By Jim Malewitz
LULING — Down, up. Down, up. Click.
In the parking lot of a Dollar General store, a pump jack slowly works oil to the surface, its steady motion hypnotic. Out-of-towners zipping down Magnolia Avenue would probably not notice this working monument to a community’s past — if not for the gray-blue shark attached to its rusty beam. The shark, fashioned from plywood, chomps at a tiny fish with each churn of the pump.
The days of limousines parked downtown here are long gone. The sulfuric stench of crude — some call it the smell of money — now lingers only in pockets by the wells, no longer filling the air.
“It’s pretty much drilled up. Swiss cheese,” Tracy Perryman, an independent oil producer and president of the town’s Central Texas Oil Patch Museum, said of the area’s shallow Edwards limestone, which is pockmarked with wells every 330 feet. “There were lots of straws in it.”
When the big oil companies left decades ago, the wells stayed put. Now 183 are scattered in Luling’s backyards and next to its churches, restaurants and gas stations. But rather than asking visitors to avert their eyes, officials here want folks to take notice. They have commissioned art on more than a dozen functioning pump jacks along the town’s main strip.
As a drilling boom grips communities in the Eagle Ford Shale, Luling, just a tobacco spit away, is left out, leaving officials to focus on other ways to draw visitors. The town’s proximity to rapidly growing Austin helps, as does a nationally known barbecue joint (City Market) and a full slate of festivals, including a four-day Watermelon Thump. But as the community plans a future with little oil production, it refuses to play down its past.
In addition to the Dollar General shark, there is a pump-jack Santa Claus in the store’s side lot. A cow jumps over the moon along the train tracks, where a metallic butterfly bobs and flaps its wings. In the First Baptist Church parking lot, a pump-jack quarterback painted in Luling High School Eagle green and white stands poised to pass.
With a population around 5,500, the city has added more than 400 people since 2000. It is building a second hotel, and officials talk of a new visitors’ center.
Trey Bailey, executive director of the Luling Economic Development Corporation, said he hoped to diversify an economy that still depended on oil-field service companies. But Bailey, who a few years ago sold the 11 wells he had inherited, added, “We’ll always have a tie to the oil industry in one way or another.”
In 1922, Edgar B. Davis, a Massachusetts businessman, struck oil here, spurring a mad dash to a railroad community that with a mix of oilmen, cowboys and bootleggers earned the title “toughest town in Texas.”
Luling rode the boom-and-bust cycle with oil prices in the following decades, before fading into relative obscurity in the 1980s.
Around that time, city officials, hoping to catch the eyes of passers-by, commissioned art on the jacks. The ploy has worked, to some degree.
“In the summertime, you will see tourists getting their pictures taken in front of them,” said Carol Voigt, director of the Oil Patch Museum, which has seen an increase in visitors. “It’s amazing how many people from the North think they’re just the cutest things ever.”
George Kalisek, an artist in nearby Moulton, has overseen the project for 15 years, maintaining the original art and creating a few new characters, including the shark. He may soon add another piece, pending permission from a well owner.
The art does not interfere with production on the wells, most of which pump less than a barrel of oil per day, Kalisek said. When the pumps need repairs, he quickly disassembles the characters.
Kalisek said his favorite creations were those — like the shark — with multiple moving pieces. They are also the most challenging to design.
Without the art, some might consider the pumps an eyesore, he said. “What these characters do is turn something that could be a liability into an asset.”