O ld Rip, the "horny toad", put Eastland County and the county seat of the same name on the map back in 1928. Folks are still amazed and amused by the critter's tale.
The story began in 1897, when a horned lizard (the animal's proper designation) was placed in the cornerstone of the county's third courthouse. When that edifice was demolished in February 1928 to make way for the current Art Deco model, the cornerstone was opened.
According to published accounts, a crowd of three thousand showed up to see the opening of the old building's time capsule. Much to everyone's surprise, when the marble box was opened the interred lizard was still alive 31 years later.
Despite skeptics who questioned how the critter could have survived, the lizard was dubbed Old Rip (after Rip Van Winkle) and became an instant celebrity. Town folks took him on a tour of the nation that included a stop in Washington D.C. to meet President Calvin Coolidge.
The travel and excitement must have been too much for Old Rip, because on January 19, 1929 he went to the pesticide-free land in the sky. The autopsy showed that he had fluid in his tiny lungs and pneumonia was list as the official cause of death. He was subsequently embalmed and placed in a red velvet-lined box in the courthouse lobby for all to see.
One would think that the Texas legend would have ended there, but the story keeps going. In 1962, according to Wesley Treat's Texas Twisted, gubernatorial candidate John Connally couldn't pass up a photo opportunity with Eastland's most famous resident. When Connally held up the mummified relic by its hind leg, the limb broke off, to the chagrin of county officials and the amusement of the press.
Eleven years later, Old Rip was in the headlines again. This time he had been "toad-napped" from his exalted perch in the courthouse. The anonymous kidnapper wrote a letter claiming to have been part of the conspiracy to hoax the nation. The letter demanded his co-conspirators confess and a small ransom be paid. When neither seemed forthcoming, the velvet box containing the lizard was left at the county fairgrounds. Now there is controversy whether or not the item in the box today is really Old Rip or an imposter. The frog rests in peace in a glass display case at the Eastland County Courthouse.
One final note regarding the incredible journey taken by ‘Old Rip’ the famed horned lizard from Eastland County. In 1955, cartoonist Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese, inspired by the legend of Old Rip, created "One Froggy Evening." The classic cartoon tells the story of a frog who is freed from a cornerstone and sings ragtime jazz when no one is watching. That creation morphed into Michigan J. Frog, the official mascot of the Warner Brothers Television Network.
* Old Rip images courtesy of Texas Twisted. Copyright 2001 Wesley Treat.LS* Gerald E. McLeod is an Austin-based writer and a contributor to the Austin Chronicle and Texas Highways. McLeod’s Day Trips: Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.