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The Bell Game

Photo of the 1952 Rhinelander Hodags with the Bell Trophy
Courtesy of Katie Nehls
Photo of the 1952 Rhinelander Hodags with the Bell Trophy

The Bell Game. This infamous gridiron meeting of the Antigo Red Robins and the Rhinelander Hodag football teams is well known to the Northwoods. The rivalry goes back to at least 1919 when the scores of the games began to be published. The teams have fought over the coveted Bell Trophy for nearly nine decades, a tradition that continues annually.

To tell the story of the Bell Game we need to go back to 1903, when Gene Shepard, discoverer of the Hodag, commissioned Frank Sayner of the Rhinelander Boat Company to build a ship. Not just any boat, a magnificent 61’ foot pleasure cruiser. The 30 horse power, gas powered craft was mocked up to look like an old stern wheeled paddle boat. The ship had cabins, a bathroom, and a galley. It was christened the S.S. Hodag, complete with a fierce Hodag statue on it’s bow, and shining brass bell on it’s wheelhouse deck. Gene intended to take the craft down the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

Unfortunately due to the boats size, it was unable to negotiate the many dams and boulder strewn areas of the Wisconsin River, and was relegated to puttering around Rhinelander’s Boom Lake for a time before being beached along the shore. Years went by as the grand ship rotted away, the victim of local children and their imagined pirate adventures, and much of the ship’s items were stolen or vandalized. The ships bell was eventually salvaged and tucked away at the old Shepard residence called The Pines, near the park that bears the Shepard name. The only other item known to have been rescued, some silverware, is now held at the Rhinelander Historical Society.

Decades later, the Antigo and Rhinelander High School sports rivalry grew. In the 1930s writers from the respective Antigo and Rhinelander Daily Newspapers traded literary jabs at each other over the games. Behind the insults were Sports Editor Buster Snyder and writer John Tradewell from Antigo, and Sports Editor George Craig and Editor Jack Corey of Rhinelander. Reading the sports reports from those days you would think the sports rivalry was personal between these men, but in reality, they were all friends outside of the print shop.

Together they had been considering starting a football trophy game between the Red Robins, then called the Antigo Ants, and Rhinelander Hodags. First they petitioned the Chicago Northwestern Railroad, who’s headquarters were in Antigo, for a bell or whistle that could be used, but were met with no reply.

Jack Corey recalled Gene Shepard’s infamous paddle wheeler, as he had seen the ships remains on the east shore of Boom lake just north of the original water pumping station. George Craig and Corey paid a visit to Genes widow Carrie Shepard, who was still living at the Pines, and inquired about the ships old bell. It was dug out of the top floor of the Shepard barn, covered in years of dust, and rock scratches from kids clanging it while it was still on the boats deck. Tarnished and forlorn, it was about to be given a new lease on life.

Jack took the bell to the best brass polishers in the area, the Rhinelander Fire Department, who were just as good at keeping brass equipment, and trim on their fire trucks shining, as they were at putting out fires. After it was cleaned up, the Rhinelander high school shop class teacher Mr. Rumsey built a stand and placard board for the once again proud bell.

The Bell was taken to Antigo for the first official Bell Game on November 1st, 1935, where the Hodags won 19 to 13. The bell was rang with police escort all the way back to Rhinelander where it was put on display at the school. It’s yoke painted green and a placard memorializing the game was added. Scores from several previous years were also included on the bells backboard to give it a sense of historical authenticity, the rivalry having proceeded the trophy.

After 88 years, the Bell Game carries on the history, tradition, and legacy of Gene Shepard, and one of the Northwoods best sports rivalries. Antigo has won the Bell 56 times, to Rhinelander’s 30, with 2 ties on record.

The 89th Bell Game is scheduled for Friday, September 15th at 7pm, a home game for Rhinelander, where they will have a chance to return the Bell, currently held by Antigo, back to the Home of the Hodag.

This is Kerry Bloedorn with A Northwoods Moment in History on WXPR

Sources: Various Rhinelander Daily News, and Antigo Daily News articles from the 1930s. Jack Corey’s Scrapbook 1985, Jeremy Mayo Northwoods River News Article 2021

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Kerry Bloedorn joined WXPR in 2022 as the host of A Northwoods Moment in History. A local historian, Director of Pioneer Park Historical Complex for the City of Rhinelander and writer for The New North Magazine, he loves digging into the past and sharing his passion for history with the Northwoods community.