Hutto Hutto Hippos
There’s a little town in Texas that’s put its fate in the flabby folds of a concrete hippo.
All across America, cities are engaged in a virtual arms race for increased consumer spending, tourism and new business dollars. Ailing downtown? Build an Aquarium! Ailing suburbs? Build a shopping mall! Declining attendance at sporting events? Build a new stadium! Neglected or ruined all of your natural areas? Build a theme park! The competitive doo-daddery is mind boggling and certainly not limited to elaborate capital improvements. My hometown of Tampa has, for example, spent a million dollars in the last few decades to develop dozens of marketing campaigns, with hilarious results. Actual city slogans adopted and lauded by mayors past include:
Tampa: America’s Next Great City
Tampa: What A Great Idea
Tampa: The Climate Is Right
I am Tampa, Doing My Part
(and my personal favorite)
Tampa: Not Just A Place To Work, But A Place To Be
A place to be. Why not “Tampa: It’s Where Most of Your Older Relatives Will Probably Go To Die and You’re Going to Have to Visit Them at Least Once, So We’ll See You Then?” Never mind – this isn’t about how retarded my hometown is. Rather, it’s about what happens when economic ambition meets eccentric bedlamite in the untamed wilds of small-town USA. And what happens, it turns out, is the town of Hutto, Texas.
In preparation for a recent trip to visit with dear friends in Austin, I cracked my spine-worn copy of “Eccentric America,” a book that does its absolute best to catalog the location of every Cardboard Boat Race, every museum dedicated to the history of questionable medical devices, and every building built in the shape of, say, a ham sandwich. But apart from the annual SPAMARAMA festival, which I would miss by a mere bitter month, Austin is largely free of eccentric entries. The book did, however, offer this teaser about the nearby town of Hutto:
There’s one Hippo for every 57 people in Hutto, a situation causing dissent among the town’s 5,000 residents. Eighty-seven of the huge concrete creatures adorn the sidewalks and public spaces, the result of a hippo-crazed mayor’s obsession with the beasts and his determination to bring tourism to Hutto. Half the townsfolk are embarrassed by the bulbous figures; the other half takes delight in decorating them and dressing them up. The Texas state legislature recently declared Hutto the “Hippo Capital of the World.”
When a book, TV or hallucinating wino tells me something like “There’s this one town…crazy for Hippos!” you may assume that my attention is undivided. Even better, this one single attraction captures the holy trinity of eccentric Americana: Inappropriate concrete animals, townspeople in conflict, and the blessing of a state legislature that is obviously mentally unstable. It should be no surprise that I made time for this trip, bobbing through Central Texas in a terrible little compact Pontiac towards Hutto – A town so small that I missed the business district exit not once, not twice, but thrice.
Hutto’s Main Street is all of four blocks long, shaded by the hippo-crested water tower that looms over your entire stay. Like all small towns with an important story to tell, Hutto’s chosen to broadcast the legend of the hippos with a poorly drawn mural on the side of a squat little cinder-block building. Like this::
I know what you’re thinking and I agree – this explanation is terribly unsatisfying. How did the hippo get loose? Was it just the one rogue hippo? And what about the “hippo-crazed mayor?” What’s his goddamn problem? Incidentally, because I know that you’re also wondering what’s been cut off on the right edge of the photo, it says “Olde Tyme Days Held the 3rd Saturday in October.” No I did not find out what exactly happens during Olde Tyme Days, but I suspect that it involves costumes, someone’s antique Buick, and a shitload of fudge.
On the other side of this wall was the Hutto Chamber of Commerce, closed for the day, leaving me nowhere to turn but the townspeople themselves. As promised by my guidebook, the town is peppered with miniature concrete hippos – Seven or eight of them on Main Street and many dozen more in the yards of private residences. I’ll be the first to admit that my expectations headed into this adventure were impossibly high, so I was initially disappointed. I expected to see a swarming mass of hippos, huge hippos, EVERYWHERE, surreally grinning and marching through town like pink elephants through Fantasia. Instead, I was greeted with a smattering of goofy, oddly decorated little lawn ornaments and crudely drawn hippoglyphs.
And then I remembered the most intriguing part of the Hutto story – half the town hates these things. Disappointment gave way to hope as I immediately went looking for a cranky old hippo hater to interview at length. It took all of five minutes to find a lifelong Huttite, let’s call him Sam, bespectacled, sun-weathered and suspicious of me.
Say, my name’s Sloan and-
No, SLOAN, yeah it’s an odd one.
(two steps backward)
Ha ha! Yes. So, I’m not from ’round here, but I was wondering about the hippos. Do the-
Sorry, yeah I heard that some people don’t like ’em.
That’s a polite way a puttin’ it.
At this point, Sam settles into retelling a story that he’s told countless times to children, grandchildren and now the biggest west-coast-liberal sissy to ever blow through the speck of Hutto while trying to drawl phrases like “howdy” and “’round here.” I learned that there was indeed a circus train that came near town in 1915, stopping long enough to allow the hippo’s escape and brief residence in Cottonwood Creek. When the handlers tried to wrangle the hippo back to the train, it threw up a wicked hippo fuss, nearly killing one man and substantially wounding several others. People were so captivated by the spectacle (It’s 1915. In Hutto.) that they named the town school’s athletic teams “The Hippos.” It stuck, and the name has actually gotten better with time, as the modern high school now brands its sports teams as The Hustlin’ Hippos. “Look out Larry! That thing’s pissed off and it’s hustlin’ this way!”
At one point in the recent past, the mayor of Hutto did in fact go hippo happy, in the hopes of restoring some of that olde tyme hippo fuss and excitement to the town, drawing new business, residents and idiots like me. To his credit, he probably did more to raise the profile of Hutto than anyone else in its history, even if he did so to the chagrin of half the town’s existing population. Sam was mostly restrained in his description of the circumstances surrounding the latest wave of hippo fever, though his dissatisfaction was made very clear with the use of words like “lunatic,” “knucklehead” and “good riddance.”
Not having grown up in the loving but oppressive embrace of a small town, I have a soft spot for places like Hutto. It manages to be charming in spite of the hippos, with plenty of free parking, cheap ice cream, well-oiled swing sets and an understated sense of humor, evidenced best by the plump little hippo that sits beaming in front of the local Curves franchise – A fitness center that markets extensively to plus-sized women. Note to self: Retirement in Hutto? Probably not, but it beats the pants off of America’s Next Great City.
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