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


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: and    

Sabbaticals, Study Guides, and the Man Camp Dialogues

I’m entering the last leg of my sabbatical and feeling pretty good about wrapping up the projects that I had set out to accomplish. I will not have a completed manuscript documenting our excavations at Pyla-Koutsopetria prepared by the end of the spring, but it will be far enough along to guide our study season. I won’t have submitted an article on the site of South Basilica at Polis-Chrysochous, but that manuscript will be submitted this fall and will serve as a useful guide for this summer’s study season on that project. With any luck (and a bit more collaboration from my colleagues) we will have submitted the first major article from the North Dakota Man Camp Project to a top tier journal. 

This winter and spring, however, I have spent a good bit of my time working on my little press, and a little time working on writing for a wider, public audience with my Tourist Guide to the Bakken and my essay on Slow Archaeology for North Dakota Quarterly.

So last week, I wrote a humanities study guide for a series of public talks called the Man Camp Dialogues. These are funded by the North Dakota Humanities Council. The first one is on March 8th in Killdeer, North Dakota at the High Plains Cultural Center. Some time today, our study guide will be ready to circulate, and I’ll put up a link as soon as it’s live. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I’ll share a little design study that I did for a cover. Another thing that I’ve worked on during my sabbatical is becoming more comfortable with Illustrator and more comfortable with the mechanics and aestheticsof cover designs. 

Man Camp Study Guide Alt Cover 01 01

Here’s the guide:

Harvest Value: Reprinting North Dakota Quarterly

I spent a little time between cricket overs working on a little side project. Since last year, I’ve been on the editorial board of North Dakota Quarterly, a small literary magazine started in 1910/11 at the University of North Dakota. It was part of the so-called “little magazine” movement that exploded at the turn of the century and were almost certainly the predecessors of today’s blog driven literary publications.  

I’ve taken it on myself to work with the digital aspects of NDQ and, as part of that, I’ve been scouring back issues for content that is current and interesting. I posted a teaser last week with a mock up of a cover. It was a bit of a design exercise, but I think was pretty satisfactory.

Gilette Book Cover

As I played with this a bit more, I’ve come up with three things that I want to do:

1. Find Interesting Content. The great thing about the little magazine tradition is that it provided folks with a platform for sustained comment on events of their time. The sometimes motley group of faculty who had come to UND and the Red River Valley were not timid in expressing their views of the world and their institution. As a result, the comments offered in the early issues of NDQ have a tendency to be both sweeping in perspective and historically relevant 

2. Design. I am not a graphic designer. In fact, I’m not even very good at using Illustrator, InDesign, or Photoshop, but I recognize the value in today’s hyper-visual culture to making an attractive product. The original layout and design of the NDQ is staid and simple, so I tried to maintain the spirit of that practice. I reset the text in Doves Type to add some craft like flair to it. I also tried to make the cover more graphically inviting (and used official colors of the University of North Dakota on the NDQ logo to emphasize the immediate relevance of this issue to the University).    

3. Add Context. For the two offprints that I have prepared recently, I’ve added a short introduction exploring the context for a particular offprint. This not only allows the reader to understand some of the language and ideas that might seem out of date and impolitic, but also reinforce the relevance of a particular piece for our contemporary world.

So, here is my second reprint. It is an article from NDQ 7.4 (1917) by John Morris Gillette titled: “The University in the Service of Society.” 


I’ve also started working on a larger reprint project that will bring together ten articles on The Great War from the 1916,  1919, and 1920 volumes of NDQ. My romantic goal is to drop this content next November 11th (Veterans’ Day), but I get impatient! 

Here’s my tentative table of contents:

I. Introduction

1. One Hundred Years of Peace (NDQ 6)
O. G. Libby,
Professor of History
University of North Dakota

2. The Background of the Great War (NDQ 8)
O. G. Libby
Professor of History
University of North Dakota

3. The Universities and the War (NDQ 8)
George R. Davis
Assistant Professor of Sociology,
University of North Dakota

II. The University of North Dakota and the War

4. Medical Students and the Draft (NDQ 8)
H.E. French
Professor of Anatomy and Dean of the School of Medicine
University of North Dakota

5. War Experiences of a University Student as a Doughboy (NDQ 10)
Wesley R. Johnson

6. An Alumnus of the University Who Did Not Get Across (NDQ 10)
William H. Greenleaf
Secretary Alumni Association
University of North Dakota

7. Experiences of a University Woman “Over There” (NDQ 10)
Hazel B. Nielson

8. The Work of Institutions of Higher Education (NDQ 10)
Orin G. Libby
Professor of History
University of North Dakota

III. Afterward

9. The University and National Progress (NDQ 9)
Bartholomew John Spence
Professor of Physics
University of North Dakota

10. After the War – What? (NDQ 8)
Hugh E. Willis
Professor of Law
University of North Dakota

If you want to encounter the horror of The Great War first hand (actually, the horror of any war), read over the in memoriam for students and alumni of UND.  

