In 1928, when an older version of the Eastland County Courthouse was being demolished to make way for a larger model, locals gathered to witness the opening of the old building's cornerstone. When the marble time capsule was put in place back in 1897, County Clerk Ernest Wood had dropped inside it a helpless horny toad and the audience was anxious to see what had come of the little guy. After 31 years locked away in the dark, the lonesome toad surprised the crowd by being less than dead.
February 18, 2003 marked 75 years since the legend of Old Rip was born, and despite a dangerous ice storm that was sweeping through the area, revelers gathered in the warm enclosure of the county courthouse yesterday to commemorate the occasion.
Believers of all ages stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the crowded lobby as the guest of honor basked in the sunlight of his glass case. Up front sat many of the surviving eyewitnesses to the revelation of Old Rip, including Weldon Armstrong, Virginia Russell and V.T. Moser, who was about 15 years old when he witnessed Old Rip's surprise resurrection. Also present was Bill Wood, grandson to the man who originally placed the miracle reptile in the cornerstone over a hundred years ago.
Following the Pledge of Allegiance, and a very shy rendition of "God Bless America" sung by young Eastland resident Claire Zoellick, Judge Brad Stephenson initiated the 30-minute celebration.
Judge Stephenson insisted that newly elected officials and all guests who had not yet taken the solemn Old Rip Oath, including yours truly, step to the center and do so. As tradition would have it, retired judge Scott Bailey administered the oath, as he had done so many times before, although there initially seemed to be some confusion this time over which hand we were to raise.
Musical entertainment for the day was provided by the first graders from local Siebert Elementary, some of whom used the opportunity to showcase their skills with those ever-popular rhythm sticks. (You remember the ones — blue sticks, one smooth, one ridged.) A specially written Old Rip ballad was to follow, but songwriter Monty Harper had unfortunately been detained in Oklahoma by the weather.
The story of Old Rip was retold in both prose and poetry by historian Wanda Skinner and wide-tied local Ron Vaughn. Additionally, Judge Stephenson celebrated Old Rip's more recent notoriety, including the 2001 Texas House resolution declaring Old Rip the Most Famous Horned Toad in Texas and last year's much ballyhooed trip to Six Flags' Best of Texas Festival.
Unfortunately, Old Rip's 75th anniversary didn't garner the media attention it deserved. But I will continue to follow the little guy's continuing tale as the exemplar of Lone Star legend. As Judge Stephenson so accurately put it, "How many other places in the world can you get together and celebrate the revealing of a horned toad?"
Besides, I have to promote the story every chance I get. I've taken an oath.