The Daily Courier Logo
Trusted local news leader for Prescott area communities since 1882
11:40 AM Thu, Sept. 20th

Column: A horny toad that will go down in history

Here's an easy question that probably 99 percent or so of you can answer correctly: What is the name of the most famous reindeer of all? Few of you would respond by naming one of the eight old-time working reindeer ranging, alphabetically, from Blitzen to Vixen. Au contraire, the snappy answer would be Rudolph, who saved Santa's rear end on that foggy yesteryear Christmas Eve when he responded affirmatively to the portly person's plaintive plea of "Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won't you guide my sleigh tonight?" Then all the reindeer, who had been shunning him, loved him and shouted out with glee: "Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, you'll go down in history!"

So much for the easy question, and now for the hard one that I trust not too many of you can answer: What's the name of the most famous horny toad who ever lived? Well, that would be Old Rip, a former resident of Eastland Texas - a little burg about a hundred miles west of Fort Worth - who survived after living for some 30 years in a courthouse cornerstone. Now, I don't expect you to believe that, but think it could be a beneficial follow-up on horny toads in general that I treated in last week's column focusing on the dwindling population of the little critters in not only Texas but in several other states that they inhabit. And please forgive me - or DON'T forgive me ... whatever - for taking the lazy route by quoting Old Rip's story directly from the June 2015 issue of Texas Monthly. Here's the magazine's take on it as excerpted from a comprehensive article penned by Alex Dropkin:

"The reptile in question began its ascent to national notoriety one day in 1897, when the town leaders gathered to celebrate the groundbreaking on a new courthouse being built to replace the one that had burned down the previous year. During the ceremony, justice of the peace Ernest Wood saw his four-year-old son playing with a Texas horned lizard - a small, sandy-colored, ant-eating reptile with a pair of horns on its head and jagged spines protruding from its blunt snout to its stubby tail. The lizard is frequently called a horny toad, and its genus directly translates to 'toad-bodied,' ascribed to the lizard's frog-like broad body and awkward gait. In the wild they normally hibernate between October and April, a behavior that possibly inspired an old cowboy myth that horned lizards can live without food or water for 100 years. That day in Eastland, Wood decided to test it.

"The cornerstone of the courthouse was to be hollowed out and used as a time capsule; Wood offered up the lizard, which his son had named Blinky. It was placed in the capsule, along with a Bible and several newspapers and coins, and sealed in. Three decades later, according to legend, when the courthouse was demolished to make way for another, a crowd of 3,000 was astonished to see a dusty lizard pulled from the cornerstone still alive. It had a broken leg, and the horns on its head were worn down, as if it had tried to escape, but otherwise it was a healthy, breathing horned lizard. Renamed Old Rip after Rip Van Winkle, the lizard became an instant celebrity and even visited President Calvin Coolidge in Washington, D.C. If a Texas reptile was destined to end up at the White House, it naturally had to be a horny toad.

"The lizards have been revered by Texans since long before Old Rip, their cultural significance stretching back before there was a Texas. The Anasazi, Hohokam, Mogollon and Mimbres cultures painted or carved horned lizards on pottery, rocks and shells that date back thousands of years. And early Texas pioneers, homesteaders, ranchers and naturalists became enamored of the creatures. More recently, in 1993, the Legislature declared the horned lizard the official state reptile, and you can now buy a Texas license plate with a horned toad on it.

"You can also enjoy a horny toad cocktail (vodka, triple sec and lemonade), dine at the Horny Toad Café and Bar in Denton, and buy a chopper from the Horny Toad Harley Davidson dealership in Temple. Horned Frogs remain the mascot for Texas Christian University, which has one of the top college football teams in the nation, and the town of Kenedy was designated by law the official Horned Lizard Capital of Texas. These lizards, toads, frogs - whatever you call them - are part of Texas lore."

Sooo, if you ever happen to be on one of those TV trivia quiz shows and are asked to name the most famous horny toad that ever lived, I would expect you to respond, brightly, with "Old Rip." It could very well earn you some big bucks, but probably not.

Contact the columnist at editorial@prescottaz.com.