History is chock full of incredible Texas legends: Davy Crockett, last surviving defender of the Alamo, fighting off attackers with the butt of his rifle; Judge Roy Bean, dispensing law as he tended bar, sentencing hundreds to be hanged; Lee Harvey Oswald, perched upon high, assassinating the president all by his lonesome before ducking off to catch a movie.
Yes, the list of astonishing Lone Star accounts is unending. But, there's one Texas tale the so-called "educational" textbooks invariably omit from the timeline: the Legend of Old Rip.
Old Rip, a horned lizard, was once the subject of a nationwide buzz. He toured the states, made headlines, appeared in Robert Ripley's "Believe It or Not" and even traveled to D.C. to meet with President Calvin Coolidge.
The spiky celeb was a real toad about town. But, although he was once the main water-cooler topic in offices across the country, today's populace is mostly unaware of his miraculous tale. Thankfully, though, the good people of Eastland do their daily best to preserve his incredible story — not to mention the little guy himself, keeping him under glass inside a tiny, velvet casket.
The living Rip is with us no more, but his claim to fame was his amazing ability to postpone the inanimate state that now afflicts him, though no one is certain just how he did it. In July of 1897, the town of Eastland began construction to replace their fire-ravaged county courthouse. To commemorate the event, a ceremony was held for the laying of the new building's cornerstone. Officials placed inside the hollow block of marble a Bible and various other momentos, and apparently as a joke, County Clerk Ernest Wood dropped in an unsuspecting horned lizard his son Will had brought to the event. The stone was then sealed, fixed into place and topped with three stories of judicial office space.
Thirty-one years later, it was decided that courthouse number two had outlived its usefulness and was torn down to make way for an improved Art Deco model. Remembering that inside lay an unfortunate horny toad, three thousand citizens turned out to witness the opening of the old building's time capsule. Was the little guy dead? Did he somehow survive? Schrödinger himself would have been on the edge of his seat.
On February 18, 1928, the horned toad was lifted from his tomb, lifeless and covered with dust, and held aloft for all to see. To the crowd's astonishment, his leg began to twitch, and within moments, his whole body was wriggling with life. The audience was ecstatic. Rip, subsequently named for the sleepy Van Winkle, had survived the ordeal unharmed.
Naturally, there are plenty of spoilsports who say the whole thing was just a big publicity stunt. To them, the people of Eastland offer up a big, collective raspberry. Besides, if Old Rip had been the subject of a hoax, how could anyone have come up with a live horned lizard in February when they were all hibernating underground?
Sadly, however, Old Rip didn't live long to enjoy his ensuing celebrity. On January 19, less than a year after his release, he succumbed to pneumonia. His little, light-brown body was embalmed and displayed in the new courthouse, where he resides today.
Since then, Rip has rarely traveled away from home. Town officials are hesitant to let him out their sight, perhaps due to an unfortunate accident some years ago involving a visiting politician. John Connally, who was running for governor in 1962, made a campaign stop on his way through Eastland. Naturally, Connally couldn't pass up a photo-op with Old Rip and held the fragile toad up by his hind leg — which promptly snapped off. The official Old Rip brochure recounts a happier ending, originally intended to save Connally any embarrassment, but the Chamber of Commerce will now admit the truth if you ask.
Two years later, in 1964, Old Rip ventured outside the courthouse again, although not by choice. The helpless little guy was toadnapped, then safely returned, by the local Jaycees as part of a fund-raising event. In 1971, he was stolen once again, but went missing for about a year before a tip led to his recovery at the fairgrounds. Some, however, say the recovered lizard isn't the original. Nevertheless, Old Rip is now kept in a locked display case, which has only one key.
If the story of Old Rip sounds familiar, by the way, it's no surprise. Famed cartoonist Chuck Jones, inspired by the strange Texas tale, created the 1955 epic "One Froggy Evening." In the cartoon, you may remember a demolition worker who pries open a cornerstone and discovers inside a living frog who just so happens to sing ragtime jazz, but never when anyone else is watching. The animated short is today considered an all-time classic, and its star, who has since been given the name Michigan J. Frog, is the official host of the WB Network.
I'd show you a picture of the Warner Brothers mascot to jog your memory, but the corporate giant has unwaveringly refused me permission to display a press image since this is not an official AOL Time Warner site. In exchange, I will tell you not to turn to the WB to see him for yourself.
Instead, shut the TV off, jump in your car and drive out to Eastland to see the real deal. Oh, and stop by the post office to see the stamp mural, too. They're very proud of that.
Update: From June to August, 2002, Old Rip was a guest at the Best of Texas Festival at Six Flags Over Texas. Read more.
Update: In February of 2003, Old Rip celebrated his 75th anniversary! Read more.