Rudolph the Red-Nosed Pumping Unit lets Angelina County show its holiday spirit in a fun, unique way that can be a shared, enjoyable experience for the young and the young-at-heart.
The iconic pumping unit has, for decades, embodied a source of pride for the city: Lufkin Industries was one of the nation’s largest and oldest pumping unit manufacturers. For many East Texans, the holiday season really begins with Rudolph’s lighting.
That’s why so many East Texans are upset about this week’s announcement that the date and place of Rudolph’s lighting is changing. It’s another reminder of the pain that problems in the oil and gas industry and GE have brought to East Texas.
General Electric bought 100-plus-year-old Lufkin Industries in 2013 for $3.3 billion. In 2014, the company unveiled plans for a massive $60 million update and expansion of the foundry that would bring the company into the 21st century. That project — ‘‘Project Phoenix’’ — was scheduled to be completed by 2019. Instead, it went down in flames. The foundry was shuttered and equipment was auctioned off or scrapped throughout the rest of 2015. Blaming it all on falling energy prices, the company began laying off Angelina County employees by the hundreds.
By the time it was all said and done, thousands of employees were out of a job. Lufkin Industries had roughly 4,500 employees worldwide at the time of its acquisition by GE. And in a macabre sense, the ‘‘new opportunities’’ promised to Lufkin’s highly skilled and experienced employees by company executives did eventually come to fruition. Thanks in part to all those highly skilled and experienced employees, a blossoming industrial base is rising from the foundry’s ashes. Economic development opportunities in the form of new businesses or company expansions over the last few years include Angelina Forest Products, Sterling Lumber Company, PID Group Inc., Twin Disc Inc. and Align Midstream Partners II. Atkinson Candy Co., Lockheed Martin, American eChem and LufTex Gears all expanded during that time.
Lufkin’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Pumping Unit tradition began in 1953: Inspired by the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Guy Croom, a longtime Lufkin Industries employee, decorated a small pumping unit with a red light bulb and a red ribbon around its neck. According to an account by the late East Texas historian Bob Bowman, the pumping unit was placed at the back entrance to the machine shop, visible from Raguet and Angelina streets. It was an instant hit with residents, who repeatedly drove by to see it. Lufkin residents began celebrating Rudolph with an official lighting in 1966.
Before Rudolph found its home outside the mall, its location and size (it’s now a Mark 640 pump with a peak height of 45 feet) changed frequently. For a time, Rudolph was at the corner of Pershing and Feagin. At one point, in the ’90s, Rudolph was no more than 6 feet tall and was placed at the UPS site on Highway 59. For the last 20 years or so, Rudolph has been in the Lufkin Mall parking lot.
To celebrate Rudolph’s 50th anniversary in 2016, GE invited current and all former employees to sign a piece of the iconic pumping unit. We know it was meant to be a nice gesture, but it came across, at best, as inconsiderate and at worst, insulting. At the time we wondered just how tone-deaf Lufkin Industries’ owners were.
We’ve got somewhat of an idea now. The company made the decision to move Rudolph this year without informing the mall’s management team. GE Lufkin plant manager Phillip Jones said the company approached the city with the idea to make the Rudolph event bigger and that ideas grew from there. Perhaps it’s also time for GE to revisit that corporate slogan ‘‘imagination at work.’’
Christmas downtown isn’t a new idea. The Angelina Courthouse Lights Association sponsored a lighting ceremony at the courthouse for a number of years starting in the early 1990s. In 2001, downtown streets twinkled in the twilight for the Holiday Extravaganza, which featured the courthouse lighting and Lufkin’s first illuminated Christmas parade. Most recently, the Yule Love Lufkin event fizzled after two years. In fact, the lighted Christmas parade is the only one of these events to survive.
“We’re excited to partner with the city and make Rudolph part of a bigger holiday celebration in downtown Lufkin,” Jones said. “We think bringing together various community events during the holiday season makes a lot of sense, and we see it as an opportunity for the Rudolph tradition to contribute to a new tradition downtown.”
Brant Lee, the city’s convention services director, said the weekend of Dec. 6-8 will be packed with Lufkin traditions for Christmas in The Pines! The Downtown Lighted Christmas Parade will move to 6:30 p.m. Dec. 6 with the lighting ceremony for Rudolph held on Dec. 7. Other planned events for that Saturday include ADAC’s Reindeer Run, Donuts with Santa and a Strongest Santa Competition. Food trucks, shopping and live performances also are scheduled.
“We’re glad to accommodate and facilitate the lighting of Rudolph downtown,” Jason Arnold, the assistant to the city manager, said. “We see a weekend where we’re trying to bring people into Lufkin, and have events where families can be together and enjoy Christmas events.” Lee said the city is excited about its preliminary itinerary and that ‘‘there are some big things being staged.’’
Building their Christmas plans for downtown around Rudolph’s move is a wise decision on the city’s part, but while officials hope to bring more of the spirit of Christmas to Lufkin’s downtown, what almost certainly won’t follow is all the traffic. A 24-hour traffic count by the Texas Department of Transportation done during 2018 showed 35,827 vehicles traveled the main lanes of U.S. Highway 59 at the Loop 287 interchange daily.
That’s potentially 35,827 daily visitors who won’t be stopping to shop or play in Lufkin because Rudolph is out of sight. That his next destination doesn’t also become out of mind is a legitimate concern.