Lives, Land, and Labor in Bakken at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo

If you’re down in Fargo this evening and want to step out, check out the IdeaExchange program on Lives, Land, and Labor in the Bakken at the Plains Art Museum. To register, go here

This program is in conjunction with their ongoing Bakken Boom! exhibit which I’ve blogged about here.

IEBBoom2 12 2015poster

Some thoughts on the Bakken Boom Exhibit at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo

This weekend, I was able to hang out in the Bakken Boom exhibit down at the Plains Museum of Art in Fargo. It took up the top two galleries in the Plains and featured over 20 artists from around the U.S. I was fortunate enough to know a few of the artists whose work was on display making the show a bit more intimate than an ordinary visit to a gallery. In particular, I was excited to see one of Joel Jonientz‘s last works “Chérie, tu vois quelque chose de nouveau ici?” We also had a chance to check out contributions by Kyle Cassidy and John Holmgren who are both collaborators in the North Dakota Man Camp Project. My buddy Ryan Stander, who is now a professor of photography at Minot State, also had some fascinating contributions to the exhibition including a visually arresting print of the fire ball that emanated from the tanker train derailment outside of Casselton, ND.

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Rather than review the show, I’d rather just encourage you to go and check it out, and offer a few observations.

1. The Real and Documentary. One of my favorite things about the show is that is messed with our collective view of what was “real” and what was “documentary” in the Bakken. Several documentary photographers were represented including a series of Alec Soth’s photographs made famous by his New York Times Magazine spread in 2013. The juxtaposition of these well-framed photographs with the numerous mixed media pieces in the exhibit made them seem somehow detached, abstract in their own way, and perhaps even a bit inauthentic. While most of approach critically the tradition of literalism and even objectivity that frame the unwavering gaze of the camera, it was still quite shocking to feel so jaundiced and skeptical about the photographic images in he show. I couldn’t quite figure out whether it was the complexity of the mixed media pieces that made them feel more authentic and real, or whether I was lured into overlooking the complexity of the photographs by the stares of the subjects.

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2. Anxiety. The anxiety of the exhibit was palpable. I thought the frenetic character of many of the mixed-media pieces created a kind of vibrating filter through which made the Bakken appear constantly shaking, out of focus, and contingent. A video installation from the artist collective “Road to Williston” provides a great example of this feeling some of which comes through just by watching the video at their Vimeo site. Ryan Stander’s massive, fragmented print of the Casselton, ND explosion, titled “Missing Information” likewise provided a feeling of angst as the flames billow skyward over a series of panels leaving the viewer to search for its origins in the obscured tank cars at the lower left. The archaeologically arranged discarded objects in Jess Christy’s “Through the Window” designed to document her life as a single woman, living in Minot on the edge of the patch. Her installation left me feeling particularly anxious as it communicated some of the impact of the oil boom at a personal level.

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3. Alternate Perspectives. One thing that was missing from the exhibit were perspectives that considered the possible benefits of the oil boom in the Bakken. The images used frequently seem to overlook (or maybe occlude?) the pre-Boom residents of the Bakken and to locate the Bakken boom against the backdrop of a depersonalized pastoral landscape. (There were two pronounced exceptions to this, Joel Jonientz piece and Sarah Christiansen’s haunting “Skogens’ Bedroom Window, Cartwright, ND, May 2013”). The photographs from Wayne Gunderson’s “Road Conditions: Faces from the Patch” blurs the line between “locals” and “New North Dakotans,” without much explicit social comment. Lucinda Cobley’s “Last Tree” and Molly McLain’s “Gold Boom/Critical Habitat” strike ecological notes, that while obviously relevant, side step the trickier question what and whose environment we should preserve. 

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I hope this critique doesn’t make me sound like an advocate of big oil or an apologist for the environmental, human, and social cost of extractive industries in the Bakken, but the potential for positive outcomes does exist. The challenge, of course, is that these positive outcomes need to be imagined. The contributors to this show demonstrate that the Bakken Boom has stimulated our collective imagination is dramatic and exciting ways, I only wish that the show had reflected more broadly on the stakeholders, possibilities, and future of the boom. 

