Welcome to the weird winter wonderland of Wisconsin, where hodags frolic in the snow, the notorious sideshow gaff known as the Minnesota Iceman may have actually been a Wisconsin bigfoot, an “Icehenge” appears on Rock Lake, and a rivalry between competing ice companies escalates into all out war on the Milwaukee River.
Ed Gein’s “house of horrors” after his arrest in the winter of 1957
I was in the crowd when Rob Zombie took the stage at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin on April 5th, 1999 (performing with Korn on the “Rock is Dead” tour) and announced that it was “great to be back in the land of serial killers and cannibals.”
I was 18 years old, and that moment may have been the first time I realized that in Wisconsin, we grew up surrounded by a uniquely high concentration of weird and deranged that has become inextricably entwined with our DNA.
I may have even been a bit proud of it.
Wisconsin was more than just beer, football and reckless, wanton use of the word “ope.”
We make headlines for things like having 12 of the country’s top 20 drunkest cities. We wear bright yellow foam cheese hats to sporting events. The world gapes in horror at the customary “cannibal sandwich” which has recently prompted warnings from health department officials about the dangers of consuming raw meat.
But there is a rich layer of folklore, strange history, oddities, curiosities and mystery lurking just beneath the surface, from spiritualism to UFOs to bizarre creatures possibly conjured from the very depths of Hell.
Not to mention, we have no shortage of eccentric weirdos.
This ongoing series will showcase humorous, disturbing or just plain weird Wisconsin facts and stories to reveal why Wisconsin should be one of the top travel destinations for curious explorers and dark tourists.
Let me be your guide as we explore the first four (winter-themed) curiosities in this series:
Rock Lake Icehenge
Rock Lake Icehenge
Rock Lake is known for its elusive underwater pyramids and a series of lake monster sightings from in the 1800s.
So when a Stonehenge made of ice appeared on the frozen lake one day in 2015, the megalithic sculpture was just par for the course.
Icehenge was the creation of five friends from Lake Mills who found some antique ice cutting tools and decided to try it out.
“We got the idea that maybe it would be fun to see what it was like to make living a hundred years ago,” Kevin Lehner told WISN news.
Like turn-of-the-century icemen, Lehner, along with friends Drew McHenry, Quinn Williams, Alec Niedringhaus, and Patrick Shields, cut the 200-300 pound blocks of ice out of the lake and lifted them into place by hand, using snow and water as mortar to hold them in place.
The sculpture brought visitors to Lake Mills from all around the state, to McHenry’s disappointment.
“Why don’t you want people to see it?” WISN news anchor Mike Anderson asked McHenry.
“I don’t much like people,” McHenry said. “I liked it better when it was a secret.”
Milwaukee Ice War of 1901
Wisconsin Lakes harvesting ice from the Milwaukee River
Ice was big business in Wisconsin in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Ice was harvested by hand, piece by piece, from rivers and lakes and stored in massive, insulated icehouses to be sold throughout the summer.
Ice was delivered to homes and businesses 7 days a week. Butchers depended on it to keep meat fresh. Breweries needed to keep their lager cold. Farmers needed it for their milk tanks. Funeral homes had bodies to keep cool.
In Milwaukee, competition was so fierce that two companies actually engaged in a six-week “Ice War” in the winter of 1900-01 that culminated in a brawl on the ice of the Milwaukee River.
Wisconsin Lakes Ice and Cartage Co. dominated the Southeastern Wisconsin ice industry at the turn of the century. The company, founded by German immigrant John Kopmeier, employed 300 workers, had more than 500 delivery horses, and was no doubt responsible for the majority of the city’s 300,000+ tons of ice harvested annually.
Things got heated when Pike & North Lakes Ice Company opened on a nearby lake with the intention of dominating the Milwaukee market.
“There was, however, a small strip of land between North Lake’s new icehouse and the railroad siding,” historian Carl Swanson writes. “Someone, probably acting under the direction of the Wisconsin Lakes Company, bought this land and refused to grant North Lakes permission to cross the property, which it had to do to ship out its ice.”
That’s when the Julius Goll showed up – a steam-powered boat captained by a man named Biggs, with an ice-breaking prow, boiler plate-reinforced hull, and a brass band to accompany its journey as it smashed through the ice fields.
Freeing the Julius Goll from an ice shelf on the Milwaukee River during the Ice War, 1901
“The Wisconsin Lakes Company was certain the North Lakes firm hired the boat,” Swanson says, “but the captain of the Julius Goll, a man named Biggs, told reporters he was trying to establish an off-season river excursion service between the North Avenue dam and the Blatz Park beer garden, two miles upstream. Hence, he added, the reason for the band.”
