North Dakota Man Camp Project Press Release

From 7 August to 12 August 2012, an interdisciplinary team of researchers directed by William Caraher (Department of History) and Bret Weber (Department of Social Work) conducted the first field season of the North Dakota Man Camp Project. The goal of the project was to document the social and material conditions present in the growing number of “man camps” in the Bakken Oil Patch. Over the five days of field work the ND Man Camp Project Team, which included a photographer (John Holmgren, Franklin and Marshall College), an architectural historian (Kostis Kourelis, Franklin and Marshall College), two archaeologists (William Caraher, University of North Dakota; Richard Rothaus, Trefoil Cultural and Environmental), and two historians (Bret Weber, University of North Dakota, and Aaron Barth, North Dakota State University), described over a dozen camps, interviewed a sampling of its residents, took both detailed photographs and aerial photographs from a specially prepared kite, and prepared architectural sketches.

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Kostis Kourelis, an architectural historian from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa explains his involvement:

“I first encountered North Dakota during a visit as the 2011 Cyprus Research Fund Lecture, so when Bret and Bill invited me to return to the region to work, I jumped at the chance. Bill and I have worked together on scholarly projects in the past, and it was exciting to bring my expertise in the architecture and settlement of Greece to a project documenting pressing concerns to the global and local community in North Dakota.”

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The project is unique in three ways. First, it is the first systematic archaeological and historical study of the man camps in the Bakken. And it combines archaeologists who have worked extensively in the Mediterranean with scholars who work primarily in North America and on the Northern Plains.  Finally, the project brings archaeological and historical methods to the study the ephemeral phenomenon of contemporary labor housing. By combining oral history interviews with man camp residents and archaeological documentation techniques the team began to piece together the complex environment of settlement surrounding the Bakken Boom.

Caraher, the co-PI on the project with Bret Weber and a Mediterraneanist explains:

“Having a team of specialists with a global perspective is particularly suitable for doing research in the Bakken Oil Patch because the North Dakota Oil Boom and its Man Camps are part of a global phenomenon. I was drawn to the Bakken because of my commitment to deploying what I have learned in a Mediterranean context – where patterns of economic and political expansion and contraction have left clear marks in the countryside – to my home state of North Dakota. People often ask how studying Greece and Cyprus matter to my students and fellow citizens in North Dakota. The North Dakota Man Camp Project shows how approaches to understanding long-term and global trends applies to understanding what’s going on in our own backyard.”

The team documented over a dozen camps over their field season. These camps ranged from the elaborate prefabricated camps erected by and for multi-national corporations to RV parks which have become the homes to many of the Bakken patch workers. These RV parks include both “wet” lots where units have access to water and sewage as well as dry lots which sometimes lacked even electrical hook-ups for the residents. The most elaborate camps had units with significant signs of architectural elaboration, winterized insulation, and individual decoration. The most rugged and informal camps featured workers housed in tents or trailers without even the most basic amenities. The residents of these camps told a wide range of stories from tales of hard luck to those of rugged individualism and fierce independence.

While we plan to analyze our data over the coming months, the preliminary results of our work identified three types of camps. Type 1 camps were the most regular in design and plan and were constructed by outside companies to house skilled workers who came to the area to work for the major companies involved in work in the oil fields. Type 2 camps are typically composed of recreational vehicles with access to electricity and water. Type 3 camps comprised of units with only irregular access to water and electricity. Type 2 and 3 camps often occurred in close proximity to each other and Type 2 and Type 1 camps sometimes had symbiotic relationships with the workers constructing Type 1 camps living in a Type 2 camp nearby. Despite the distinct material differences between the camps, it is clear that some individuals moved between residences in various kinds of camps. 

From an archaeological perspective we observed that Type 2 and Type 3 camps allowed for much greater degrees of customization including, at times, elaborate architectural additions, sun decks, fenced yards, gardens, social space, toys, work areas and other forms of personalization that allowed residents to make practical improvements to their lived space as well as present individual interpretations of domestic values. Type 1 camps, in contrast, offered rather austere comforts which sacrificed individuality for efficient living in an ordered, controlled space. This uniformity combined with rules controlling the use of exterior space and designs that reduce the need for practical modifications to individual units to create camps that not only present little indication of the individuals who reside in them, but also will make only a modest contribution to future archaeological record for the region. Type 2 and Type 3 camps, in contrast, preserve a remarkable material record of the complex communities that have formed to support the extraction of oil from under the North Dakota fields.

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The interview team of Bret Weber assisted by Aaron Barth added the invaluable human element to the archaeological documentation by collecting interviews with camp residents focusing on specific to social issues. With three dozen interviews, there is a great deal of data to analyze and there will be much to write about. Preliminary findings need to be tested, but currently include three major areas:

1. Residents in the camps tend to be associated with one of three major categories of labor including 1) various aspects of the oil industry, 2) transportation (primarily trucking), and 3) construction trades. Each of those has their own rhythms and cycles that affect related housing needs.

2. All three types of camps appear to play a role in addressing the rapidly changing needs of the boom and, within limitations, appear to be appropriate solutions to the current, largely temporary problem of the boom. However, rather than a bust, it seems that there will be long-term labor and related housing needs as the region moves from the boom period into a more manageable maintenance phase. Accordingly, housing decisions and policies in the oil patch need to move in steps from temporary to increasingly permanent housing—though at rates much lower than the current situation.

3. Nonetheless, while temporary labor housing is an inevitable and even appropriate response to the current dynamics of the oil boom, community and state leaders, policy makers, and decision-makers connected to industry need to be aware of ethical and social justice obligations to address the short-term sanitary and human needs associated with temporary housing.

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Regarding the opportunity to interview the residents of the camps, Weber noted, “we went in with an extensive set of often personal, intimate questions and we had some concern about reluctance or even resistance on the part of the interview subjects. Instead, we found that people were willing and even anxious to share their stories. Unlike most of the research-related interviewing that I have done in the past, the people we spoke with generally addressed all of our questions with little or not prompting on our part. It was an extremely successful and exciting research process.”

Over all, the North Dakota Man Camp Project has begun to document and analyze the unique environment of early 21st century temporary camps in the Bakken. These camps in many ways resemble the endearing character of many of North Dakota’s small towns – with their talks of triumph, individualism, community, and tragedy – which became the home for the first settlers drawn to the region for the railroad and land booms of the early 20th century.

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