Erected temporarily for a 1953 petroleum expo, this roughneck grew into an Oklahoma landmark. 

 

With an arm resting casually resting on a steel derrick, a 76-foot oilfield worker cannot be missed by any visitor to the Tulsa County Fairgrounds. Popularly known as the “Golden Driller,” the first version of the 22-ton roughneck appeared at the 1953 International Petroleum Exposition.

The leading oil and natural gas equipment expo, which began in 1923 as the International Petroleum Exposition and Congress, took place for decades at the Tulsa County Free Fair site. The original 1953 “roustabout” statue, conceived as a promotion by the Mid-Continent Supply Company of Fort Worth, Texas, returned in 1959 before receiving a major makeover.

golden giant Tulsa roughneck statue with hand on derrick.

Designated an Oklahoma state monument in 1979, the Golden Driller was permanently installed for the 1966 International Petroleum Exposition in Tulsa. Photo by Bruce Wells.

Refurbishment and neglect would then follow with the fortunes of the petroleum industry. But civic leaders now proclaim the the Tulsa driller the most photographed landmark in the city once known as “Oil Capital of the World.” 

Although Mid-Continent Supply’s smaller first statue of 1952 impressed expo visitors, it was the 1959 version with a oilfield worker climbing a derrick that led to Tula’s current Golden Driller. “This time he was much more chiseled and detailed and was placed climbing a derrick and waving,” explained a volunteer for  the Tulsa Historical Society in 2010.

According to the society’s “Tulsa Gal,” the 1959 rig-climbing roustabout’s popularity inspired Mid-Continent Supply to donate it to the Tulsa County Fairgrounds Trust Authority when the expo ended. 

golden driller old statue  images from Tulsa oil expos

The original Golden Driller of 1953, left, proved so popular that a smaller, rig-climbing version (called The Roustabout) returned for the 1959 International Petroleum Exposition. The Tulsa fairgrounds opened in 1903. Images courtesy Tulsa Historical Society.

 

Over the next seven years he had a complete redesign to withstand the elements, she noted. The current Golden Driller was originally created for Tulsa’s 1966 International Petroleum Exposition. Its new look came from a Greek immigrant, George “Grecco” Hondronastas, an artist who had worked on the 1953 exposition’s statue.

golden driller

Mid-Continent Supply Company constructed a permanent version in 1966 with steel rods to withstand up to 200 mph winds. Refurbished again in 1979, it was designated a Oklahoma state monument.

According to a 2014 article by Tony Beaulieu, Hondronastas was an eccentric and prolific artist who was proud of becoming a U.S. citizen through his military service in World War I.

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Hondronastas, who attended the Art Institute of Chicago and later became a professor, came to Tulsa for the first time in 1953 “to help design and build an early version of the Golden Driller,” Beaulieu explained.  The artist, “fell in love with the city of Tulsa and later moved his wife and son from Chicago to a duplex near Riverview Elementary School, just south of downtown.” 

Beaulieu added that “Hondronastas was always proud of designing the Golden Driller, and would tell anyone he met, according to his son, Stamatis Hondronastas.”

Learn more in An Oil Town’s Golden Idol, originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 22, November 15, 2014.

The late Tulsa photographer Walter Brewer documented construction of the giant with images later donated to the Tulsa Historical Society. Designated a state monument and refurbished again in 1979 (the year Hondronastas died), the statue as it appears today was permanently installed at the 21st Street and Pittsburg Avenue. 

The statue contains 2.5 miles of rods and mesh, along with tons of plaster and concrete. It can withstand up to 200 mph winds, “which is a good thing here in Oklahoma,” according to Tulsa Gal.  It was painted it’s golden mustard shade in 2011,

 golden driller statue with local advertising

The giant has sported t-shirts, belts, beads and ties.This shirt is from the 2014 Tulsa State Fair and KMOD radio. Images courtesy the Tulsa Historical Society.

The Golden Driller’s right hand rests on an old production derrick moved from oilfields near Seminole, Oklahoma – a town that has its own extensive petroleum heritage.

Fully refurbished in the late 1970s, the Golden Driller – by now a 43,500-pound tourist attraction – is the largest free-standing statue in the world, according to Tulsa city officials. “Over time the Driller has seen the good and the bad,” said Tulsa Girl. “He has been vandalized, assaulted by shotgun blasts and severe weather. But he has also had more photo sessions with tourists than any other Tulsa landmark and can boast of many who love him all around the world.”

The Golden Driller, a symbol of the International Petroleum Exposition. Dedicated to the men of the petroleum industry who by their vision and daring have created from God’s abundance a better life for mankind. – Inscription on the plaque at the statue’s base.

golden driller circa 1950s giant shoe with model

An unidentified model posed on one of the Golden Driller’s shoes, probably sometime during construction of the permanent version in time for the 1966 petroleum expo.

golden driller American Oil and Gas Historical Society field trip members

A 2007 American Oil & Gas Historical Society Energy Education Conference and Field Trip in Oklahoma City included visits to museums in Seminole, Drumright and Tulsa – with a stop at the Golden Driller.

Although the first International Petroleum Exposition and Congress had no giant roughneck statue in 1923, the expo helped make Tulsa famous around the world. Leading oil and gas companies were attracted to Tulsa as early as 1901, six years before Oklahoma became a state (see Red Fork Gusher). An even bigger discovery arrived in 1905 on a farm just south of the future oil capital.

Research and learn more Tulsa history at the Tulsa Historical Society.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Golden Driller of Tulsa.” Authors: B.A. and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/oil-almanac/golden-driller-tulsa. Last Updated: May 9, 2021. Original Published Date: March 1, 2006.

 

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