shepard was forced to admit his monster story was an elaborate hoax but the community embraced the creature as its mascot anyway. More than 100 years later, the Hodag remains the mascot for Rhinelander sports teams and is used by many local businesses as an identifier.

After hearing Guild's report on the inquiry from Michigan, the alderpersons asked for time to consider how to respond.

Two weeks later, during her regular report to the council, Sackett advised the alderpersons that the chamber's board of trustees had recently voted to pursue protection of the Hodag. She noted that the chamber has a state trademark on its version of the mythical beast and is now pursuing further trademarking at its own expense.

City attorney Steve Sorenson stated that the only way to protect the Hodag from being used in other states would be to file with the national registry.

"You should also know it's not cheap," he added.

After Guild stated that he was "still looking for guidance" as to what to tell the Michigan community, alderman David Holt suggested that Rhinelander as "the keeper of the legend" take a friendly stance toward the Michigan community.

"I think that we should simply embrace that they want to enjoy this legend, and by the simple act of asking us, they have placed Rhinelander at the center of it, and I think that's more valuable than an actual trademark," he said.

The council ultimately voted to direct Guild to reinitiate contact with the Michigan community and learn more about its intentions. Aldermen George Kirby and Tom Kelly voted against Holt's motion.

Late Wednesday evening, in response to social media chatter on the subject and a broadcast report, Guild issued his press release.

"A community in lower Michigan, which has a heritage rich with forestry, logging, and lumberjacks, not dissimilar to Rhinelander, also has folklore in its past regarding the hodag (please note the intentional use of the small "h")," Guild wrote. "This community is in the process of organizing a fall festival for 2020 and they are also considering using the hodag as part of the theme for their event. About a month ago, a representative from this community reached out to Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lauren Sackett. This gentleman indicated his community's desire to establish a relationship with Rhinelander in advance of their festival. The specifics of what such a relationship would look like is currently unclear."

Guild went to write that his "advice and reports" on this issue have generated considerable discussion on social media recently.

"There is a lot of misunderstanding about the recent discussion with the Common Council and the direction they gave to me on the evening of Monday, October 28. It is my desire to clarify this discussion, the Council's directive, and what next steps the City will be taking," he continued. "First, the City does not, and has never had any legal control of the Hodag, its story, its image, etc. What limited legal ownership does exist is currently held with the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce. Chamber members are allowed to use the tradename and trademark image of the Hodag as part of their Chamber membership privileges. The Chamber announced that their organization will begin looking into further legal protections for the Hodag. As a result, the City does not plan to be investigating more into this topic. If anyone has any questions about the legality of the Hodag, and the use of its image and legends, please contact Executive Director Lauren Sackett at the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce. All City staff and elected officials have been advised to do the same. Second, I asked the Council for direction on whether and to what degree I should dialogue with the community from Michigan about their interest in using the Hodag. I was directed to resume contact, learn more about their intentions, and to be 'friendly' with them. That is the sole extent of the directive the Council gave to me. I will be contacting the Michigan community later this week. I will hear what their representative has to say. I will be reporting back to the Common Council on my conversation. After this sequence of event are completed, I will refer the Michigan community to other community institutions and stakeholders for further discussion. Until the Common Council provides clear guidance and direction on this topic to the contrary, the City does not plan to be expending time and resources on this issue. The City has no legal authority to stop another community outside of Wisconsin from using the Hodag. The City does not have the authority to give the Hodag away either. The Hodag (please note the intentional use of the capital "H") and its heritage belong to the greater Rhinelander community, which transcends the City as one of its local government agencies, and the political boundaries of the City of Rhinelander. Whether it is deemed advantageous for the Rhinelander community to establish a relationship with the Michigan community is a decision for more stakeholders than just the Common Council and those of us who work here in City Hall."

Guild ended his release with a pointed statement criticizing the television station for reporting the purported name of the Michigan community. He also suggested the local business community reconsider advertising with the station.

"Earlier this evening, a Rhinelander news agency suggested they learned the name of the community in Michigan and reported it. I will not confirm whether this is the correct community or not at this time. However, I want to make it clear that not revealing the name of the Michigan community was entirely intentional so that local leaders could consider these questions before individuals decided to take it upon themselves to have these discussions while styling themselves dishonestly as a community ambassador," he wrote.

Guild went so far as to accuse the news outlet of acting outside "our community's values".

"For a local news media outlet to attempt to out this information for the benefit of a one-time news story versus the considering the issues regarding protecting the identity and heritage of the community for 100+ years was incredibly short-sighted," he wrote. "It was not consistent with our community's values. I hope that local businesses which utilize this news agency for advertising will consider this company's actions and judge them accordingly when considering their future purchases. Speaking for myself, I certainly find the behavior bereft of moral clarity and community pride. Shame on them."

Sackett, who was interviewed as part of the WJFW story, told the River News Thursday she did not have an issue with the broadcast report.

"The portion I did with Channel 12 yesterday I felt was accurately represented, in terms of what I was a part of," Sackett said. "I don't think it was ever their intention to put a negative spin on the story. If that's how (Guild's) taking it, I'm not sure. But I did not have a bad experience with Channel 12 when I was doing that story yesterday."

The television station management issued a statement on its Facebook page Thursday standing by their reporter and his reporting.

"Newswatch 12 stands by Mr. Goin's report as an accurate representation of the facts and an important piece of journalism that allows the people of Rhinelander to discuss what becomes of a symbol that means so much to them," the statement reads.

Consistent with our previous reporting on this subject, the River News has chosen not to report the name of the Michigan community at this time. This decision is in no way a reflection on the television station's editorial decision with respect to this subject. The River News is merely exercising its own editorial judgment.

Heather Schaefer may be reached at River News reporter Jamie Taylor contributed to this report.

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