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In this East Texas town, a 45-foot tall oil pump is a holiday symbol and connection to the past

By Jess Huff, The Texas Tribune

In this East Texas town, a 45-foot tall oil pump is a holiday symbol and connection to the past” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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LUFKIN — As families and communities nationwide set up their Christmas trees, Nativity scenes and other holiday decorations, Lufkin residents earlier this month stopped downtown to celebrate the lighting of a 45-foot tall Mark 640 pumping unit, festively named Rudolph.

The modern counter-balance pumping unit, also known as a pumpjack, was invented by Lufkin resident Walter Trout in 1952 to bring oil to the surface. The unit looks like a large horse. The head, which sits at the end of a long spine, moves up and down thanks to a “walking beam” connected to a large rotor.

And on Dec. 1, thousands of East Texans joined in the celebration, heads adorned with red foam antlers and balancing hot chocolate and cookies with their children, to watch the hundreds of lights adorning Rudolph the Red-Nosed Pumping Unit light up. Fake snow and Christmas music filled the air, hiding from pictures that it was, in fact, 62 degrees outside.

Rudolph isn’t just a symbol of holiday cheer in this East Texas town of 34,000 people. It is a reminder of the town’s legacy in both oil and manufacturing, the collective heartache the community felt as its leading company all but shuttered, and how the town has begun to reinvent itself.

Though Lufkin’s economy grows each year, many older Lufkin residents hesitate to release the anger they adopted as the city’s industries failed them.

Thousands of East Texans joined the millions of Americans who lost their livelihoods in the early 1990s due to a recession, the savings and loan collapse and job cutbacks caused by lower defense spending. Thousands more, many of whom were employed by Lufkin Industries, the company Trout worked for when he invented the pump unit, went on to lose their jobs amid the 2008 Great Recession and after.

[Looking for an economic rebound, an East Texas town looks to the arts — and is rebuffed by the state]

Even as new businesses have laid their foundations here during the last decade, those old enough to remember Lufkin’s loss watch distrustfully from the sidelines.

“It didn’t just hurt the families that lost jobs,” said Lufkin/Angelina County Chamber of Commerce CEO Tara Watson-Watkins of the economic fallout. “It hurt the soul of the community.”

Putting Lufkin on the map

Rudolph was the creative byproduct of workers at Lufkin Industries, formerly known as the Lufkin Foundry and Machine Company. The manufacturing company saw a meteoric rise in business from when it was founded in 1902 by a group of five East Texans, according to the Texas Historical Association.

The founder, Joseph H. Kurth Sr., and four others built the company from scratch with the help of 35 employees. Walter C. Trout joined the company in 1905 and it remained stable even through the 20th Century. Originally known for making repairs to sawmill machinery, the company made a play in the oil and gas industry.

Trout is credited with the invention of the modern pumpjack, a piece of equipment used internationally today, putting the foundry — and Lufkin — on the map. Lufkin’s impact on the oil industry grew with the discovery of the East Texas oil field, which kept the small town’s economy up through the Great Depression.

In 1966, a group of employees began decorating one of the pumpjacks as Rudolph using a small red nose and some lights. Employees began putting him outside the shop where the rest of the community could see him, and he quickly grew in popularity.

Whether he represented the 3,800 Lufkin Industries employees in the 1980s, or the 36 who remain after years of layoffs, Rudolph stands tall for the Lufkin community.

In the mid-2000s, Lufkin Industries joined the ranks of manufacturers that left the area and laid off its workforce. The catalyst was the company’s acquisition by General Electric and later, a merger with Baker Hughes.

In 2020, Baker Hughes sold the oil field group and Lufkin Industries was renamed LUFKIN.

Today, LUFKIN employs just three dozen people in Angelina County, though operations have expanded into other cities, states and countries, the company’s general counsel Keith Gee said. Lufkin’s name can be seen on pump jacks across the globe, including on the side of Rudolph.

“We’re still very, very proud of the Lufkin name,” he said.

Tradition holds as town evolves

Former Lufkin Industries employee Tim Crawford has helped erect and decorate Rudolph, which now sits in a parking lot off Lufkin’s downtown main street during the holidays, for years.

He was one of the few whose jobs were saved in the layoffs. He saw firsthand how his friends’ and colleagues’ lives changed in an instant. Now an employee for Lufkin Gears, he believes community leadership wants to turn Lufkin into a retirement community — a sentiment shared by numerous community members at the downtown celebration.

This mindset could not be further from the truth, however, community leaders say.

It is a battle many communities impacted by the flight of manufacturing plants overseas have undertaken.

Cities in the Rust Belt and Midwest have tried to redefine themselves following the collapse of industry. The cities that have been successful have had a focus on alleviating poverty, building up the arts and tourism and revitalizing downtowns.

Cleveland, for example, found success in focusing on the arts, according to the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. While it did not bring back the jobs the city saw in the height of the industrial age, it did redefine the quality of life for residents as the economy diversified. Lufkin hopes for a similar success, with organizations such as Impact Lufkin, Lufkin Forward and Lufkin Creative working to show that the town is more than just manufacturing.

