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One May day in 1928, President Calvin Coolidge received a celebrated Texan in the White House. The visitor was 15 minutes late, but the president waited patiently. For this wasn’t just any Texan—this was Old Rip, the horned lizard who’d slumbered for 31 years in the cornerstone of the Eastland County Courthouse.
Coolidge asked several questions of Will Wood, Rip’s caretaker, and stroked the reptile’s back with his horn-rimmed glasses. Wood telegraphed folks back in Eastland that Old Rip blinked at Silent Cal.
As Texas author Boyce House told and retold the tale, Will Wood had named the horned toad (or horny toad, as Texas horned lizards are often called) Blinky back in 1897, shortly before Will’s father, county clerk Ernest Wood, had the boy’s pet placed in the cornerstone of the Eastland County Courthouse that was under construction.
Then one February day in 1928, when the 1897 courthouse was being demolished for a new, modern people’s temple, Ernest Wood asked House, then editor of the Eastland Argus-Tribune, if he’d heard of the West Texas folk belief that a horned toad could live for 100 years without food or water. When Wood told Boyce that the theory would soon be put to the test with the opening of the 1897 cornerstone, the editor produced a banner headline, “ALL READY FOR LIBERATION OF THE HORNED TOAD,” and distributed the exciting news through wire services. Thus, on Saturday, February 18, 1928, when the cornerstone was opened, more than 1,000 people had reportedly gathered to witness the event.
Along with several ministers, county Judge Ed Pritchard was on hand to authenticate the proceedings. When the diminutive beast was held aloft for the crowd to behold, one of its legs suddenly twitched. “The durn thing’s alive!” someone hollered as cheers filled the courthouse square.
Named for the storied slumberer Rip Van Winkle, Old Rip made national news. Unfortunately, entombment of his brethren became a fad. Prestigious scientists opined, both pro and con, on the possibility of the lizard’s survival. Thousands marveled at Rip on tour. Souvenir horned frogs were sold at the Democratic National Convention that summer in Houston. Eastland gas stations gave away the reptiles as premiums for fuel purchases. Featured in a Fox Movietone newsreel, Old Rip was a star.
Sid Sackett, a commercial breeder of horned lizards in Coleman, feared the craze would create too much competition. Because the reptiles preyed on insects injurious to crops, agriculture authorities worried that their popularity as pets could decrease farm yields. But the mania subsided after Old Rip’s death from pneumonia in early 1929.
Today, the famed horned toad lies in state in a tiny casket at the Eastland County Courthouse. Local folks began celebrating Rip annually with a horned toad derby in 1949. The event continues today as Ripfest and includes a parade, 5K run and other fun. The famed lizard is also commemorated in displays at the Eastland County Museum and in the museum’s Old Drip’s Coffee Shoppe.
In his 1965 book, The Story of Old Rip, Eastlander H.V. O’Brien Jr., who administers the Old Rip Oath at chamber of commerce banquets, noted that several Eastland youngsters had spent the night at the partly demolished courthouse in 1928 in order to ensure that no “hanky-pank” transpired before the cornerstone was opened.
The youths’ vigilance notwithstanding, some hanky-panky may well have been committed. In his 1993 book, O Ye Legendary Horned Frog, historian June Rayfield Welch unearthed a 1973 allegation by a self-described “perpetrator of the hoax which grew into ‘the Legend of Old Rip.’ ” The anonymous confessor claimed that five young men had conspired to place a living toad in the cornerstone in February 1928 and were surprised at the excitement generated by their prank.
For his part, O’Brien good-naturedly concludes, “Do you believe it or don’t you? Arguing the point is not recommended in these parts.”
Most Eastland folks embrace the horny toad yarn that brought so much attention to their town with a healthy attitude and a tender wink. “Old Rip still has a place of honor in the vestibule of the first floor of the Eastland County Courthouse,” says county Judge Rex Fields. “He lies in state in a glass-topped casket wherein he is visible to people that have heard the story of his incarceration and release.”
Fields gives a presentation about the history of the courthouse to second grade students each year. “Almost without fail,” he says, “the highlight for the students is when I take the casket out of its locked enclosure and let them see Old Rip up close.”
Writer and author Gene Fowler specializes in art and history.