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Agency, Formality, and Keeping Warm in Bakken Workforce Housing

After three lovely days in the Bakken, my mind is awash in ideas for research and I feel like I can start revising our submission to Historical Archaeology right away. We were once again overwhelmed by the generosity of both new and old North Dakotans. People’s patience with our sometimes intrusive requests to take photos and have conversation, their willingness to sign IRB paperwork, and their general good will makes doing research in workforce housing in the Bakken truly remarkable.  


Our goals for this trip were to focus on architectural innovation in the Bakken as a way to get at issues of agency in the context of workforce housing. The reviewers of our article suggested that our famous typology (Type 1, Type 2, Type 3) was more confusing than elucidating and, to be honest, we had spent more time talking about whether a camp was Type 1 or Type 2 (or whatever) was necessary over the past few visits. So, from the start of this trip we accepted that our typology was a heuristic that was useful when we started describing workforce housing, but has become less helpful as we have come to understand it better.

In the place of our typology, we discussed how camps seem to function on a continuum from the less formal to the more formal. Less formal camps tend to have less institutional control over behavior of residents, less regular appearances, and the greater fluidity of rules and policies and their enforcement than more formal camps. The most formal camps, for example, would by those set-up and run by large companies that cater to large companies in the oil patch by strictly enforcing rules of behavior and the appearance of the camp. The least formal camps are occupied by squatters with no institutional oversight and the only limits on the structure of the camp relate to their existence outside legally sanctioned settlement.

This continuum then, from formal to informal, allowed us to describe both greater variation within the workforce housing sites in the Bakken and to understand the mechanisms that have led to this variation.

In the specific context of revising our article, shifting our focus to the “formality” of camps links our descriptions of workforce housing sites much more tightly to issues of individual agency in the physical structure of the units in the camps. Less formal camps, have greater scope for individual agency and greater variation, but nevertheless still have certain limits that dictate their organization and practices. For example, the arrangement of water, sewage, and electrical hook-ups limits the arrangement of units in the camp. Moreover, the location of the camp and its visibility to local authorities also influenced how much freedom camp residents have to innovate architecturally.

For example, we focused some of our conversations with camp residents on the practice of insulating their RVs for winter. We learned that residents of RV parks tend to learn how to insulate their RVs from their neighbors with folks who had more experience weathering the long, cold North Dakota winters, providing informal advice to those from more mild southern climes. The photograph below shows stacks of extruded polystyrene insulation prepared to be mounted around the base of a new Sandpiper RV. The unit to the right has both polystyrene and plywood insulation affixed to the base of the unit and its mudroom.


In some cases, camp managers would inspect the insulation particularly around sewage and water attachments. Some camp managers explained that if one or two units let their water or sewage freeze, they pipes throughout the camp might be compromised. As a result, they inspect sewage and water pipes regularly.




The construction of mudrooms or other forms of enclosure attached to the RV is another indication of the formality of a workforce housing site. Our favorite camp in the Bakken is Williston Foxrun which has worked hard to manage the range of architectural innovation present at the site. In its earliest days, the camp showed a remarkable variation in mudroom styles including some that exceed the size of the RV or enclosed it completely. Recently, they have worked to limit the size of mudrooms to 8 x 10, but grandfather older mudrooms built in more permissive days provided that they’re not a fire hazard or encroach on their neighbors lot. The first two photos below show relatively large mudrooms probably grandfathered through at Williston Foxrun. Both rooms have air conditioning units suggesting that they’re used for more than just taking off dirty clothes and storage. The room in the top photo also has a propane tank with lines running into the unit for either a heater or a cooktop. The last of the following three photos shows a recently built mudroom which is a good bit smaller than the 8 x 10 size limit and lacks any amenities. 




Finally, we had a chance to look more carefully at discard practices at workforce housing in the Bakken. As the activity in the Bakken has shifted south and has slowed down because of the dip in oil prices, there are more and more signs of RV parks being abandoned or filled with empty lots. While some of the lots were tidy after the departure of a resident – as one of our informants noted: if he left stuff behind someone else would use it, so he might as well take it with him – other lots show signs of hasty departure or no particular concern about recycling insulation or scrap wood. 




