Domesticity and the Man Camp in the Bakken Oil Patch

As many of you know, Bret Weber and I have been working on a study of the man camps associated with the North Dakota oil boom with some amazing colleagues. We call our project the North Dakota Man Camp Project. On Saturday, Bret and I had our first writing day. For about 11 hours, we sequestered ourselves to brainstorm and write.

ManCampBrainstorm

Over that time we managed to produce a rough outline for an article, work through some of the historiography and literature review (which includes literature on social policy, archaeological theory, the New West historians, and vernacular architecture!), and start to produce actual analysis of our data. 

The section included below is fresh from the document produced on Saturday and undoubtedly full of stylistic, proofreading, and thinking issues. On the other hand, it is probably our most sophisticated statement to date on our work in the Bakken. 

Domesticity and Workforce Housing in the Bakken

Mobile homes, recreational vehicles, campers, travel trailers, and other forms of mobile housing form the bulk of workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch. From the elaborate modular housing units characteristic of the Type 1 camps operated by Target logistics to the most modest “fifth wheel” travel trailer tucked into a tree line or parked in a farmer’s field, the dominant form of workforce housing in the Bakken. While the units themselves all make varying concessions to architectural expectations associated with domesticity, units in Type 2 and Type 3 camps tended to see architectural modification designed to accommodate the temporary residence in the Bakken. Type 1 camps, in contrast, tend to be more architecturally standardized and sterile with only limited opportunities for the modification of space.

Work and Life

Historical ideals of domestic space emerged during the industrial revolution. Industrialization saw the gradual decline of the putting-out system where families took parts of the manufacturing process into their homes. The emergence of the factory and, later, the office as the site for work stood in contrast to the space of the home as the civilizing retreat. The creation of company towns attempted to manage strictly the division between domestic space and work space represented a very formal manifestation of this division and demonstrated that the ideal of domestic space was not a form of resistance to the demands of labor, but a complementary to the needs of management to produce well-ordered employees. The corporate control of company towns like the “Fordvilles” set up to house Ford employees emphasized the civilizing character of an idealized, middle-class domestic life. Historically, temporary housing for resource extraction often followed some of these same rules with restrictions of alcohol consumption and divisions based on rank, salary, and occupation ensured that the camps rules enforced ideals associated with proper society. In the physical work of construction and resource extraction, the all-male workforce contributed to a perceived need for order as the employees lacked the civilizing touch of women and families.

This type of strictly managed division between place of work and domestic space typified the arrangement of Type 1 camps. Often set up to house the workers from a particular multinational corporation, they maintain a rather strict rules with regard to alcohol consumption, cleanliness, and behavior. In one particularly well-appointed Type 1 camp, on entering the facility, there is a mudroom where residents would shed their dirty work clothes and prepare to enter an area separated from work life. Once inside, small, standardized rooms provide a modicum of privacy, comfort, and personal space. The space around the camps are clean, austere, and without public space for unstructured interaction. Trucks from the various companies working in the Bakken fill the well-light and graveled parking lot in neat rows. Like the corporate suburbs from the first half of the 20th century, the structured and consistent environment presented by these camps mimics the structured workforce housed within its walls. As an informant at one such camp told us, men come here to work, sleep, and eat. Working takes place on site and sleeping and eating in the Type 1 camp.

Type 2 and 3 camps represent a different model of workforce housing. Irregular in organization and allowing for substantial individualization, the camps often represent the breakdown between domestic and work space. Some camps grow up around work sites. Camp ##, for example, housed the employees at a truck maintenance shop on a major thoroughfare. Another camp housed construction workers at a nearby site. This arrangement, however, is not particularly unusual in the context of workforce housing where the proximity of labor to the worksite represented one of the major advantage of creating work camps.

At the same time, Type 2 and 3 camps show a far deeper integration of work and domestic space. RV parks housing workers often sit next to idling trucks waiting for the next shift. Tired, equipment, and tools litter the space around the units indicating the some maintenance took place in the immediate vicinity of domestic space. The tendency for more residence of Type 2 and 3 camps to be independent contractors rather than employees of large multinational companies likely accounts for the use of domestic space as places for work. In fact, the separation between domestic and work places has largely been a product of corporate culture.