“The band played on, but the husky youths on board were far more than excursionists,” Lee E. Lawrence wrote in a 1965 article for Wisconsin Magazine. “They fought off the attacks of the men of the Wisconsin Lakes Company, pried the vessel free when it stuck on ice too thick to be borne down and broken by the special prow, cut heavy strands of barbed wire strung from bank to bank, warded off heavy timbers studded with spikes launched by the defenders, and made patches when their armored vessel was holed. This went on for six weeks whenever the river re-froze. No more ice was cut.”
On January 20, 1901, while hundreds of spectators watched from the North Avenue Bridge and the banks of the river, Wisconsin Lakes icemen used rowboats and wood planks to protect their ice and slow the Julius Goll.
Still, the boat plowed on until later that night when it took a blow that finally did it in.
“In the early morning hours of Monday, Jan. 21, the little steamer collided hard with a thick shelf of ice, opened a hull seam, and had to call it quits,” Swanson says. “However, the boat had done so much damage that the paper said it was doubtful any further ice could be harvested that season.”
“The ice is all gone and there is nothing to fight about, so the famous ‘ice cases’ have been dismissed in police court by mutual consent,” The Journal reported. “During the excitement on the river, a hole was punched in the ‘battleship’ Julius Goll, large quantities of ice cut by the Wisconsin Lake Ice Company were destroyed, ‘Admiral’ Biggs got a broken arm, and the adherents of both sides had numerous cold baths and bruises distributed among them.”
Men pose for “North Pole expedition” photos on a mountain of scrap ice outside a Wisconsin Lakes warehouse in Milwaukee c.1900
Minnesota Iceman or Wisconsin Bigfoot?
The Minnesota Iceman with caretaker Frank Hansen
Numerous world-famous hoaxes have been born in Wisconsin (which I’ll dig up in later installments of this series) but one of the strangest cases is the controversial and erroneously named Minnesota Iceman.
The large, hairy humanoid creature toured malls and fairgrounds in the 1960s and 70s, displayed frozen in a refrigerated coffin with a glass top. The Iceman’s caretaker, Minnesota resident Frank Hansen, claimed it was found in Siberia and was the missing link between Neandertals and modern humans.
Hansen was detained once by Canadian customs officials who believed he was transporting a cadaver, and the FBI was tipped off that he may have been exhibiting a murder victim. But Hansen was never arrested or stood trial because authorities believed the Iceman was little more than a latex dummy created by the Westmore family in Hollywood.
But what was it really?
At the 2016 Milwaukee Paranormal Conference, International Cryptozoology Museum founder Loren Coleman gave an extensive presentation, which included guest speaker Terry Cullen, who had an early encounter with the Minnesota Iceman.
In 1968, Cullen was a young zoology student from Milwaukee attending the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago. Hansen was there with the Iceman, and Cullen couldn’t resist taking a peek.
Cullen said he always paid to get into those kinds of exhibits so he could learn what fakes looked like.
The Iceman was not what he was expecting.
Minnesota Iceman on the cover of Argosy magazine, May 1969
That day, he had the opportunity to closely examine what he believes was the decomposing body of a hairy hominid. To this day, he remains convinced it was authentic.
And Cullen is not alone.
After examining the body, Bernard Heuvelmans believed the Iceman was a previously unknown species of hominid. He dubbed it Homo pongoides.
“Ivan Sanderson was equally taken with the specimen,” David J. Daegling wrote in his book Bigfoot Exposed. “He would remark that through cracks in the ice he could smell the decomposition of the corpse.”
Sanderson urged a friend at the Smithsonian to investigate. When that news reached Hansen, he removed the Iceman from display. When the exhibit returned, the thing in the ice had been replaced by a fake.
“Hansen, who apparently took a much-needed vacation about the time the original went underground, verified that a switch had taken place but tap-danced around the question of his own involvement in the decision to remove the true Iceman from circulation,” Daegling says. “The two cryptozoologists insisted that they would have detected the switch even if Hansen had not been forthcoming: the latex dummy was simply not the thing they had originally examined.”
Hansen himself eventually admitted that the story of the Minnesota Iceman was a hoax. It wasn’t discovered in the seas of Siberia. It wasn’t even from Minnesota.
Hansen said he had actually encountered the creature alive in the woods of Wisconsin, and promptly shot it dead.
In 1967, the Minnesota Iceman appeared at the Wisconsin State Fair alongside other notable sideshow acts such as Big Willie, the largest alligator living in captivity, and the flickering lights of “Psychedelia” that offered to take visitors on the “trip hippies take.”
Hodags in the Snow
Drawing of a hodag by Margaret Ramsay Tryon, 1939
The hodag is the mascot of Wisconsin’s northwoods, a beast first described by newspapers in 1893 as having “the head of a frog, the grinning face of a giant elephant, thick short legs set off by huge claws, the back of a dinosaur, and a long tail with spears at the end.”
Like the tales of Paul Bunyan, hodag folklore grew out of the campfire stories of logging camps in the Rhinelander area. They were fearsome creatures born from the ashes of cremated oxen who suffered great abuse at the hands of the woodsmen.
