Did a horned lizard really survive for 31 years inside a cornerstone?
By Teresa S. Newton
The legend of Old Rip, Eastland County's famous horned lizard, spurs a lot of questions. Can a horny toad really hibernate for 31 years? Was the lizard presented to crowds when the courthouse cornerstone was opened in 1928 the same one that had been deposited there in 1897? Did Old Rip, by his own fame, cause the downfall of his own kind?
The story is hard to prove, yet difficult to disprove. People either believe or not. Still, 80 years after his coming-out party, Old Rip draws tourists to view him in a velvet-lined coffin, lying in state at the Eastland County courthouse.
The Texas horned lizard's adventures started July 29, 1897, when 4-year-old Will Wood caught the reptile and named him Blinky. Will's dad, Eastland County Clerk Ernest E. Wood, was heading downtown when he decided to use the horny toad to test a theory. The elder Wood had read about the ancient belief that horned lizards could live up to 100 years in hibernation.
Wood offered Blinky and a note to be placed in the cornerstone of the new courthouse. Officials said they placed the horned frog, the note, a Bible and several newspapers and coins in the small vault.
Years passed, and Eastland County's oil boom brought more people and paperwork. By 1928, the courthouse wasn't big enough, and voters approved building a new one.
"Mr. Wood stopped me and said they were building a new courthouse and there was a horned frog in [the old courthouse]," says 94-year-old Eldress Gattis of Eastland, one of a handful of surviving eyewitnesses to the cornerstone opening. "He was always kidding, but I don't think he would go that far with a practical joke."
Boyce House, editor of the Eastland Argus-Tribune, passed the story along to news agencies. By noon on February 18, a crowd reportedly between 1,000 and 3,000 surrounded the courthouse rubble.
Ed S. Pritchard, the county judge, officiated over the cornerstone opening. To ensure no sleight of hand, the Rev. Frank E. Singleton, a Methodist pastor, would observe the procedure. Workers cleared the cornerstone and removed the metal sheet covering the small cavity. Singleton looked in.
"There's the frog!" he called out.
Eugene Day, a local oilman and brother-in-law to Ernest E. Wood, reached in, bringing forth a flat, dusty horned lizard. He passed the toad to Singleton, who gave it to Pritchard. The judge raised the reptile high.
"He's alive!" Pritchard yelled. The crowd roared, pushing children aside in order to see the small celebrity. Some tried to grab the creature.
"I got there late and got on top of a pile of rubble to see what was going on," says Gattis, 14 at the time. "When they uncovered it, I couldn't see him. Then (Pritchard) held him by the tail, and he was wiggling."
"I am positive there was no hoax perpetrated," preacher Singleton later declared to the Associated Press.
The lizard was renamed Old Rip, for Rip Van Winkle, and placed on display in a local store window. Newspaper reporters quoted zoological experts on the plausibility of surviving a three-decade sleep. Articles from throughout the nation reported eyewitness accounts of similar incidents with horned lizards, frogs and similar creatures.
Texas Christian University sent a biology team to examine Old Rip. An X-ray revealed a broken leg. His horns and spikes were worn down, possibly from trying to escape his prison. His mouth and eyes appeared sealed shut, but it was still hibernation season. Otherwise, he was healthy.
Rip rested peacefully, but not those around him. When cynics claimed Day, Singleton or Pritchard brought a live horny toad in case the original was dead, local businessman Hiram McCandliss offered $1,000 to anyone who could find a horned toad in February – a near-impossible feat since the lizards were hibernating underground. Will Wood attributed the horned lizard's survival to the Bible enclosed with him.
The curious swarmed to Eastland to view the natural oddity. Merchants and the chamber of commerce were ecstatic. Postcards with Old Rip's official portrait sold at a brisk pace.
Demand for horned toads exploded. Zoos wanted them. A local gas station offered a horned lizard with each fill-up. The Dallas Advertising League quickly sold 600 lizards at the International Advertising Association of the World convention in Detroit. Sid Sackett of Coleman, the only known horned lizard breeder at the time, saw prices jump from five cents a head to 25 cents.
College professors in Brownwood prepared to seal a horned lizard in an airtight container to test the hibernation theory. Eastland County planned to place a horny toad in the new courthouse cornerstone that May. In both instances, the Fort Worth Humane Society intervened, and the creatures were released.
That spring, Old Rip slowly became more animated, finally eating and drinking after four or five weeks. He was displayed at events across the nation. President Calvin Coolidge delayed 300 visitors to meet with Eastland's celebrity. Rip became an item in "Ripley's Believe It Or Not."
Back home in Eastland, Old Rip's abode was a fish bowl filled with sand in a store window. He entertained visitors by eating harvester ants, every horny toad's favorite food. Eventually he settled in with Will Wood's family in Eastland.
Life with the Wood children provided adventure. Edith Wood Grissom, Will's older daughter, recalled Old Rip for an oral history project in the 1970s.
"Old Rip was my pet. He dashed from an ant bed in front of a truck with me in pursuit, and later to a vacant lot where I had released 250 horned frogs," she recounted. "He was easy to find as he was gray with worn horns and a limp from a broken leg. He hibernated in a goldfish bowl, and I put him on the back porch. He froze."
The legendary lizard died of pneumonia Jan. 19, 1929, 11 months after his courthouse release.
Will Wood had Old Rip preserved, courtesy of the Barrow Undertaking Company. The National Casket Company provided a tiny casket. Grieving friends said goodbye during an extended visitation at the funeral home and later at the courthouse.
But even death wasn't the end of the Old Rip story. County officials allowed him to travel to fairs and exhibitions. After World War II, the Wood family returned Old Rip to a courthouse enclosure.
Old Rip became a part of the Eastland economy for decades with the Old Rip Café, Old Rip Cap Co. and an Old Rip soda, produced by a local bottling company.
Legendary cartoon director Chuck Jones borrowed from the cornerstone story for his film classic One Froggy Evening. The character, Michigan J. Frog, is the symbol for the WB, the Warner Brothers television network.
Residents celebrate Old Rip with a ceremony each Feb. 18 at the courthouse. Local dignitaries and school children gather to repeat the Old Rip Oath, which provides they keep his legend alive. Ripfest is held on the first Saturday of October.
Old Rip's kin are hardly seen in Eastland County anymore. Pesticide overuse in the 1960s and 1970s and the invasion of fire ants harmed the harvester ant, horned lizards' main food. The lizards have disappeared from East and Central Texas, with only a few reported in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and Milam County, says Lee Ann Linam, president of the Horned Lizard Conservation Society.
In 1967 the state of Texas made the sale of a horned lizard illegal. In 1977 the reptiles were added to the state's threatened species list. In the 1980s ownership of a horned toad became off limits. The Horned Lizard Conservation Society was formed in 1990 to save the beloved critter.
Linam says the average Texas horned lizard lives only five to 10 years, but adds, "Old Rip was a very unusual horned lizard."