Rest Stops in Texas

Jessie Wilder Jones
In the quiet middle of Abilene's Elmwood Cemetery, eternally resting in a pretty, tree-shaded plot lies Jessie Wilder Jones. Surrounded by other members of her family who have also departed mortal life on earth, with the birds chirping and singing in the trees that protect her resting place from the hot Texas sun, one can imagine Jessie is very much at peace. No historical plaque or marker designates her burial ground and other than the occasional living relative, few visitors come to pay their respects. A good number of Texas travelers though should be offering up a thankful thought to her memory.

Jessie Kenan Wilder was born August 11, 1882 in Graham, Texas to financially blessed parents. She had a privileged, but unremarkable youth and went on to receive a bachelor's degree in music from Weatherford College. After post-graduate studies in music at the Sherwood School of Music, the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, and the Bush Temple Conservatory of Music in Dallas, she established her own music school in Seymour, Texas. While operating her successful school, she met Morgan C. Jones, the nephew of a wealthy railroad builder. The two were married in October, 1902 and a few years later, the happy couple moved to Abilene. With their combined wealth, Jessie soon embarked on her subsequent life as a civic leader and during the Great Depression, was the founder of several charities which provided free milk to needy children and free child-care services for working Black parents.

As a civic leader in Abilene, Jessie served as chairman of the Home Service Committee for the Taylor County Red Cross during World War II. Then over the next 20 years, she served as president of the Abilene Museum of Fine Arts, the Abilene Garden Club, the City Federation of Women's Clubs, the Abilene Women's Club, the Abilene Parks and Recreation Board, and the Rosenfeld Music Club. She also served as the state treasurer of the Texas Federation of Women's Clubs and served on the committee that wrote the city charter for Abilene.

So what does any of that have to do with travelers on the highways of Texas? Directly, not really anything, but in the early 1930's while driving alone with her five children for a vacation in Colorado, she found there was no shady spot along the road to spread out the picnic lunch they wanted to have. With her children hot, hungry, tired of riding in the car and clamoring with their lack of patience, in desperation, Jessie pulled over in the small shade under a train trestle. With cars passing on the road close by and with the stench and dirt of a train which passed overhead, the unpleasant memory was etched deep in her mind.

Upon returning to Abilene from their Colorado vacation, Jessie attended a highway beautification meeting and proposed an idea for roadside parks. With her credentials and with all of the influential people she knew due to her civic activities, she was able to get an audience with the Governor of Texas, Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, who liked her idea and began actively advocating for it.

Today, the Texas Department of Transportation maintains and operates 101 rest area's and 743 picnic area's along the highways and byways of Texas. Even in the vast empty expanse of west Texas, travelers are never more than 2 hours away from a designated stopping point along a paved Texas road. The next time you need a break from driving; the next time while traveling down a highway in the middle of nowhere and you need to re-leave yourself of that morning coffee; the next time you just can't keep your eyes open and need a safe place to get 40 winks, stop at one of those rest stops, take care of your needs and give a quick thought of thanks to a forgotten lady forever resting in Abilene and those five clamoring children.

Old Rip, The Miracle Horned Toad

The Eastland Courthouse constructed in 1928
In the Eastland, Texas courthouse, protected by 2 thick layers of glass and a uniformed guard, a Texas legend lies in state. Resting on velvet and white satin, he was once famous around the country. Fans from near and far arrived daily to see him and even a U.S. president had a personal meeting with him. Today, it's usually just the rare curious visitor who stops by and every now and then, a tour bus of senior citizens will pull over for the occupants to make their way to the viewing area. Mostly, he lies forgotten and ignored. But there was a time...

In 1897, the cornerstone of Eastland County's new courthouse was scheduled to be dedicated. As the ceremony was underway, Justice of the Peace Earnest Wood, who was also a member of the band on hand that day, noticed his son was playing with a horned toad, a common and favorite creature in Texas at that time. Old Earnest decided it would be funny to place the toad in the cornerstone so that's exactly what he did just before it was sealed up tight. Several witnesses saw him do it and a good chuckle was had by all. For the next 31 years people would pass by the courthouse, point and say, "There's a horned toad snoozing in that building."

In 1928, the population of Eastland county had grown bigger and the courthouse had grown older. Money was raised and plans drawn up to replace it with a bigger, modern building. Stories were going around that horned toads could go into hibernation and live for years without food or water. Some even said they could stop breathing until conditions turned favorable. Arguments raged with others swearing talk of horned toads going into suspended animation was just old wives tales. 

On February 18th, the old structure had been demolished down to the cornerstone. On that day, over 3,000 people were on hand anxious to witness the opening. As they looked on in suspense, the block was cleared and the covering removed. Judge E. S. Pritchard removed some other items which had been sealed inside - a bible, several newspapers, a book. He then reached into the very bottom of the stone and pulled out something that looked like a dust covered piece of dark brown tree bark. It was the desiccated toad. The poor creature was handed to Eugene Day, a leading citizen of the town. He turned around and handed the stiff-as-a-board remains to Frank Singleton, the local Methodist pastor. After examining it, the preacher handed it back to Judge Pritchard who then held it up by the tail so everyone in the crowd could see.

A Texas Horned Toad
Some were disappointed, some smiled and said, "I told you so" and a few of the young children started to cry. But as everyone began to leave, people in the front gasped and someone shouted, "It twitched! That thing's alive!" As people turned to look, they were astounded to see the dried-up animal wake up from its 31-year nap and wriggle back to life!

The miracle horned toad became an instant sensation. He was dubbed Rip Van Winkle, which of course was quickly shortened to Old Rip, and travelers from miles away came in droves to see the animal that refused to die. The local veterinary made sure Old Rip was fed and watered and folks made sure he had a good home in the display window of a store on the town square. Eventually, the demand to see him was so great that he went on a tour of the United States - Dallas, St. Louis, New York City and Washington, D.C. When he arrived in the nation's capitol, President Calvin Coolidge requested he be brought to the White House where he could see the country's most famous animal in person.

Old Rip returned to Eastland after the tour but sadly, after 31 years encased in an airtight stone with no food or water, he was on borrowed time. On January 19, 1929, Old Rip passed away. An autopsy was performed and he was found to have contracted pneumonia and drowned due to water in his lungs. 

Old Rip lying in state in his custom-made casket

The people of Eastland were unwilling to let Old Rip go so they had him embalmed, placed in a small casket and put on display in a window of the new courthouse. For years, people continued to come to see the diminutive miracle animal. In 1962, Gubernatorial candidate John Connally stopped in Eastland on a campaign tour around the state. Like all politicians, he took every opportunity to have his name and picture in the public's face so he requested and was given permission to have his picture taken while holding Eastland's most famous resident. He was indelicately holding up Old Rip by a back leg when it broke off. The news reporters were amused, but the people of Eastland were not. Old Rip was placed back in his little casket and that was the last time anyone has been allowed to touch him.

Closeup of Old Rip

In 1955, the legend of Old Rip inspired cartoonist Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese to create the classic cartoon, One Froggy Evening. It tells the story of of a frog who is freed from a building's cornerstone and sings ragtime jazz when no one is watching. That cartoon became so popular it morphed into Michigan J. Frog, the official mascot of the Warner Brothers Television Network.

Michigan J. Frog