A new arrival in Austin from the Chicago area, I recently found myself wondering about small-town Texas. Were there really tumbleweeds blowing through town? Were the folks friendly? Would there be a Dairy Queen? It sounds silly, but the Texas myth prevails, and my time in the Live Music Capital of the World hadn’t provided me with any small-town experiences. So I decided to go to one and see what it was all about. I landed in Eastland, a painstakingly preserved community just off Interstate 20, about halfway between Abilene and Fort Worth. Eastland is the perfect place for a day of leisurely sight-seeing and fact-finding; it’s a friendly town whose brick-laid streets are rife with history, lore, and years of community pride.
In its early days, Eastland and its residents gained notoriety throughout the state and the nation when the town became the home of Old Rip. As the story goes, a new courthouse was built in 1897, and a horned toad, a cherished symbol of the western Texas plains, was placed in the cornerstone of the building before it was sealed in 1898, when the structure was completed. Some years later, when it was time to build a new, larger courthouse, people began to talk of the horned toad and wonder if it had really been sealed inside the courthouse for all those years. When the cornerstone was finally opened, the residents of Eastland surrounded the square, watching in earnest. The horned toad miraculously woke up.
I saw Old Rip with my own eyes. In the window of the stately four-story courthouse, which stands smack-dab in the middle of town square, the tiny scaly body of Old Rip lies on a pillow in an ornate window display. There are theories floating around town that the original Old Rip was stolen and replaced with a phony, but I didn’t much care. About a block or two away from the courthouse, a gigantic sculpture of the official Texas state reptile lurks on a nine-foot plaque. Horned toads are little, shingle-covered ant-eating dwellers that can shoot blood out of their eyes at predators. Even though I knew that the gigantic horned toad staring me down was merely made up of metal and paint, I nonetheless quickened my step down the town’s main drag, away from Old Rip.
If I was looking for something to calm me down, I had turned in the wrong direction. Right outside the Old Eastland County Jail, a curious structure built in 1897 that still has a dirt floor in the basement and several names scratched into the cell walls, a large, ominous grave-marker denotes the site of what is believed to be the last lynch mob hanging in the state of Texas. A group of men tried to rob a bank in Cisco; Marshall Ratliff, the festive ringleader who was dressed as Santa Claus, was sent to jail in Eastland. He got hold of a pistol one November night and shot the jailer (a bullet that went into the ceiling on the old jail’s ground level is still visible today). The death created an uproar; some two thousand angry Eastlanders and neighbors gathered outside the jail, overpowered the police, and took Ratliff across the street and hanged him. That very rope is on display at the jail’s museum.
It seems as though the past is alive almost everywhere in Eastland. Inside the main old building in Old Rip Plaza, which houses the Eastland County Museum and Historical Society, I felt transported back through time. I was struck by the simple collection of early artifacts—old bicycles, store signs, campaign posters, and photographs of a town that, save for the residents’ dress, doesn’t appear all that different from today.
The beautiful buildings in Eastland are numerous. Take for example the Connellee Hotel, named after one of the two original founders of Eastland. Today, the eight-story Connelle is as much a venue for entertainment and dancing as it is a charming place to stay. Jazz can be heard from the sidewalks in front of the hotel, and a fountain marks one entrance. Western artwork adorns the walls of the lobby, a simple space dotted with potted palms and oriental rugs that surround a grand piano.
I was brought back to the present, though, by the many art-deco murals displayed throughout Eastland’s streets. About three years ago, town officials began collecting donations for public art exhibitions. All vibrantly colored, the images pop out at unsuspecting strollers from library sides and store windows. The brilliant hues contrasted markedly with the sandy tones of the surrounding buildings. I had finally found something modern in this small town so steeped in history. The murals reminded me that it was time to get back to Austin.