“It was at the end of the seventh year of the cremation of an ox which had led an unusually hard life that an event was to happen, which would cast its shadow upon every man who witnessed it,” Luke Sylvester “Lake Shore” Kearney wrote in his 1928 book The Hodag and Other Tales of the Logging Camps. “As the fire died down, there slowly issued from the great pile of ashes, a mystical animal, later to be known as the hodag.”
More bizarre facts about the hodag were detailed in lumberjack legends.
In Paul Bunyan Natural History (1939) Charles E. Brown wrote that the black hodag (Bovinus spiritualis) lived in the dense swamps of the Rhinelander region, and that it “fed on mud turtles, water snakes and muskrats, but it did not disdain human flesh.”
Brown also noted that the hodag never laid down. Instead, it just leaned against trees to sleep. And the only way to capture one, according to brown, was to cut deeply into the trunk of its favorite tree.
In his 1939 book Fearsome Critters, Henry H. Tryon wrote that the hodag was a “distressingly ugly animal” that was prone to “frequent fits of bitter weeping” at its upsetting appearance.
“This fellow can’t endure being laughed at,” Tryon wrote. “When angry, he is fierce and dangerously aggressive.”
But the hodag has a weakness – lemons. Just two lemons can fend off an entire herd, Tryon claims, and the increased use of lemons in cooking is the reason why the hodag is so rare today.
“I once had a handful of the extremely rare crystallized Hodag tears,” Tryon wrote, “but an acquisitive lady friend collected them, believing them to be fine amber. She had them strung into a neck-yoke—and then went and spilled a Tom Collins on herself. Of course the lemon juice dissolved them instantly.”
The hodag was good for more than just jewelry, according to to Tryon. He writes that the poor creature’s large sabretooth-like front teeth were often used for umbrella handles, which may also account for its grumpiness.
What is a Hodag? from Explore Rhinelander
A man named Eugene Shepard became synonymous with the hodag legend in 1893.
“On this particular day, just at twilight,” Kearney wrote, “Eugene Shepherd, a naturalist of the north woods, taking his customary quiet stroll into the forest, strode down a favorite trail, breathing the fragrance of the tall pines and hemlocks. Suddenly, he became aware of an unusual odor in the air, which aroused his curiosity. On looking further through the depths of the foliage, he discovered a strange creature, so unlike anything he had ever seen before, that it was beyond description. Though a student of woodlore and of both prehistoric and other wild animals, Mr. Shepherd could not classify the monstrosity, which was gazing at him with glowing, green eyes and sniffing from nostrils of flaming hue.”
Kearney says that Shepard, trembling and speechless at this “horror of the forest,” went to the nearest village, where he rounded up men from a group called the “Ancient Order of the Reveeting Society” to help him track down and capture the beast.
“Shepard rounded up a band of brave locals to capture the monster and photograph the event,” Holly Hilgenberg wrote for CURB Magazine, “proving to all not only the beast’s existence but also the strength of Rhinelander folk. Such a task did not prove easy, as the group resorted to dynamite to kill it. The photograph of charred Hodag remains, along with Shepard and his crew, was published and the tale of the Hodag was born.
Three years later, in 1896, Shepard claimed to have captured another hodag. And this one was alive. Shedpard said he stuck a long pole with chloroform on the end into the cave where the hodag was hiding to render it unconscious.
Shepard kept this one alive and showcased it at the very first Oneida County Fair. This hodag spent years on the county fair circuit, and could be viewed in a shack behind Shepard’s home during the offseason.
News of the creature eventually reached the Smithsonian, and when researchers announced their interest in it, Shepard admitted it was a hoax and retired the Hodag.
But if it was fake, why are people still seeing it?
In the 2013 series America’s Monsters, nature artist Rodd Umlauf described his snowy encounter with a whole herd of hodags a decade earlier.
Umlauf had been snowshoeing through the frozen forests of Rhinelander one winter. That evening, he came to the top of a hill that looked out over a clearing. There, among the trunks of some dead trees jutting up from the snow, he saw a multiple horned, hairy hodags.
“Unbelievable,” Umlauf says. “I’d heard stories about the hodag, but people would just talk about one. But here there’s a group of them.”
No one had ever encountered a herd before.
Umlauf returned home and painted the scene.
Hodag painting by Rodd Umlauf
He’s not alone. Many others have seen the creature for themselves and have no doubt the old lumberjack legend still lurks in the woods of Rhinelander.
“The climactic area, the geography, the geology of the area,” witness Jerry Shidell says, “all lends itself to a creature such as the hodag thriving and existing here.”
In the 1920s, according to Kearney, there was even a man named Mike Essex of Siberia, Wisconsin who had a hodag living in a hill on his property. If you were interested in raising your own, he would happily send you a setting of precious hodag eggs.