Old Rip, the "horny toad," put Eastland County and the county seat of the same name on the map back in 1928. Folks are still amazed and amused by the critter's tale.
The story began in 1897, when a horned lizard, the animal's proper designation, was placed in the cornerstone of the county's third courthouse. When that edifice was demolished in February 1928, to make way for the current art deco model, the cornerstone was opened.
According to published accounts, a crowd of 3,000 showed up to see the opening of the old building's time capsule. Much to everyone's surprise, when the marble box was opened, the lizard had miraculously survived for 31 years.
Despite the skeptics, Old Rip -- he was named after Rip Van Winkle -- became an instant celebrity. Townsfolk took him on a tour of the nation that included a stop in Washington, D.C., to meet President Calvin Coolidge.
The travel and excitement must have been too much for Old Rip, because on Jan. 19, 1929, he went to the pesticide-free land in the sky. The autopsy showed that he had fluid in his tiny lungs and pneumonia was listed as the official cause of death. He was subsequently embalmed and placed in a red velvet-lined box in the courthouse lobby for all to see.
One would think that the Texas legend would have ended there, but the story keeps going. In 1962, according to Wesley Treat on his Web site www.texastwisted.com, gubernatorial candidate John Connally couldn't pass up a photo opportunity with Eastland's most famous resident. When Connally held up the mummified relic by its hind leg, the limb broke off to the chagrin of county officials and the amusement of the press.
Eleven years later, Old Rip was in the headlines again. This time he had been "toadnapped" from his exalted perch in the courthouse. The anonymous kidnapper wrote a letter claiming to have been part of the conspiracy to hoax the nation. The letter demanded his co-conspirators confess and a small ransom be paid. When neither seemed forthcoming, the velvet box containing the lizard was left at the county fairgrounds. Now there is controversy whether or not the item in the box today is the real Old Rip or an imposter.
One final note on the incredible journey of the horned lizard from Eastland County: In 1955, cartoonist Chuck Jones, inspired by the legend of Old Rip, created One Froggy Evening. The classic cartoon tells the story of a frog who is freed from a cornerstone and sings ragtime jazz when no one is watching. That creation morphed into Michigan J. Frog, the official mascot of the WB television network.
Old Rip wasn't the only commotion to happen in the now-quiet little town of Eastland, about 95 miles west of Fort Worth on I-20. Between 1917 and 1922, an oil boom swelled the population of the town.
On Dec. 23, 1927, Marshall Ratliff donned a Santa Claus costume and with three others robbed the bank in nearby Cisco. During a chase over several days, 11 were wounded including three of the robbers and two lawmen, and a robber was killed. Ratliff claimed insanity when he was sentenced to execution but was returned to Eastland to face charges of auto theft committed during the escape attempt. In a failed escape from the county jail, he killed a popular jailer. On Nov. 19, 1929, a mob pulled Ratliff from his jail cell and hung him from a power pole. It is credited with being the last mob lynching in Texas.
Another attraction in Eastland is the stamp mural hanging in the post office a couple blocks north of the courthouse. The artwork was constructed of 11,217 stamps between 1957 and 1968 by the late postmaster Marene Johnson-Johnson. She also completed a stamp map of the United States. On the wall above the lobby is a painting done by a WPA artist when the building was completed in 1938.
For information about Eastland, stop by the chamber of commerce office at 102 S. Seaman St. on the courthouse square, or go to www.eastland.net/eastland.
606th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.May he R.I.P.