Domestic Space and Identity

If traditional ideas of work-life separation characterizes the organization of space in Type 1 camps, these spaces also tend to provide the least space for the expression of individual identity. The small size of the rooms, their regular shape and organization, and policies that limit significant modification to the basic fabric of the units limit how individual residents can present themselves. The practice of individuals staying in the Bakken for four to six week, leaving the area for two weeks off, and then returning to a different room within the Type 1 camp (or a different camp entirely) limited the opportunities and the incentive to individualize space.

Type 2 and 3 camps, in contrast, offer remarkably substantial pallets for self-expression. In some cases, self expression could be as simple as parking one’s car or motorcycle in front of a unit. Living for an extended period of time in the same unit encouraged a sense of ownership. Having space around individuals unit also made it easier to individualize one’s environment. In some cases, individuals modified their space to accommodate practical needs related to oil patch work. Plywood mudrooms with shed roofs leaned against the side of the RV provide a place to remove dirty clothing prior to entering the unit. Built storage units provide additional space for tools and personal effects, and pathways made of plywood or shipping pallets marked the route from where a vehicle is parked to the door of the unit.

Beyond these practical modifications to their living spaces, residents in Type 2 and 3 camps had opportunities to create distinctive living space around their units. Numerous units included elevated decks, grills, tables, awnings, and camp chairs arranged for spending time outdoors. Units had small garden plot which included vegetables as well as ornamental plants. Evidence for pets was not usual ranging from kennels set out of the sun to area set apart with ad hoc fences. In August, there were signs of kids play areas in some units including small pools, bikes, toys, and other aspects of family life. Some particularly elaborate units featured grass lawns.

In many Type 2 camps, individuals own their units and this allows for a particular freedom to customize and individualize their living areas. They also tend to rent the lots which included some space for parking, equipment storage, and recreational space around their unit as well as access to a mast for electricity and hook ups for water and sewage. Rules enforced by camp owners at Type 2 camps and by state and local laws dictate the extent to which space can be modified. For example, it is no longer legal to enclose one’s unit completely in freestanding architecture in a Type 2 camp. An indoor RV park – a particularly elaborate version of Type 2 camps – allows an individual to part their RV in a climate controlled garage, but also severely restricts the kind of modifications on can make to a unit that space. Type 1 camps, in contrast, are more like hotels where individuals pay for a room or bunk. Type 3 camps, as I will discuss later, may include squatters who do not pay rent and do not have a clear set of guidelines established by camp owners or management.

Material and Community

A Type 3 camp nestled amid a shelter belt near the town of Tioga demonstrated a tendency to pool resources to support communal ideal of domesticity. Unlike Type 2 camps, where individuals arranged their units to accommodate their practical needs and identities. The freedom to control the space around one’s unit mimicked the individualized houses in a modern American suburb or, perhaps better still, small town and demonstrate a sense of personal space and perhaps even ownership. A Type 3 camp that we visited stood in a shelter belt near a construction site. The units did not have masts, water or sewage hook-ups. Without the access to these services restricting the arrangement of the units, the residents located their units, which included a tent, around common space where they prepared food and socialized as a group. They also had carved a horseshoe pit out of the undergrowth in the shelter belt with a bobcat borrowed from the local construction site. The assemblage in the common area included numerous coolers to preserve food, insulated jugs for water, tables, several grills for cooking, pans for cleaning dishes, dishes, and an area for a camp fire. We first visited this camp in August 2012, when we returned in February 2013, the residents had departed quite recently. Left behind where coolers filled with food and beer, pallets used to support a truck bed camper. Since the residents were most likely squatters, there were no requirements to remove discarded objects from the site and judging from the goods left behind, perhaps little opportunity.

Conclusions

Since the 19th century, ideas of domesticity and labor have gone hand-in-hand. Domestic space, no less than the space of work in factories or offices, has represented a space of control linked, in part, to the production of reliable, consistent worker to provide labor in a highly structured industrial economy. The organization of Type 1 camps embraced this division between space of work and highly regulated space of home. Type 2 camps provide residents with greater freedom of expression and use of space. The assemblages associated with these camps are more dynamic and diverse, and the architectural diversity evokes the modern suburbs or small towns where each home expresses something about the identity of the owner. At least one Type 3 camps, in contrast, offered an alternate, vision of domestic life that was both less formally structured by access to utilities and, at the same time, organized around shared space reflecting certain communal aspects of everyday life.

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