Compared to 30 years ago when some form of manufacturer employed most residents, residents can now find jobs in a variety of fields including health care – which is the largest employer, manufacturing, education, retail, food and more, according to DATA USA.

Angelina County Judge Keith Wright, the former Lufkin city manager, said the city rebuilt itself by refocusing on smaller employers, companies that would employ 50-100 people, so if one company went down the city didn’t suddenly have 2,000 – 3,000 unemployed workers.

“The local economy is strong,” Lufkin Economic Development Corporation director Bob Samford said. “We’re seeing a substantial influx of new retail businesses coming to the area, which is indicative of a strong future.”

He is also fiercely proud of the diverse workforce, opportunities for training and growth offered by Angelina College, and the Angelina County Airport which provides significant opportunities for economic development.

Lufkin is more than its economy

Justin Forrest, a 7-foot-tall man living with an intellectual disability, is Rudolph’s biggest fan. The pumpjack is painted red and white, with eyes, antlers and a nose adorning each side. Lights scale the edges of the large machine and the whole attraction brings vibrancy to an otherwise empty parking lot.

“It’s Rudolph,” Forrest yelled. “He goes up and down.”

He typically goes downtown to watch the trains, but in late November he watches anxiously each morning as crews contracted by Lufkin Industries set up the unit. He even tested the lights one morning to ensure they worked perfectly.

Justin Forrest, a very big fan, in front of Rudolph the Red Nosed Pumpjack during the lighting ceremony in downtown Lufkin.
Justin Forrest, a very big fan, in front of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Pumpjack during the lighting ceremony in downtown Lufkin. Credit: Joel Andrews for The Texas Tribune

Luther Rains, a contractor who has overseen Rudolph’s assembly for the last 20 years, said the best part is the community interaction when he’s setting up. He particularly enjoys Forrest’s excitement and says it is the same with most people who stop to say hello while he works.

The pumpjack has become a vital part of Lufkin’s fabric and the kickoff into the holiday season alongside the annual Rotary Club Waffle Bake and nighttime Light Up Lufkin Christmas Parade.

“It’s as much of a Christmas tradition to me as Santa’s coming on Christmas Eve,” Watson-Watkins said.

For Lufkin’s kids, the Rudolph tradition is just starting. Joseph Hughes, 8, was among hundreds of children filling the downtown area — he was forced to go by his parents, he said. His mom, Marie, has been attending since she was a child. The unit used to be visible from Lufkin’s loop, but that changed in 2019 when he was moved downtown, a move that frustrated many Lufkinites.

Rebecca Ramos, top left, and her children, from left, Julie, Christina and Victoria, are decked out with noses and antlers at the Rudolph the Red Nosed Pumping Unit lighting ceremony in downtown Lufkin, TX, Friday, December 1, 2023.
Rebecca Ramos, top left, and her children, from left, Julie, Christina and Victoria, are decked out with noses and antlers at the Rudolph the Red Nosed Pumping Unit lighting ceremony in downtown Lufkin. Credit: Joel Andrews for The Texas Tribune
Luther Rains poses with the towering oil pumping unit at the Rudolph the Red Nosed Pumping Unit lighting ceremony in downtown Lufkin, TX, Friday, December 1, 2023.
Luther Rains poses with the towering oil pumping unit at the Rudolph the Red Nosed Pumping Unit lighting ceremony in downtown Lufkin, TX, Friday, December 1, 2023. Credit: Joel Andrews for The Texas Tribune
First: Rebecca Ramos, top left, and her children, from left, Julie, Christina and Victoria, are decked out with noses and antlers at the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Pumping Unit lighting ceremony in downtown Lufkin. Last: Luther Rains poses with Rudolph at the lighting ceremony. Credit: Joel Andrews for The Texas Tribune
Lufkin Mayor Mark Hicks at the Rudolph the Red Nosed Pumping Unit lighting ceremony in downtown Lufkin.
Lufkin Mayor Mark Hicks at the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Pumping Unit lighting ceremony in downtown Lufkin. Credit: Joel Andrews for The Texas Tribune

“I can remember, when it was at the mall, we would drive by and see it every day and it just kind of brought us joy,” she said.

Now, it gives them a good reason to visit downtown where once vacant storefronts play host to vibrant retail displays, doctors’ offices, a coffee shop, a bakery, a yoga studio and several locally owned restaurants.

Karen Walker loves that Rudolph has returned to Lufkin’s heart. Lufkin Industries started her career, and even gave her a scholarship to build her life on. She loves to share Rudolph with her grandchildren each holiday season.

“(The move) brought it back, close to its home,” she said. “Lufkin Industries started right over there — just a few blocks over.”

Disclosure: Angelina College has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/12/06/lufkin-texas-rudolph-pumping-unit-christmas-tradition/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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