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Sunday, March 2, 1997

A century ago Old Rip was placed in cornerstone

By KEN ELLSWORTH / Senior Staff Writer

EASTLAND - This Eastland County Courthouse is a sacred burial place. Old Rip, the most famous individual horned lizard in the world, the lizard who survived 31 years of hibernation in the cornerstone of the old Eastland County Courthouse, lies in state here - or a least his effigy does - and he is revered more than many humans can ever hope to be.

Old Rip's casket, made by the Abilene Casket Co., is behind glass and open for viewing from either inside or outside the courthouse. About eight inches in length, the plush casket provides more than enough room for the four or five-inch Old Rip to move about should he decide to awaken once more. Old Rip is also honored by a nearby stone made by the Eastland Monument Co.

Friday, however, a courthouse celebration for Old Rip, attended by more than 100 people, was anything but somber. It had been exactly 69 years since Rip had risen from his cornerstone tomb after a sleep of 31 years, groggy, but alive. And, it had been a century since he had been placed alive into the stone in the first place.

Mayor Don Griffin, introduced by emcee, County Judge Scott Bailey, stepped forward Friday in the courthouse lobby and proclaimed Eastland to be the "Horned Lizard Capitol for the Day." Then State Representative Jim Keffer read a statement from Governor George W. Bush declaring Eastland to be the "Horned Toad (or maybe he said horned lizard) Capitol For the Day." Bush also said that horned lizards, now a protected species, exemplify "true Texas grit."

Keffer said that Old Rip provides Eastland and Eastland County with an identity that is state wide.

"Isn't that the place where they've got that frog or toad or something?" Keffer said people often ask.

Siebert Elementary School students participated in the event by entering an Old Rip coloring contest. Winners were on hand to receive Old Rip chocolate candy bars, gold plated Old Rip pins, or, for first place, T-shirts. The T-shirts said "Wanted Alive" and showed a picture of a horned lizard. In all, 348 crayoned horned lizards were placed on view.

Nobody there Friday seemed to doubt Old Rip's fantastic achievement of surviving incarceration in the old courthouse cornerstone from 1897-1928, least of all the people present at the Friday celebration who had also been witnesses at the startling event in 1928.

Virginia Weaver Russell, still of Eastland, said she had been among the 2,000 citizens crowded around in front of the old cornerstone when Old Rip was lifted out in 1928. She had been in high school that day and had no idea why school had been dismissed. As she and the others watched, Eugene Day reached down into the open cornerstone to pick up the horned lizard.

"They pulled him out by the tail and held him by the tail," Mrs. Russell said. She and the others watched and saw Old Rip wriggle.

"There was a great cry from the crowd," she said. 'He's alive!' Is he alive? Yes! He's alive!' " Mrs. Russell also remembered that the loud cry of the multitude was nearly in unison.

Velton "Buddy" Moser, now 84 and also of Eastland, had also been a witness. Friday, wearing a pewter horned lizard pin with turquoise eyes, Moser said at age 15 he had been carrying water to crews working on the new courthouse.

"I saw him (Old Rip), but I couldn't tell for sure if he moved," he said, but he did not doubt that others did.

Richard May, now of Abilene, was just eight on the day none can forget.

"I had an ice cream cone in my left hand and to stay close to my dad. I held his back pocket with my other hand. I watched and saw (Day's) hand go down and hold the frog up. I saw that they had him by the tail," Mr. May recounted. "They said he had hibernated. That (31 years) seemed a long time to me, but I did believe it."

Mr. May said nothing to indicate he had ever changed his mind and neither did anybody else.

So, long live the legend, or the reality of Old Rip, who eventually met President Calvin Coolidge, toured the east, and was written up by New York newspapers. It does not really seem to matter.

He can still draw a very nice crowd.

This column covers the cities and communities of this part of West Texas. To contact Ken Ellsworth, call (800) 588-6397 or (915) 673-4271, Ext. 381, or write to P.O. Box 30, Abilene, TX 79604.

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