Work and Home in the Bakken

One of the most engaging aspects of my research in North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch is observing the flexible relationship between “domestic space” and work space.

Over the past few weeks, I have been working on an article length summary of our research on the archaeology of workforce housing in the Bakken. As part of that project, I have considered the way in which workforce housing both reinforces an ideas of domestic space that emerged over the course of the late 19th and 20th century process of industrialization and defies these norms.

As I have blogged about before, many Type 1 camps attempt to reinforce a strict division between domestic and work by creating spaces for workers to shed their heavy and dirty work clothing before entering the facility, by preventing work activities from taking place in the camp itself or in its parking lot, and by providing food, recreation, and sleeping space away from the work site.

The less formally constructed Type 2 camps, on the other hand, show more flexibility. In some cases the workers live on the work site itself and their mobile homes and RVs are interspersed with truck parking and other industrial spaces. To make this point more clear, I created digital plans of a couple camps. 

The first camp is a Type 2 camp documented in August 2012 and numbered MC9. Here is my illustration:


It is based on an NAIP (National Agricultural Imagery Program) aerial photo from the summer of 2012 and a site visit. Kostis Kourelis also illustrated this camp (see the occidented plan below). What is interesting is the from high in the air, the RV units of the workers are indistinguishable from the trucks arrayed around the worksite. You can see that I have identified units 1 and 2 on Kostis’s map as “Trucks”, but they’re actually RVs. By the time the aerial photo that I used was taken unit 7 had moved and unit 8 was hidden by a shelter belt.


The differences between our sketch plans provide a nice – if somewhat accidental – commentary on the blurry relationship between domestic space and work space in the Bakken, and despite the differences, both plans show RVs arrayed around a truck maintenance shop. The shop itself is carved out of a farm and the farmer lives just to the south of the work area. The employees of the shop live in RVs and have access to showers, bathrooms, and even a laundry in the shop.

This is not an isolated example. Another truck maintenance site that we documented in the winter of 2013 shows a similar arrangement of RVs around workspace. 


Here the RV park clearly expanded beyond merely serving the needs to the truck maintenance shop. In fact, this sketch, based on the 2012 NAIP aerial photographs only captures the southern section of the camp which has subsequently expanded to the northeast to include another group of RVs. Unlike the neatly arranged rows of units in some of the larger RV parks, this man camp showed a good bit of variation in the orientation of the units. Note the orientation of units in the southeastern corner of the camp. This may reflect the organic development of the camp or the rather limited space available for owners to back their units up to the plumbing and electrical hook ups.

Whatever the reason for the rather helter-skelter arrangement, this camp is similar to MC9 in that the units are arrayed around a work site blurring the distinction between traditional domestic space and work space. In a historical context, man camps have always been strange features. On the one hand, camps for workers engaged in resource extraction typically were set apart from the actual site of mining. The separation between the space of the mine and the bunks of workers echoed the division between the factory and the bedroom communities sometimes funded by factory owners. The more developed mining camps maintained a division between management and workers that mimicked the division between worker housing and management housing in urban communities and further emphasizing the role of status and class in the formation of domestic enclaves. 

Pre-industrial models of domestic life, however, often blurred the distinction between domestic space and the space of work. The organization of labor by household and the shared space of shops and living quarters spoke to the artisan’s ownership and control of all aspect of production. While it would be difficult to make this argument for the average Type 2 camp, it seems likely that the close relationship of the worker housing to the place of work represented a closer relationship between the worker’s skills and tools and employment. 

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