Old Rip: A Twice-Toad Tale
Almost every town, irrespective of size, has an attraction worth visiting. New York has the Empire State building; Paris has the Eiffel Tower; and Eastland, Texas has Old Rip, a long-dead horned toad.
Eastland is just a few short hops east of Abilene, and it is here that a horned toad found himself the object of Ernest Moore’s attention in 1897. Mr. Moore had recently come across information purporting that horned toads could live for 100 years in a state of hibernation, without food, water, or stimuli.
Such information might have remained little more than idle trivia, were it not for the fact that the town fathers were constructing a new courthouse and were seeking items to be placed in a small cavity in the cornerstone of the courthouse. And so it was that the hapless horned toad found himself resting for 31 years alongside a handful of coins, newspapers, a bottle of whiskey, and a Bible.
As the decades passed, however, the courthouse deteriorated and, in 1928, Eastland County decided it was time for a more modern structure. As plans to demolish the old structure progressed, Mr. Wood jumped to action, reminding townsfolk about the courthouse’s cornerstone and its contents.
When demolition day arrived, approximately 2,000 onlookers were present to learn the fate of their home-town horned toad. A local reverend was on hand to preserve, as it were, the “integrity” of the proceedings, while the county judge presided.
As the crowd pressed forward, the time capsule’s contents were removed, and the judge held the toad in his hand. The crowd seemed to detect a twitch, possibly even a quiver. According to contemporary news accounts, the judge, with shades of Dr. Frankenstein, shouted: “He’s alive!”
Eastland County’s horned toad was renamed Rip Van Winkle, an homage to the sleepy Rip Van Winkle of the Washington Irving short story. Soon, he was known simply as Old Rip, and he was famous.
Old Rip went on a barnstorming tour, part of a national public relations campaign. He was featured on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, he traveled to Dallas, to Memphis, and to St. Louis, and he even visited the White House in Washington, DC, where he met President Calvin Coolidge. The taciturn president, nicknamed “Silent Cal,” was reported to have been only slightly more vocal than Old Rip.
The tour, however, took its toll on Old Rip. Put your average horned toad in solitary confinement, with little air, scant coins for spending, the Bible, and a bottle of whiskey, and he may live forever. Thrust him into daily interactions with humans, and the end will come soon. For Rip, it came in January 1929, just 11 months after his liberation.
Texans took Rip’s death hard. Newspapers eulogized him. The Dallas Morning News, for example, called him “the gosh-dingest best foodless-waterless-airless-lightless horned frog that ever lived.” But it was Eastlanders who had the most difficulty accepting Rip’s death. They had grown attached to the toad and, besides, he was a tourist draw—indeed, the local economy had grown by leaps and bounds since his rediscovery.
But Eastlanders are a hardy bunch, and they set about preserving Rip and his legend—literally. The Barrow Undertaking company embalmed him; the National Casket Company provided him with a small, velvet-lined casket; and plans were made to display him in perpetuity in the Eastland County Courthouse.
Even in death, Old Rip was able to find new life, perhaps as a means of compensating for the boredom and monotony of his earlier existence. Thousands of visitors have poured in over the years, and he has taken the occasional tour across the state. In the early 1950s, Warner Brothers immortalized him in their cartoons as Michigan J. Frog. In 1962 soon-to-be Governor John Connally posed with Rip on a campaign stop. And in the early 1970s, Rip was kidnapped and held for ransom. He was later returned, but whispers persist that the real Rip was replaced by a counterfeit.
Of course, there are those that believe the whole legend of Rip is counterfeit, with dark rumors that the original horned toad died in the courthouse cornerstone, only to be replaced surreptitiously during the 1928 “discovery.”
Eastland locals, however, object strongly to this line of inquiry. One of the witnesses to the 1928 unveiling, for example, was fond of telling nosy reporters, “Write stories that George Washington was a congenital liar. Write stories in favor of sin. But don’t write any expose saying that Old Rip was a hoax.”
Today, Eastlanders are even more assertive. They have taken the toad by the horns, and require that officials to take the “Oath of Rip,” a promise to promote Rip’s legacy and to defend the veracity of his story. The City has memorialized him by holding annual events in his honor, by placing an Old Rip emblem on town buildings, and by building a monument to him in the center of Eastland.
Thankfully, much of the controversy has passed. His rip-roaring days of presidential meetings, kidnappings, and unauthorized biographies are largely a thing of the past, and he passes his time peacefully in his old home, the Eastland County Courthouse, still resting in his velvet-lined coffin. Perhaps Old Rip can finally R.I.P.
Many thanks to Cecil Funderburgh with the Chamber of Commerce. The literature from the Chamber helped us have a wonderful time in the City of Eastland.