Old Rip.
Eastland County Judge Rex Fields holds Old Rip in the reptile's custom-built casket.

Old Rip, Miracle Horned Toad

Field review by the editors.

Eastland, Texas

Some Texans believe that horned toads -- tiny, wart-covered lizards -- can survive 100 years in hibernation. One Texan, Ernest Wood, county clerk of the city of Eastland, decided to test the theory. On July 31, 1897, he took his son Will's pet horned toad, named Blinky, and had it sealed in the cornerstone of Eastland's under-construction courthouse. Will got another horned toad, and Ernest didn't expect to live long enough to see Blinky again.

Old Rip cornerstone.
Old Rip lived inside this cornerstone for over 30 years.

Eastland, however, grew fast. A newer, bigger courthouse had to be built -- and the old one torn down -- after only 30 years. Everyone had forgotten about the horned toad except for Ernest, who told the local newspaper about it. The newspaper spread the word, and a crowd estimated at several thousand showed up when the old cornerstone was opened on February 18, 1928. Officials hovering over the cornerstone included the county judge and at least three local clergymen, to ensure that no one would try to sneak in a bogus toad.

Blinky was pulled out. He was dusty, gray, flat as a pancake, his horns worn down from friction, his mouth sealed shut from inactivity -- but alive! The crowd cheered. Blinky was quickly renamed Old Rip -- for Rip Van Winkle -- and became an instant celebrity.

Will Wood, now a middle-aged man, went on tour with Old Rip. Fans mobbed him. Professors x-rayed him. Rival exhibitors sued to get him. President Calvin Coolidge broke several previous White House engagements to meet him. Old Rip was written up in the New York Times and the prestigious journal Science. Newsreels staged reenactments of the cornerstone ceremony. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram declared Rip to be "the most famous animal since the serpent in the Garden of Eden." A print run of 16,000 Old Rip postcards sold out.

February 18, 1928: Old Rip is... alive!
Old Rip is... alive! This reenactment of the cornerstone ceremony was staged for newsreel cameras.

Eastland Texas postcard: Home of Old Rip.
Vintage postcard features Eastland's most famous citizen.

Rip himself paid little attention to the surrounding whirlwind of publicity, living happily in a sand-filled goldfish bowl, fattening himself on cockroaches and harvester ants.

Soon after Old Rip's visit to the nation's capital, skeptics in Dothan, Alabama (future home of the Hog Monument), sealed a hapless horned toad in a box and buried it for six months. The toad did not live. Dothan said this proved that Old Rip was a fraud. Eastland countered that Old Rip had been entombed above ground, where air and heat could seep in and keep him alive, and Will Wood credited Rip's survival to the Bible that had been placed in the Eastland cornerstone.

Souvenir Ticket - Old Rip Derby 1950.
Horned Toad Derby was held in the years before Texas horned toads became a protected species.

Critics of Old Rip were dismissed as simply jealous of Texas. One Eastland businessmen defiantly offered $1,000 to anyone who could find a Texas horned toad in February -- as fraudsters would have had to do -- even though in wintertime all of the lizards are buried underground, hibernating and hidden. No one ever claimed the money.

Sadly, the strain of fame did what 30 years of solitary confinement could not; it killed Old Rip. Only 11 months after his release from the cornerstone, the aged Texan croaked. Will Wood had Old Rip embalmed and placed in a tiny velvet-lined casket. Even dead, he drew crowds on tour.

Eastland began hosting annual events in Old Rip's honor: Old Rip Day, the Horned Toad Derby, Rip's Ribs Cook-Off, and a city-wide party named Rip Fest. Local dignitaries and schoolchildren recited The Old Rip Oath, vowing to "perpetuate the Truth of Old Rip; so help me, God." Warner Bros. directors Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, who grew up in Texas, immortalized Old Rip as the cartoon character Michigan J. Frog, a ragtime-singing reptile that had been freed, like Rip, from a cornerstone.

Old Rip: Pinned and sealed in for his own protection.
Old Rip: Pinned and sealed in for his own protection. Note the missing hind leg.

Plinth on which Old Rip originally lay in state.
Noble plinth on which Old Rip originally lay in state.

Old Rip eventually ended up back in the Eastland County Courthouse. The city placed its most famous citizen on permanent display -- the type of posthumous honor formerly bestowed only on saints. He had a brush with Texas politics in 1962 when John Connally, campaigning for governor, hoisted Old Rip by the left hind leg -- and it snapped off. The mangling of Eastland's favorite son was hushed up, and Connally made headlines by himself the following year when he was wounded in the Presidential motorcade in Dallas during JFK's assassination.

Old Rip, minus half a leg, still charms visitors from behind the north center window of the Eastland courthouse, visible from outside 24/7, over 90 years after his release. His preserved body rests in his open casket double-sealed inside a plexiglass box and locked glass case. The multiple security-shields make it difficult to bond with Old Rip, but they're necessary to protect him from evildoers (His corpse has been kidnapped at least three times). Beneath the window is the regal plinth on which Old Rip originally lay in state. And out by the street, next to the parking spaces, is the preserved 30-year cornerstone. You can peer into the hole from which Rip emerged and marvel at the little toad's tenacity.

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Old Rip, Miracle Horned Toad

Eastland County Courthouse

Address:
108 W. Main St., Eastland, TX
Directions:
Displayed in a ground floor window of the Eastland County Courthouse. On the south side of TX-6/W. Main St. between S. Seaman and S. Lamar Sts. Walk up the steps of the courthouse directly behind the flagpole; Old Rip is displayed in the center window.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Big Metal Old RipBig Metal Old Rip, Eastland, TX - < 1 mi.
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In the region:
Town Bombed by the Japanese, Woodson, TX - 45 mi.

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