Old Rip, The Miracle Horned Toad

The Eastland Courthouse constructed in 1928
In the Eastland, Texas courthouse, protected by 2 thick layers of glass and a uniformed guard, a Texas legend lies in state. Resting on velvet and white satin, he was once famous around the country. Fans from near and far arrived daily to see him and even a U.S. president had a personal meeting with him. Today, it's usually just the rare curious visitor who stops by and every now and then, a tour bus of senior citizens will pull over for the occupants to make their way to the viewing area. Mostly, he lies forgotten and ignored. But there was a time...

In 1897, the cornerstone of Eastland County's new courthouse was scheduled to be dedicated. As the ceremony was underway, Justice of the Peace Earnest Wood, who was also a member of the band on hand that day, noticed his son was playing with a horned toad, a common and favorite creature in Texas at that time. Old Earnest decided it would be funny to place the toad in the cornerstone so that's exactly what he did just before it was sealed up tight. Several witnesses saw him do it and a good chuckle was had by all. For the next 31 years people would pass by the courthouse, point and say, "There's a horned toad snoozing in that building."

In 1928, the population of Eastland county had grown bigger and the courthouse had grown older. Money was raised and plans drawn up to replace it with a bigger, modern building. Stories were going around that horned toads could go into hibernation and live for years without food or water. Some even said they could stop breathing until conditions turned favorable. Arguments raged with others swearing talk of horned toads going into suspended animation was just old wives tales. 

On February 18th, the old structure had been demolished down to the cornerstone. On that day, over 3,000 people were on hand anxious to witness the opening. As they looked on in suspense, the block was cleared and the covering removed. Judge E. S. Pritchard removed some other items which had been sealed inside - a bible, several newspapers, a book. He then reached into the very bottom of the stone and pulled out something that looked like a dust covered piece of dark brown tree bark. It was the desiccated toad. The poor creature was handed to Eugene Day, a leading citizen of the town. He turned around and handed the stiff-as-a-board remains to Frank Singleton, the local Methodist pastor. After examining it, the preacher handed it back to Judge Pritchard who then held it up by the tail so everyone in the crowd could see.

A Texas Horned Toad
Some were disappointed, some smiled and said, "I told you so" and a few of the young children started to cry. But as everyone began to leave, people in the front gasped and someone shouted, "It twitched! That thing's alive!" As people turned to look, they were astounded to see the dried-up animal wake up from its 31-year nap and wriggle back to life!

The miracle horned toad became an instant sensation. He was dubbed Rip Van Winkle, which of course was quickly shortened to Old Rip, and travelers from miles away came in droves to see the animal that refused to die. The local veterinary made sure Old Rip was fed and watered and folks made sure he had a good home in the display window of a store on the town square. Eventually, the demand to see him was so great that he went on a tour of the United States - Dallas, St. Louis, New York City and Washington, D.C. When he arrived in the nation's capitol, President Calvin Coolidge requested he be brought to the White House where he could see the country's most famous animal in person.

Old Rip returned to Eastland after the tour but sadly, after 31 years encased in an airtight stone with no food or water, he was on borrowed time. On January 19, 1929, Old Rip passed away. An autopsy was performed and he was found to have contracted pneumonia and drowned due to water in his lungs. 

Old Rip lying in state in his custom-made casket
The people of Eastland were unwilling to let Old Rip go so they had him embalmed, placed in a small casket and put on display in a window of the new courthouse. For years, people continued to come to see the diminutive miracle animal. In 1962, Gubernatorial candidate John Connally stopped in Eastland on a campaign tour around the state. Like all politicians, he took every opportunity to have his name and picture in the public's face so he requested and was given permission to have his picture taken while holding Eastland's most famous resident. He was indelicately holding up Old Rip by a back leg when it broke off. The news reporters were amused, but the people of Eastland were not. Old Rip was placed back in his little casket and that was the last time anyone has been allowed to touch him.

Closeup of Old Rip

In 1955, the legend of Old Rip inspired cartoonist Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese to create the classic cartoon, One Froggy Evening. It tells the story of of a frog who is freed from a building's cornerstone and sings ragtime jazz when no one is watching. That cartoon became so popular it morphed into Michigan J. Frog, the official mascot of the Warner Brothers Television Network.

Michigan J. Frog