The Man Camp Dialogues

Last year the inestimable Bret Weber and the local icon Tom Isern co-wrote a North Dakota Humanities Council grant to support a series of conversations in communities across western North Dakota about workforce housing. 

The first stop will be Killdeer, ND where I’ll be joined by Emily Guerin, Richard Rothaus, and Tom Isern in our first “Man Camp Dialogue.” This is particularly fitting because Killdeer has had some interesting press lately about their efforts to adapt to new housing needs.

Tom Isern and I were on Prairie Public Radio’s Main Street on Monday talking about our project.

If you’re planning to attend the forum of want to read more about it, we’ve published a short study guide which you can download here or purchase in paper here.

The good folks at the Dunn County Historical Society have also provided us with a great press release which I’ve included below:

3 1 15 Man Camp photo P1090565

RESIDENTS INVITED TO MARCH 8 MAN CAMP PUBLIC FORUM:

Be part of the community conversation! Hear what your neighbors have to say!

March 2, 2015 (Killdeer, ND)—The Dunn County Historical Society welcomes scholars from the University of North Dakota’s Man Camp Project to the High Plains Cultural Center in Killdeer on Sunday, March 8, 1 – 3 p.m. Researchers will share findings from a two-year study on the temporary housing systems that have sprung up throughout western North Dakota to shelter Oil Patch workers. As part of the public forum, officially known as “The Man Camp Dialogues,” audience members are invited to ask questions and share observations. Panelists include Project Research Associate Dr. Richard M. Rothaus; Co-Primary Investigator William Caraher and Emily Guerin, Inside Energy’s North Dakota reporter. 

“The North Dakota Man Camp Project has reached the point in development when it is ready to engage in conversations to generate more questions and more insights,” said Public Forum Project Leader Tom Isern. “We encourage the voices of those directly living the history of the Boom. Everyone is welcome to contribute.”

Man camp research shows similarities to towns and state’s historical agricultural and settlement patterns Rothaus and Caraher have been touring man camps and documenting observations about the camps’ environments. Some of their findings have been surprising, considering the often underpopulated and underserved areas where the man camps are built.

“Overall, they are pretty clean,” said Rothaus. “Not as clean as I would keep my yard, and there are a few bad neighbors who are terrible slobs, but the camps are as clean as one can expect from people working long hours with irregular services. The big camps, like Capital Lodge, are spotless.”

Many man camps resemble other, if less temporary, communities in North Dakota. “I think people will be surprised to think about how temporary workforce housing sites are similar to small towns, suburban subdivisions or even small cities that dot the landscape both here in North Dakota and across the United States,” said Caraher. “The immediate impression of workforce housing might be different, but once we peel back some stereotypes and look at what folks are really trying to do in these settlements, we’ll begin to see that things are more similar than different.”

The Bakken Boom may encompass the largest and most dramatic industrial oil and gas activity that many North Dakotans have witnessed and lived through. But, said researchers, crew camps have always played a role in settling and developing the country, especially in the 19th-century American West. 

“The continued development of this practice into the 21st century is hardly surprising as remote locations like the sparsely settled counties of western North Dakota continue to pose logistical and economic challenges for resource extraction,” said documents generated by The Man Camp Project. “Clustered outside or around the fringes of the longstanding towns in the area, the temporary settlements represent the practical needs of an itinerant workforce.”

Boom not easy for anyone; public forum welcomes all Bakken voices Although Caraher and Rothaus are quick to say their research doesn’t provide answers, one thing they found is certain: Along with great prosperity and opportunity, the Bakken Boom has also created human hardship and societal challenges.

“We all are living in a world thrust upon us,” said Rothaus. “Residents have an oil boom to contend with, whether they want it or not. Oil workers, driven by economic necessity, have descended upon a place they didn’t know existed and struggle with the boom as well. Opinions about the boom vary widely, but what we do share is the life experience of crowded stores, high prices, traffic and lots and lots of people coming and going. Few would choose to do it this way, but we are all here anyway.” 

Generating new avenues of research and helping people make informed decisions about the boom in general and man camps specifically is the point of the March 8 public forum in Killdeer.

“Our research was never meant to be the source of singular authority on workforce housing, but part of the conversation,” said Caraher. “We’d like as many people in that conversation as possible!”

Bill Flaget, president of the Dunn County Historical Society, agrees: “This is an important opportunity for Dunn County residents to learn about and comment on the effects that man camps are having on their communities,” he said. “We are proud to work with the North Dakota Humanities Council to bring this event to Dunn County.”

This event is hosted by the Dunn County Historical Society and funded by the North Dakota Humanities Council. It is free and open to the public. Refreshments served. To learn more: http://heritagerenewal.org/mancamps/dialogues.htm and https://www.facebook.com/events/335047293367044    

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