Golden Driller, Oklahoma’s state monument, poses an interesting problem for Greek-American studies. While much is written about the statue and its physical and cultural development over more than sixty years, little is offered but fragments about its creator George S. Hondronastas.
Rather than fret over what may or may not be readily available in the public record at the moment, we need to move ahead with the sure hope that more direct information on this talented artist will reveal itself in time.
Golden Driller is the fifth-largest statue in the United States. It stands in front of the Tulsa Exposition Center, is 75 feet tall, or almost eight stories high, and weighs about 43,500 pounds. The 12-foot shoes alone weigh a ton apiece.
Designed to withstand winds up to 100 miles per hour, the statue contains about 2.5 miles of steel, including reinforcement rods and heavy wire mesh over framework of structural steel (Troy [NY] Record November 7, 1968).
In the late 1940s to early 1950s, the United States was the principal oil producing country in the world and Tulsa was the center of that then-seemingly endless, underground ocean of oil.
Tulsa, the period’s recognized “Oil Capital of the World,” was the location on May 14-23 1953 for the International Petroleum Exposition (IPE). Tulsa’s 25-acre exhibition center at 4145 E. 21st St. S was under orders that no expense was to be spared.
More than 1,500 oil industry manufacturers, suppliers and service companies were scheduled to participate.
A reported $30 million was spent just to build the exposition’s industrial displays. William B. Way, general manager of the exposition said that “representatives from 50 oil-producing nations and practically all the states” were scheduled to attend.
Overall 750 million dollars was spent on the event, as what was then reportedly the world’s greatest equipment exposition devoted to a single industry. Approximately 400,000 people attended this 10-day expo.
So in 1953, The Roustabout, as the statue was first called, was part of the Mid-Continent Supply of Fort Worth, TX company’s display at the IPE. Hondronastas was hired as the conceptual artist while Dallas Meade Constructors Inc. of Tulsa was charged to build the figure. In this first incarnation the statue was “a 65-foot tall ‘golden driller’ and at the time ‘the largest paper mache figure ever built…valued at $30,000, is mounted on a 70-foot utility pole.’
Which meant The Roustabout figure hung off the side of an oil derrick. “His framework is of welded steel an outline of this body is meshed wire…A “skin” of two layers, one of cloth and one of paper mache, over which was painted golden sheen (Clarion-Ledger [Jackson, MS) May 15, 1953).”
Overall, this giant’s weight proved to be four tons. With regret at the end of the exposition this first version of the statue was discarded.
On May 14, 1959, the International Petroleum Industry exposition opened to some 1,200 dignitaries, 2,000 exhibitors and 30,000 oil men from 37 different countries who mingled daily among crowds that would ultimately number nearly 500,000. Hondronastas, was once again hired to work on the second version of the statue which was still known as The Roustabout. This time, however, his right hand waved.
Then, for the opening of the May 12, 1966, International expo Hondronastas’ third redesigned figure was donated by Mid-Continental’s parent company, oil giant Kendavis Industries to the IPE as a permanent symbol of Tulsa’s standing as the “Oil Capital of the World” as well as to commemorate the opening of the refurbished Tulsa Expo Center. The newly reappointed 354,000-square-foot event center had been made possible through a $3.5 million bond passed by Tulsa voters three years prior.
This third and final version of the statue, which was then renamed Golden Driller, was erected on April 8, 1966. This version consists of a steel frame covered in plaster, painted gold, and supported by a concrete foundation. It took three cranes to erect the massive 76-foot, 43,500-pound plaster body of Golden Driller.
Given its height and mass the figure’s gloved right hand rests on a real Seminole, OK oil derrick. A plaque was placed at the base of the driller then read, in part: “The Golden Driller, a symbol of the International Petroleum Industry. 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.”
Sadly, 1966 was also the last year of the IPE in Tulsa – the city was no longer the boomtown it once was. In another city, the statue might have been torn down; its purpose had been served and the reason for its existence seemed gone for good. However, even though the oil-boom era of Tulsa was long dead, a new era for Golden Driller as a symbol of Tulsa’s history was just beginning.
Over time, the statue somehow evolved from being just the state monument of Oklahoma. This towering figure has somehow entered the cultural subconscious. While one would expect souvenirs such as candy bars (with the Driller stamped on the surface), T-shirts, magnets, whiskey decanters, art-prints, coffee cups, an annual marathon and many other things all available with/as replicas of this statue more is at play.
In France an amusement ride is named after the Driller and as one would expect a huge near-replica of this statue is prominently featured as part of the overall ride.
All that said, the artistic creator of all three statues, George S. Hondronastas (1893-1979) still remains a mystery.
All available public accounts credit Hondronastas as the artist behind the statues but the information on this individual is slight and oft-repeated. So we hear, over and over, that Hondronastas became a naturalized citizen while serving in the United States Army during WW I. Being a citizen meant Hondronastas could pursue his artistic passion in the country he had called home for years.
He is also said to have attended the Art Institute of Chicago. Hondronastas was always proud of designing “The Golden Driller,” and would tell anyone he met. In 1978, Hondronastas underwent surgery for lung cancer and subsequently died a year later.
It was that year, 1979, that the Oklahoma State Senate designated Golden Driller as the official state monument. In 2016, for the 50th Anniversary of Golden Driller, a stunning city-wide celebration took place.
Yet regarding Greek-American studies, we must ask: why have we not heard more of Hondronastas’ favorite creation? While information about the monument now known as Golden Driller is readily found, the same cannot be said for detailed information concerning Hondronastas’ sustained role in the creation of this singular work of art. While all contemporary accounts always credit Hondronastas as the artist, only a small cluster of oft-repeated details do so.
This remains especially curious given the ongoing cultural impact of this statue. We can only hope that as George Hondronastas’ role in the creation of this statue becomes more widely known within the Greek-American community that those with knowledge about this artist will come forward.