The Amazing Tale of “Old Rip”

Howard’s Texas was  filled with a variety of creatures running the gambit from rattlesnakes to armadillos to scorpions to the dreaded red ants. He wrote often of these denizens of the west in his letters, embellishing the facts as he was wont to do, making everything seem larger than life.  This was a myth that was easy to perpetrate — folks from other parts of the country already believed everything was bigger and more dangerous in Texas.  Does anyone remember those old postcards with the cowboy riding the giant jackrabbit?

In Eastland, just down the road a bit from where Howard lived, an event took place in 1928 that amazed the state and the country, further advancing those myths about Texas. While Howard only lived a short distance from Eastland, he made no mention of this event in his letters. However, it is possible that he knew about the amazing survival of a famed horned toad through local newspaper coverage, as well as the story’s appearance in Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” column and on newsreels shown in movie theaters across the land.

Our story begins in 1897 when construction started on a new county courthouse in Eastland. The local citizens prepared a time capsule for placement in the new building’s cornerstone and among the items placed and sealed in the container was a live horned toad (well, it was actually a horned lizard).  This was pre-PETA, so no one was concerned about suffocating the tiny critter.

In February of 1928, when it was time to build a spiffy new Art Deco courthouse to replace the one built in 1897, the time capsule was opened and viola, the horned toad was still alive.  The three thousand people who gathered to witness the opening of the time capsule must have gasped in amazement at the curious sight of the wriggling little lizard held high by the county judge. The locals promptly named the toad “Old Rip” (for Rip Van Winkle).

Some folks were quick to call this minor miracle a hoax, but a local professor weighed in on how Old Rip might have survived in the cornerstone for 31 years:

“I do not know all the facts in the Eastland story,” wrote professor Sam McInnis of Brownwood’s Daniel Baker College. “From what I know about the story I think that it is true, because the frog was entombed in sand and rock, and it is possible for moisture and oxygen to pass through the rock and reach the frog, and sustain life for an indefinite period of time.”

As mentioned above, the creatures that inhabited the countryside around Cross Plains were topics Howard wrote about in his letters. Such was the case in a July 1935 letter to August Derleth where he recounted his encounters with various kinds of ants:

In this country, though, an ant’s worst foe is the horned toad, who squats in the [ant] bed, impervious to bites and stings and laps them up as a horned dinosaur would have lapped up prehistoric humans, had they been contemporaries.

This passage is Howard’s tribute to the horned toad’s tenacity and resilience, the same traits Old Rip had to possess to survive entombed for 31 years while others of his species lived five to ten years. 

Soon Old Rip achieved nationwide, Paris Hilton-like celebrity status when some of the local town folk took him on a tour of the nation that included a stop in Washington D.C. to meet President Calvin Coolidge.

After touring the country, Old Rip retired to his hometown of Eastland and moved into the home of a local family, occupying a fishbowl in the front room where he was doted on by neighborhood children who caught red ants by the bushel for him.

On January 19, 1929, a Blue Norther swept through Eastland and Old Rip froze to death in his unheated room while his human companions slept under piles of blankets in their bedrooms. His tiny lungs had filled with fluid, with the official cause of death being ruled pneumonia. Eastland and indeed the entire nation mourned  his passing.  His small body was preserved by a taxidermist and he was placed in a tiny, custom made casket.  A marble base for the coffin was also donated to the cause and Old Rip was placed on display in the new county courthouse.

In 1962 while running for governor, John Connally showed up for a photo op with Eastland’s most famous citizen, but quickly raised the ire of the townspeople when he accidently tore off one of Old Rip’s hind legs while handling him.  Despite this major faux pas, Connally was elected governor of Texas that year.

Old Rip, it seemed, was not destined to rest in peace — in 1973 he was stolen. An anonymous toad-napper wrote a letter explaining that his conscience would not let him remain silent any longer. The dastardly perpetrator claimed to be part of a large conspiracy that had hoaxed the nation with Old Rip. He demanded that his accomplices join him in a full confession.

However, when no one stepped forward to join him in the confession, another letter arrived saying that Old Rip could be found in his coffin at the county fairgrounds. The coffin and its famous occupant were recovered. More skullduggery was afoot when locals suspected the Old Rip returned was not the original Old Rip but an impostor. Eastland County Judge Scott Bailey was quoted as saying: “This toad is fairly well-preserved. The other was more … mummified.” Whoever he was, the found Old Rip was returned to his place of honor where the legendary horned toad lies in state to this day in the Eastland County Courthouse.

As an epilogue to this tale of the toad, in 1955 famed Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones, along with scriptwriter Michael Maltese, were inspired by the legend of Old Rip and created “One Froggy Evening.” The cartoon tells the story of a frog who is freed from a cornerstone and sings ragtime jazz when no one is watching. The frog character in that animated feature evolved on to one Michigan J. Frog, who later became the mascot for the Warner Brothers Television Network.

You can watch a short segment from the Texas Parks and Wildlife that tells the story of Old Rip on You Tube.

And, of course, it would not be Texas without a festival celebrating the life of Old Rip.