Don Fullerton's models are like no others


Don Fullerton of Alachua is a master model builder whose scale models of turn-of-the-century oil wells are in museums and with private collectors. As a young man he welded oil well machinery, and now at 85, he has recreated them from memory. His next project he said is to build a to-scale doll house from a blue print, complete with 12-volt lighting.

ERIC HAASE/Special to the Sun
Published: Wednesday, January 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2002 at 10:41 p.m.

Don Fullerton stood up launching a cloud of sawdust into the air of his workshop, which was instantly flooded with the rich aroma of fresh-cut wood.

Next to him, tipped up on end is what looked like a small wooden cabin, but is actually a miniaturized glimpse of history.

There are lots of people who build model cars, model airplanes or miniature trains, but Fullerton has a specialty nearly all to himself - he builds working-scale models of oil drilling rigs. His work is prized by both museums and private collectors.

He also has a flare for the unusual. He once built a model of a tank, a working bulldozer and even did a mini copy of his motorhome. If he can see it, he can build it.

When he's not engaged in his other passion - playing the accordion - the 85-year-old Fullerton is at work about four hours a day in the shop behind his home in Alachua.

"I come from the oil fields in Pennsylvania near Titusville," he said, as a matter of explanation on how he came upon his specialty.

But his knowledge and passion for the subject go beyond geographical circumstance. His father, George, owned a shop that built the units that powered the real drilling equipment. He watched what his father did, and he later worked as a welder in the shop.

"My dad used to give me hell for building models," he said with a laugh.

But he later impressed him with his work, so much so that the elder Fullerton commented, "Don, I didn't realize you were so observant."

He doesn't work from blueprints or model building plans, what he needs is tucked away in his brain. That's one thing that impressed Fred Kylander, who is in the oil business in Warren, Pa.

"What got me interested was the fact that he built these through the memories of working with his dad," said Kylander, who has purchased Fullerton's latest project.

"I don't know where I'm going to put it yet," Kylander said. "It's something I and my family enjoy, we'll make room for it."

That project began with Kylander sending photos and measurements of an oil field power house to Fullerton, who then figured it out as he went.

"When I get to the point I don't know what to do, I'll stop, but then my mind is still going," he said, tapping his temple with his index finger.

As a kid Fullerton and school didn't exactly hit it off. "I couldn't do arithmetic and flunked recess three times," he joked. But his skill with his hands would be the envy of any Ph.D. He has a knack for seeing an object and then making it. He built his first oil well model in 1934 for $75 for Republic Oil of Pittsburgh.

"The models today are selling for $1,500," he said.

Bruce Ziegler at the Simple Times Museum in Tidioute, Pa. said he's seen other people build oil field models, but they aren't like Fullerton's.

"The detail on his models is just perfect, it's 100 percent to scale," Ziegler said. "I don't think the other people have the knowledge, his family worked at this stuff."

Walking through his house is like taking a stroll through the history of the oil business in Pennsylvania. In his garage is the "standard rig" from the 1860s. On his patio is a Petersburg rig from the turn of the 1900s, while he was putting the final flourishes on a power house from the 1930s that includes a replica of a single-cylinder Jacobson engine.

Bending down, he flipped a switch and a clatter filled his garage, as wheels spun and belts turned, and instantly the little pumping arm at the end of the assembly began to bob.

"These all run," he said.

They don't just run, but as he leafs through the photos, the mechanical parts in his models operate just like the real thing in the pictures, except instead of drawing power from a Pierce-Arrow auto engine, he has an electric motor disguised as a stand-in.

And as one collector told him, "Don, when you're gone, it's history," he acknowledges that there are fewer people around who knew the old pumping rigs first-hand and the equipment itself is disappearing. So he continues to build.

A few days after conducting the tour he packed the entire order - three-working wells and nine non-operating - into a truck to ship to Kylander. He calculated he had more than 120 hours in the project by the time he'd sent it on its way.

"It's like a flower opening up as I'm building it," he said. "It's a lot of fun to see the finished product."

Saying good-bye isn't difficult, however.

"Once I've built it, I'm through with it and I'm done with it," he said.

And then it's time to figure out his next project and he's still got a regular gig, two Fridays a month, with his accordion at Vinny's. Asked if was the reigning Myron Floren of Alachua, Fullerton laughed and shook his head, explaining the difference between his playing-by-ear style and that of Lawrence Welk's accordion wizard.

"The difference between Myron Floren and me is that he knows where the keys are, and I'm hunting them," he said.

Gary Kirkland can be reached at 338-3104 or kirklag@gvillesun.com

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