Erected for the 1953 International Petroleum Exposition, a towering roughneck evolved into an Oklahoma landmark.
With an arm resting on a steel derrick, a 76-foot oilfield worker cannot be missed by visitors to the Tulsa County Fairgrounds. Popularly known as the “Golden Driller,” the first version of the 22-ton Oklahoma 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 East 21st Street and South 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,
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.
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 (learn more in Red Fork Gusher).
An even bigger oilfield discovery arrived in 1905 on a farm south of the future oil capital. On November 22, 1905, the The No. 1 Ida Glenn well erupted a geyser of oil southeast of Tulsa. The Glenn Pool field would forever change Tulsa and Oklahoma history.
Learn more Tulsa history in the extensive collection of the Tulsa Historical Society.
Recommended Reading: Tulsa Oil Capital of the World, Images of America (2004); Tulsa Where the Streets Were Paved With Gold – Images of America (2000). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society (AOGHS) preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2023 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 6, 2023. Original Published Date: March 1, 2006.