The Writing Traveler: The Resurrection of Old Rip

Old Rip can still be viewed today in his plush casket at the new Eastland County Courthouse in Texas.

After sleeping in the cornerstone of the Eastland Courthouse for thirty-one years, the crusty old horned toad, to everyone’s surprise, was still alive.

EVERYONE WANTS to write epics.

Very few want to read them anymore.

Long stories are long.

But it is the short stories that are remembered the longest.

Take Eastland, Texas, for example.

It was a solemn occasion in downtown, and Ernest Wood, the Justice of the Peace, was standing on the edge of the crowd that morning in 1897, sweating heavily beneath a sun-blistered Texas sky.

Had to wear a coat and tie in public.

Lord, a coat and tie were hot.

He was watching the dedication of the city’s brand new courthouse.

He glanced around and saw his son, Will, playing with a crusty old horned toad, and a wry grin slipped across his face.

Eastland, he knew, sat perched on the edge of West Texas, and just about everybody around was aware that the crusty old horned toad was the unofficial mascot of a land where the hard rock hills reached out to touch the plains.

Caleb Pirtle

Ernest Wood picked up the little critter and dropped it into the cornerstone, and, for decades, all of Eastland talked about and laughed about the old toad’s final resting place.

So much for pomp.

It was only circumstance.

Times changed with the passing years.

And Eastland was changing.

The old wasn’t good enough anymore.

The old would have to be torn down to make room for the new.

By February 28, 1928, the decision had been made to demolish the courthouse in order to make way for a modern one.

More than three thousand gathered to watch the opening of the cornerstone and gaze again on the artifacts that had been buried there.

Judge Ed S. Pritchard removed the Bible and a few other down-home, old-fashioned Eastland treasures.

And from down in the dark, cool bottom of the depository, a West Texas oilman, Eugene Day, ceremoniously picked up the dust-coated remains of the crusty old horned toad, handing him to the pastor of the First Methodist Church.

The little critter suddenly twitched.

The pastor almost dropped him.

The little critter took a gulp of fresh air.

The pastor held his breath.

The little critter opened an eye.

He blinked.

So did the pastor.

Bright light.

Bright sun, you know.

“Old Rip,” immediately named for Rip Van Winkle, had awakened from a deep thirty-one-year slumber.

And Eastland had its first genuine national celebrity.

“Old Rip” went on tour throughout the United States and even paid a visit to President Calvin Coolidge in the Oval Office.

A year later, however, the toad was dead.

Pneumonia was the official verdict.

The deaths of national celebrities had official verdicts.

But travel to Eastland today, and “Old Rip” is still waiting on you.

His embalmed body can be seen in a plush-lined casket on display in the lobby of Eastland’s courthouse.

“Old Rip” doesn’t, but his story lives on.

It’s only a snapshot of history.

In a lot of cases, snapshots are all we have left.

Please click HERE to find Confessions from the Road, a collection of true stories about real people and real places I gathered during my years of travel.

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