Luling—Texans know this town of about 5,000 for its football rivalry with nearby Lockhart. Each June they swarm here for the annual Watermelon Thump, a festival complete with a Watermelon Queen pageant, the World-Champion Seed-Spitting Contest, and the “black diamond” watermelons weighing around 80 pounds. And they recognize it for the greasy bliss of sausage links and ribs from Luling’s City Market. In fact, epicures outside Texas are also wise to Luling’s acumen at the pit, which has been celebrated in People, Gourmet, and The New York Times.
Yet most drivers who pass through “the crossroads to everywhere”—where four highways intersect and I-35 passes just south—remember Luling for its totems. Luling’s 154-foot water tower, thematically painted like a watermelon, is enough to catch the eyes of motorists for miles around. But drive through the town itself, and you’ll spot more eccentricities—ornamental oil gear, sucking Texas tea from deep below, decorating just about every residential lawn, public park, and churchyard within city limits.
Luling was established in 1874 as the far western stop of a branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad, but lawless cowboys passing along the Chisholm Trail soon named it “the toughest town in Texas.” The cotton industry dominated here until 1922, when Edgar B. Davis drilled the Rafael Rios No. 1 well and discovered one of the most prolific oil patches in the Southwest. The town of 500 exploded to more than 5,000 almost overnight, and by 1924 the Luling Oil Field was pumping 11 million gallons of oil annually. The local oil economy has faded since then, but two reminders harken back to those glory days: the Central Texas Oil Patch Museum and, of course, Luling’s population of decorated pump jacks.
Known as “nodding donkeys” for the way they bob up and down, the ubiquitous utilitarian structures would have become a trademark of the town whether gussied up or not. Luckily, Luling’s Chamber of Commerce saw to it that the pump jacks be turned into art in motion by adorning the sides and top with painted plywood. A cow repeatedly jumps over the moon. A girl obsessively picks flowers. A Luling Eagle quarterback throws his Hail Mary again and again. And a boy chomps on a giant watermelon slice with every undulation.
It all started when a native had the gumption to turn his pump jack into a grasshopper. The idea caught on, and in the late seventies the chamber commissioned local artist Speedy Thomas to beautify the pump jacks around the city. Although the decorating responsibilities have been passed around over the years, Thomas remembers the effort’s early days. “People were anxious to get it done because it was an eyesore,” he says. “It made [the pump jacks] fit in better….It wasn’t difficult to get permission. Most people were tickled to death to have them done.” Thomas says his inspirations were resident requests and particular pump jack locations. “Like at the Dairy Queen, I did the Dairy Queen Dude. It’s kind of one of those gut things.”
The tradition has lasted for decades. Among the nearly 200 pump jacks currently in the city limits alone, there is Tony the Tiger, a butterfly, a dragon, the Red Baron (complete with plane), assorted cowboys, and a flamingo driving a convertible. So next time you’re trucking between Austin and San Antonio, pull over, grab some sausage and a cold Big Red, and witness these oddities wrapped in tradition.