By John Bird
Eastland, Texas is best known for its most famous citizen of the past—a horned toad named Old Rip.
Eastland County was amid a boom in the last years of the 19th century, and a larger courthouse was built in 1897. During the dedication, dignitaries placed various things in the courthouse cornerstone as a sort of time-capsule. A Bible, historical documents, and a horned toad caught by a young boy earlier that morning. The men then sealed the vault, built the courthouse around it, and forgot their froggy friend.
Eastland County grew through the oil boom years, and in 1928 they tore down the courthouse for a newer, fancier one. The walls came down, the cornerstone opened, and a citizen gently removed poor Old Rip, whom everyone assumed to be petrified. Until he twitched a leg.
The lizard was just waking from a 31-year nap, so he was understandably sluggish. He did not, as the Warner Brothers cartoon portrayed, jump out and sing, “Hello, my baby, hello my honey.” He did, though, become an instant celebrity and after visiting Dallas, took a train ride to Washington D.C. where he was paid a visit by President Calvin Coolidge.
During a return visit to Dallas, the lizard and his travelling companion got in a bit of trouble over failing to show up for an event and earned a brief stay in the Dallas County jail, but soon made bail, or perhaps escaped—lizards can fit easily through bars. Who knows?
Back home, Old Rip lived in a fishbowl and was fed a steady diet of red ants—a horned toad’s preferred snack. Sadly, Old Rip died of pneumonia after about a year.
The people of Eastland mourned. They embalmed Old Rip and placed him in a velvet lined casket, which can be viewed this very day, in the Eastland County courthouse.
His stay has been mostly peaceful aside from losing a leg during a photo op with an aspiring politician in 1962 and a brief kidnapping in the 70’s. The kidnappers were forgiven; the politician was not.
Today, Eastland hosts an Old Rip Fest in the fall, and a Rip’s Ribs cookoff and wine festival in the spring. Metal horned toads are the awards for the fall 5k race, and horned toad t-shirts, statues, and stationary are common throughout town.
The saddest part of the story is that Old Rip is the only real horned toad that most Eastland County children will see outside of a zoo. Until the last 20 or 30 years, they were plentiful in central Texas. I played with them when I was a boy. My children, who all grew up in Eastland, have never seen one. Some conservationists believe the intrusion of fire ants, which drove away the red ants, is to blame. That seems reasonable to me. Various efforts are underway to bring the horned lizard back to prominence, but little progress has been made.
You can watch a short but terrific video produced by Texas Parks and Wildlife about Old Rip here.