Man Camps and the American West

One of the more entertaining challenges that I face as I work on material from the North Dakota Man Camp Project is putting the Bakken Oil Boom in a local and regional context. As readers of this blog know, I was not trained as a historian of the American West or the Northern Plains. In fact, I’m not even able to play one (convincingly) on TV.

(To make this clear, I had an article reject at North Dakota History once, well I think is was rejected in a charmingly North Dakota way. They corresponded with me for about 5 years about this article and then just faded away without ever sending it out for peer review.)

Anyway, below is my first stab at thinking about workforce housing in the Bakken as part of the history of the American West and North Dakota. Feedback, as always, is welcome:

While traditional depictions of the American West present rugged, independent prospectors who set out to conquer the wilds in the hope of untold riches, scholars have increasingly viewed the American West as space for male wage labor and the westward movement of industrial capitalism and its attendant social expectations. In this new construction, Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier” (pdf) became less of an untamed wilderness for Americans to draw their dreams and more of an extension of longstanding eastern interests committed to deploying capital, workforce, and infrastructure in their search for profit. This “wage-earner” frontier, as described by Carlos Schwantes, ensures that we understand the historical development of the west as part of a larger trajectory of American and, indeed, global capital. Thus, inscribing the American West with mining camps, timber camps, and oil camps, contributed to expansion of a set of domestic values, hierarchies, and class relations nurtured in the East and then pushed out with the expansion of industry.

That the Bakken formation is geographically part of the American West (as typically defined ) and subjected to a kind of extractive economy most closely associated with historical processes taking place in the American West is a coincidence and should not necessarily impose a geographic limitation on how we understand this phenomenon. At the same time, the historical study of North Dakota has long recognized certain themes fundamental to the development of communities in the state. Elwyn Robinson famously articulated 6 themes: remoteness, dependence, radicalism, economic disadvantage, the “too-much mistake”, and the climate of a sub-humid grassland. While the application of these themes to all historical problems in the history of the state is perhaps ill-advised, the influence of these ideas on how North Dakotans imagine themselves and understand their history is important. For example, the challenges of adapting existing infrastructure to the growing workforce in the Bakken counties could easily be articulated in the context of the “too-much mistake” which described the overly-ambitious investment in infrastructure at the foundation of the state. Moreover, Robinson’s understanding of the remoteness, dependence, and economic disadvantage of the sparsely populated North Dakota prairie fit well within later understandings of periphery favored by world systems theorists and others committed to core-periphery models.

Articulating workforce housing in the Bakken as part of the American West likewise frames how we understood settlement in the area from an archaeological and architectural perspective. Historically, scholars have used archaeology to document temporary settlements associated with extractive industries and construction in the West. As William Cronon reminds us in his remarkable study of the town and mine at Kennecott, Alaska, the remains of these sites serve as physical reminders of the increasingly integrated global economy of the early 20th century which made it possible to extract copper from veins deep within the earth, transport a workforce, supplies and ore via rail, and sustain these activities at a remote location in central Alaska. Likewise workforce housing camps associated with the Bakken oil boom, particularly the Type 1 variety, represents a century old tradition realized in distinctly 21st century materials, infrastructure, and plans.

John Bickerstaff Jackson, another great 20th century student of the American West, recognized in the mobile homes of the four-corners region the direct predecessors of our Type 2 camps. He described the momentary appearance of trailer courts with their solitary cinderblock common room designated for laundry. These settlements appear across the borders of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona often to house a pipeline or construction crew and last only as long as the project. For Jackson, these mobile homes represented part of long tradition of housing in the New World that began with the temporary wooden houses of the first European settlers on the East Coast and continued through the balloon frame homes of the 19th century to the box houses and mobile homes of the 20th century. The latter forms moved west with the surging populations and soon became a defining feature of the Western landscape. While many of Jackson’s essays do not reward too much scrutiny, he nevertheless recognized the importance of mobile housing for the requirements of wartime production, post war shifts in settlement, and the baby boom in the American West.

Just as RVs came to symbolize the leisure time pursuits of the mobile, post-war, middle class, the mobile home and RV emerged as alternate housing solutions for an increasingly mobile workforce who came to work in the American West, including the Bakken, when opportunity called. Low population density, uneven access to utilities and other infrastructure, the presence of large-scale construction projects and extractive industries, and a temporary workforce that is accustomed to mobility contributed a distinctly Western character of the Bakken.

 

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