On the banks of Mill Race Branch, a tributary of Bolin Creek off Hillsborough Road, not too far from the coal ash pit upon which the Chapel Hill Police Department sits, new development was coming. It was the summer of 1995, and as with so many new developments in Chapel Hill, a controversy was brewing.

This controversy involved not the number of houses, affordability, or any of the other issues we so commonly grapple with. Along the banks of Bolin Creek, just off Bolinwood Drive, a large concrete hippopotamus had watched over traffic from the woods edge for years. But around July 4th of 1995, the hippo … disappeared.

I was a law student at the time, and a lifelong resident of Chapel Hill. The hippo had always been there, so far as I was aware.

Black and white photo of a concrete hippopotamus in a creek
This hippo disappeared.

It seemed to emerge each Fall, as the leafy canopy surrounding it receded. Each spring, the leafy branches would again cause most of us to forget about it for a season or two.

A friend lived in the Stratford Hill Apartments, and almost daily trips over that way meant many friendly waves to the hippo. But one day, the hippo was gone. We were not really aware of the new development coming (Mill Race), and my friend and I speculated for a few weeks about how a 1000 pound concrete hippo could … go missing.

Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Missing Concrete Hippopotamus

I finally decided to do something. I wrote a letter to the editor of the Chapel Hill News. My letter sparked a little curiosity, and local reporter Anne Blythe started digging. The Chapel Hill Planning Department didn’t know what happened to it. Nor did the developer, Rolf Sass. Eunice Brock, a real estate agent, put up a $200 reward.

The hippo was a beloved hidden treasure of Chapel Hill. If you knew, you knew. It was unassuming, half hidden, and if you knew about it, you were instantly… Chapel Hill. Kids played on it, even though it was on private property. It wasn’t officially Chapel Hill, but it was quintessentially Chapel Hill.

Then, mysteriously and simultaneously, ransom photos showed up at the Chapel Hill News and the Chapel Hill Herald. Ah, the days of multiple local print media. In unmarked envelopes, with no accompanying note, was a photo of the hippo. A masked man in a hardhat had a “word bubble” in his mouth that read “Back off or the hippo buys it.” In the photo delivered to the Chapel Hill News, an oversized fake pistol is pointed at the hippo. The Chapel Hill Herald received a similar photo, but the man was holding a jackhammer.

Someone claimed to see a hippo on a flatbed truck. A clerk at Frosty’s, out in Chatham County, said she saw it go by. The artist who created the hippo, Bob Gaston, was then living in Atlanta. He had also designed the pig on top of Crook’s Corner, the penguins outside Wellspring (now Whole Foods), and several animals (including a great pink octopus and a rhino) at Cam Hill’s old house, which is now a university parking lot at the corner of Cameron and Merritt Mill. (Cam would go on to become a member of the Chapel Hill Town Council.)

Old timers might have been able to connect Cam and Gerry Barrett, who sold the Mill Race property to the developer.

At some point, like any good reporter, Anne Blythe figured out that Gerry had reclaimed “his” hippo. He had gotten a crane and a flatbed and just acted like he belonged. Went over and hoisted it, and took it to his Chatham County property, where it remains today.

Newspaper clipping