N.D. oil boom is changing my former home

Published 8:52 am Friday, December 7, 2012

Column: Notes from Home

Wind, sky, sun. Miles of spring wheat with waves of wind rippling across the surface. Acres of sunflowers following the fiery orb in the sky each day. Sunny days that deceptively lured me outside in the middle of winter, when it was 20 below (for the high temperature that day). Sundogs.

Those are some of the things that I remember from living in North Dakota. The landscape was so flat there that when I looked at the horizon I could see the curve of the earth’s surface. At night, especially in the depths of winter, the sky was brilliant with the Milky Way and shimmering storms of solar energy as the earth’s magnetic field lit up.

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Many different kinds of people became part of our lives, too, like Olga and her son, Alf, and Grandma Helen (who adopted us) and Anneliese (an immigrant from Germany). John Henry and Ingdolph, brothers and bachelor farmers with their thick Norwegian accents, helped me learn how to sing “Jeg er så glad” and “Den store hvide flok.”

It was late summer in 1989 when we loaded up our worldly goods into a moving van and our cars with clothing and one small child, hitting the road for Grand Forks, where I had been offered a spot as student and instructor in the English department’s Ph.D. program. Although our first stop was a tiny apartment, soon enough we were living in a much bigger parsonage in a much smaller town: 229 residents lived in Fordville, at least at night. In fact, there were as many people living in Tucson (where I grew up) as lived in the entire state.

Back then North Dakota was a joke for most people who weren’t natives. A wasteland. A place people left as soon as they could, never to return, building their careers and lives elsewhere. Some sociologists from Rutgers (that would be in New Jersey, over 1,000 miles away) came up with an idea they called the “Buffalo Commons” to describe what North Dakota and several other states were going to become as people, industry and finally even agribusiness left whole swathes of the countryside abandoned.

Now, of course, North Dakotans have the last laugh. The population is growing today, from Fargo in the Red River Valley to Minot in the middle and to Dickinson way out west in dinosaur country. Only they’re digging for something more tangibly profitable out in western Dakota. And because of what’s coming up out of the ground, there’s a shortage of workers of all sorts up on the northern Great Plains.

Just last week there was another story about this, with the lumber store chain Menards flying workers who live in Wisconsin to work in their store in Minot because there aren’t any locals applying to work. They live in hotels during the week and come home to not-quite-so-prosperous Wisconsin on weekends.

A high school classmate of my oldest daughter lives out there now, in a trailer he’s borrowing from his father. At first he set it up in the parking lot of the local Walmart (along with a host of other “immigrants” who were working the oil fields), but now he’s in a brand new trailer park, with electric hookups and water for his shower, toilet and kitchen sink. At 21, with a technical college education, he earns more in six months than I do in a full year. The engineers and managers with college degrees earn sums that are beyond the dreams of avarice (at least for this academic).

It doesn’t quite compute for me, all this prosperity in a place with such a hardscrabble reputation. And it needs to be pointed out that the prosperity and employment come with a cost; displacement and hardship inevitably accompany economic booms. The people who always lived there, especially the older residents, retired, on fixed incomes, can’t manage the higher rents and standard of living brought about because of the oil workers. The former residents are exiles now, living closer to kids and grandkids who left long ago, but also living further away from places to which they are linked by family and traditions, the places where their hearts will probably always reside.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.