There are some cool things happening on the North Dakota Man Camp Project front. Not only do we have a short, but very important Wikipedia page and a nice website, but we’re also well on our way to producing some meaningful scholarly content.
Next Wednesday at 7 pm, Bret Weber, my co-PI, and I will be giving a paper on our work as part of the new International Studies Speaker Series. The talks are in the Backstage Project at the Empire Theater and have a reception! Here’s the flyer:
And here’s a teaser for my talk!
It is difficult to escape the international context of the Bakken Oil Boom. Between the involvement of ginormous international companies to the explosive impact of Bakken crude in a small Canadian town, the extraction of North Dakota oil stands at the intersection of global supply chains, capital, and markets. The national and international media has become fascinated by the impact of these international trends on the tight-nit, small-town communities of Western North Dakota and play up the impact of the oil industry on “isolated” rural America. Among the standard series of images associated with the Bakken boom, are those of the “man camp.” Just as many of these images appeal to long-held stereotypes of the working classes – especially those involved in extractive industries, the man camp has a long historic pedigree and my talk today will locate this phenomena in a historical and global context.
My perspectives on the Bakken come from a rather unusual place: over a decade of archaeological research on the island of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean. From as early as the Bronze Age (i.e. 1600 BC) the island saw the systematic extraction and processing of copper from the unique geology of the Troodos mountains. The site of Politiko-Phorades, excavated by Sydney Cyprus Survey Project under the direction of Bernard Knapp, preserved the remains of a Late Bronze Age smelting facility set in a region where numerous veins of copper were near the surface. While the site itself showed little evidence for habitation, there are two sites nearby that preserved an assemblage of ceramic material suggestive of habitation. What is surprising at this site and its surrounding area is the dearth of arable land meaning that the community working the vein of copper had to be supplied by an agricultural support village some 2 km distant. The support villages and production sites fell under the control of larger political centers on the island who then benefited from the export of copper around the Eastern Mediterranean.
While I worked in Cyprus, I spent a part of every summer documenting a site in Greece. Situated in the southeastern Corinthia the site of Lakka Skoutara (and here) is a collection of nearly 20 houses scattered through an upland valley and dating to the late-19th and early 20th century. Nearly every house has a cistern and a threshing floor for the processing of wheat grown on the terraced valley walls; the remains of an olive mill and centuries-old olive trees dot the valley bottom.. While this is not an extractive industry in the same way as oil production or copper smelting, it nevertheless took place at the periphery of the region. The site of Lakka Skoutara was about 5 km for the major village in the southeastern Corinthia and only occupied seasonally during the harvest. In other words, these houses represented temporary habitation for the families who threshed the grain or harvested olives. Each house had the barest necessities: a cistern, an oven, and room for sleeping and for animals. These fields fed their families and provided
A world away, in the East Texas oil boom, the Humble Oil company (which would later become Exxon) arranged for housing for their employees near the town of Kiglore, Texas (pop. ca. 500). The facilities ranged from five room houses with electricity and gas for supervisors to lots where hourly employees could build or move more modest homes in the so-called “poor boy camp.” Workers looking for work or filling the myriad lower-paying or more contingent positions in support of the work in the East Texas fields often lived in the woods around Kilgore. Over 300 people once squatted in a camp known as “Happy Hollow” despite regular raids by the police. Corporate interests in providing suitable housing for employees varied. Some looked to workforce housing to attract better quality employees. In other cases, camps provided an opportunity to reinforce social boundaries between the different ranks of employees in the oil patch. Whatever the case, the camps served the needs of a rapidly expanding workforce.
The rapid growth of the Gulf states on the back of oil and gas capital has led to the massive influx in temporary labor. The tiny nation of Qatar, for example, hosts close to 350,000 Nepalese workers in a nation of fewer than a quarter million inhabitants. Tristan Bruslé has recently studied the camps set up to house these workers. The camps housing the guest workers sit in industrial sites at the edge of the desert and consist of portacabins that would not be out of place in the Bakken. The residents struggle with boredom and homesickness and find unique ways to carve out a modicum of privacy, personal space, and community in the austerely function accommodations. The global movement of labor and capital has produced a need for short-term, modular housing for a workforce who contributes to rapidly shifting pace, scale, and needs for contemporary capitalism.
Since 2010, the Bakken counties of North Dakota have seen an almost unprecedented population influx to serve an oil boom fueled by globally high petroleum prices and the advent of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil from tiny pockets miles beneath the surface. Drilling rigs have given the western prairie a decidedly vertical dimension and workforce housing has created a new type of rural sprawl. Man-camps have appeared in agricultural land along the Route 2 corridor through the Bakken counties and RV parks and other facilities offering “workforce housing solutions” have appeared in a ring around almost every settlement in the area. Even nearly abandoned towns have become the focus of workforce housing as vacant lots and parks have become filled with RVs availing themselves to power and roads.
Workforce housing in the Bakken accommodates a fluid population of short-term residents who not only work in the oil patch proper, but also provide support for new building, maintenance on the substantial fleet of trucks, and the construction of pipelines throughout the area. These camps have also absorbed a certain amount of low-wage and independent labor displaced from traditional housing in Williston. Despite their utility, municipalities have been decided ambivalent with regard to work forcing housing and have taken steps to control their spread and appearance.