When one travels through California and enters the town of Coalinga with its oil fields, it is hard to miss strange and fun oil pumps. They are a herd of long-necked alien-animals called the Iron Zoo. Created in the early 1970s, the Iron Zoo is a collection of painted oil jacks.
But why are they placed there?
The zookeeper was Jean Dakessian Jones, a 39-year-old artist, who moved to Coalinga with her husband in 1971. The couple opened Cambridge Inn&Restaurant. When Jean noticed oil pumps, she came up with the idea of painting them to attract tourists to the city and their inn.
Jone’s idea actually worked. Her business flourished, passersby flocked to Coalinga, whose population counted about 7,000 people, and the hotel. Regrettably, the prosperity was short-lived.
Jean got the permission of the local Shell Oil company manager and the first oil pump was decorated as a red bird. The manager liked it so much that he encouraged the woman to paint others.
Shell Oil even provided the paint for 23 more jacks. Each oil pump took her a day to paint, all by herself. Designs were simple at first: an elephant, a goat, a butterfly, a red-nosed clown, a cowboy and a sailor. Later, the company asked Jones to paint 34 left pump jacks as well. To do that, the artist ran a contest.
The contestants were to submit new concepts and the winners helped paint their creatures. Designs became more whimsical as animals received horns, hats, wings and strips.
By 1978 the Iron Zoo had become fantastically popular. It was a community project with more than 150 pumps decorated.
However, time was taking its toll. In the early ’80s the oil industry in Coalinga reached its downturn so once numbering in the dozens pumping units began to dwindle. Jean left the area and sold the inn.
Today an animated menagerie of Coalinga is vanishing. There are still some Iron Zoo survivors along Fresno-Coalinga Road. Their giant forms and the traces of former glory remind of the prosperous past.
Featured image: Instagram