A Weekend Walking and Talking Man Camps

I had an enormously rewarding and productive weekend walking around temporary workforce housing sites in the Bakken oil patch this weekend and talking to residents of Dunn County in Killdeer in the first our “Man Camp Dialogues”. As readers of the this blog know, I’ve been chomping at the bit to get out to the Bakken again this winter after oil prices began their slide in the new year. A serious of complications prevented me from getting back out there until this past weekend. 

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I think I can summarize a good bit of my trip to the Bakken over six points. The first three, I’ll offer today and the last three, I’ll offer up tomorrow: 

1. Less Optimism. I traveled the man camps without our oral historian/ethnography Bret Weber this weekend so I didn’t do formal interviews (I do not have “people skills,” and Bret usually deals with “people” so that the archaeologists don’t have to.) But I did chat with folks as I wandered the man camps, and the former optimism about the boom has certainly diminished some. A few folks told me that they weren’t sure what the summer would be like, when production and construction projects have traditionally increased, and others said, frankly, that there were planning to head home and the boom was over. One guy even admitted to being trapped in the Bakken as his house was rented out until the end of the summer and he could no longer get enough hours to earn enough money to make it worth his while to stay in the Bakken.

2. More Development. For some reason this past visit to the Bakken, I was struck by the expansive character of development in Watford City and the plans for growth in Killdeer. In our first trip out to the patch, Bret and I mused about the two edge sword of the rapid development of permanent housing in the Bakken. On the one hand, getting your workforce out of temporary housing increases the chance that high-(economic)-value, community minded families stay in oil patch towns even after the oil runs out. On the other hand, it puts long-standing and often-conservative communities on the hook for costly expansions to local infrastructure. It’s interesting to observe how quickly the economic realities of the boom can change and how temporary workforce housing may still represent the most dynamic and flexible way to keep pace with the challenges of the boom.

As we documented the abandonment of workforce housing sites, we recognized that ongoing development complicated any simple understanding of settlement change in Bakken. We recognize that some workers moved from temporary workforce housing sites to permanent apartments. Moreover, the seasonal or even annual ebb and flow of the workforce meant that some more temporary camps were below capacity. 

3. Abandonment. I increasingly believe that any archaeologist who wants to really understand site formation processes should spend a weekend in the Bakken with our team. Like geneticists who use the short-lived fruit fly to explore mutation over numerous generations, informal workforce housing sites provide remarkable case studies for exploring abandonment. This trip to the Bakken revealed several phases on abandonment often occurring in rapid succession.

First, there were a number of abandoned RVs or trailers at these sites. Some of these units were owned by companies that rented them to workers and are now left neglected as the demands for temporary housing declined in the winter or with the dropping price of oil. Other units had their occupants evicted or were simply abandoned in their lots with the previous residents forfeiting their security deposit. Most of the abandoned units showed signs of rough use with damaged furnishings, unspeakable toilets, and non-perishable foots stuff, pots and pans, and  household trash strewn about. Abandoned units are sometimes surrounded by broken objects, but also by objects that were too large to easily remove like appliances, mudrooms, or outdoor furniture. In short, an abandoned RV often shows signs of a move away from temporary housing entirely. Finally, there is often sign of scavenging with valuable insulation pulled off abandoned units as well as parts of the RV itself.



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Second, most RV parks remove abandoned RVs from their lots and dump them at the margins of the park to make the lot available for the next resident. More frequently, it would appear, that previous residents pulled their RVs out of their lots and moved on leaving behind various things. The most common evidence for a recently departed RV is the tell-tale outline of insulation and skirting left embedded in the ice around a unit. Extension cords buried in ice, sewage and water hoses, and household trash strewn about typically indicates a recently departed unit. In some cases, stack of insulation, shipping pallets, and other pieces of scrap, broken or difficult to recycle things litter the ground. When considerable insulation is left behind, it suggest that the residents departed the Bakken for warmer climes.




Third, in many of the better maintained RV parks, clean and tidy lots stood alongside abandoned RVs and lots showing signs of recent abandonment. The objects left behind were either removed from the RV park entirely, dumped around the edges for the part for reuse, or scavenged from the site and reused. While I was documenting several abandoned trailers, a resident at the park was collecting some material for shelves from a small pile scrap wood neatly stacked at the end of a vacated lot. The same resident told me that he was going to stack some scavenged insulation and plywood back on an existing pile of wood at another vacant lot so he didn’t lose his deposit. Clearly, abandonment practices demonstrate a number of strategies from the outwardly profligate abandonment of an RV and its contents to the incredibly tactical practices of daily reuse.



More on my trip tomorrow!

One Comment

  1. There was an interesting story in the Grand Forks Herald today about U-Haul rentals as an indicator of people arriving and departing from the oil patch. http://www.grandforksherald.com/news/business/3695470-oil-boom-layoffs-mount-u-haul-dealers-gain-customers


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