In conversation with site managers, we learned the folks left cars, personal items, mudrooms, and other scraps behind when they pulled out. Abandonment sometimes followed a period of neglect when the RV would break down, its sewage system would fail, or the occupant had come into hard times and no longer maintained his or her living space. In some cases, the resident would leave abruptly or be evicted leaving behind a mess for the camp manager but a rich assemblage for archaeological investigation. The unit pictured below showed evidence for an infant living there at least for a short period of time (a single diaper, infant sunscreen, baby lotion), but the camp manager thought the lot was just occupied by a “couple of North Dakota boys.”


So, it was a productive trip out west thanks, especially to my colleagues Bret Weber and Richard Rathaus who helped me see differently. 


The Bakken Calls Once Again

With the price of cratering and the North Dakota cold settling on the Northern Plains (we can ignore the forecast for 55 degree temperatures in the Williston area tomorrow), the industrial beauty of the Bakken once again beckons.

This trip will enlivened by the magnificent Richard Rothaus once again joining the North Dakota Man Camp Project Field Team as well as an embedded radio journalist and a photographer.


The goal of the trip is to once again to check some material in two ongoing publication projects. The first, you should know well: A Tourist Guide to the Bakken. This is to say: go make comments on it over at The Medium.

The other is an article under revision for re-submission to Historical Archaeology. Over the last few days, I’ve deconstructed this article extracted the pieces that our generous peer reviewers thought most valuable, and now need to fill gaps, to smooth transitions, and to reassemble the core content (probably best next week). But for now, I need to check on a few things and fill some gaps. 

The article was this strange beast that included almost everything that we wanted to say about the Bakken in one ramshackle construction. It was not pretty, but it might be useful to someone thinking about their own research in the Bakken and since it will not be published in anything like its current form, I include it here:

We’ll also visit some of our long term study sites with some additional manpower making it easier to document them more thoroughly. Hopefully on Saturday, we’ll look at some of the mobile home camps that have appeared around Watford City and consider these from an archaeological perspective.

Updates will appear next week!

Myth of Origins in the Bakken

I am once again in the Bakken, but this time on business with my wife rather than on my own research adventures. That being said, I did have a chance to visit a few sites that had eluded me including the monument marking the Clarence Iverson No. 1 well which initiated the Bakken boom in 1951 and the rather more obscure site of Temple where sweet North Dakota crude was first transported by rail to markets back east.



This got me thinking about the myths of origins in the Bakken. The name of the play derives from the Henry O. Bakken #1 spudded in July 1951 and completed less than a year later in April of 1952. The Iverson #1 was, of course, earlier, but Mr. Bakken’s name graces the famous North Dakota oil play.

Some trace the origins of the most recent, fracking inspired oil boom to work in the Elm Coulie oil field in eastern Montana where horizontal drilling and fracking demonstrated the potential of these techniques as early as 2000, almost a decade before the current boom was touched off by a horizontal fractured well west of Williston.

I talk a good bit about the various origin stories in my Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch and this morning published Route 5: Williston, ND to Sidney, MT which looks west for the origins of the most recent boom.

I. Introduction

I.1. A Brief Industrial History of the Bakken Counties
I.2. Practical Notes on Travel, Roads, and Weather in the Bakken
I.3. Technical Notes and Key Terms about the Bakken
I.4. Controversies and Concerns
I.5. The North Dakota Man Camp Project
I.6. Further Reading

II. Route 1: Minot to Ross
II1. Route 1a: Ross to White Earth

III. Route 2: Ross to Tioga

IV: Route 3: Tioga to Williston
IV.1. Route 3a: Wheelock, Nession Flats, East Williston
IV.2. Route 3b: Wildrose

V: Route 4: Williston to Watford City

VI: Route 5: Williston to Sidney, MT

VII: Route 6: Watford City to New Town

VIII. Conclusions: Industrial Tourism and Some Theoretical Reflections

P1090294As the kids would say #nofilter


Another Route from the Tourist Guide to the Bakken

One of my favorite drives in the Bakken is from Williston, ND to Watford City, ND. The route takes you south over the Missouri River and through the the Little Badlands before turning east south of Alexander, ND with its mighty bypass. The intersection of US Route 85 and ND Route 23 has become a settlement in its own right with workforce housing accommodating over 1000 people around the iconic Bakken Buffet. 

Then you follow US 85/ND Route 23 east, past Arnegard before descending onto the Madson Flat just west of Watford City. On the south side of the road is the imposing Madson grade which was meant to bring the train onto the flat toward Watford City. For my time and energy, the drive from Williston to Watford For more on this, go and check Route 4 in my Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch.


For people into this kind of thing, Google Earth now has Landsat images from late September 2014 available. 

Here is the current table of contents for 

I. Introduction

I.1. A Brief Industrial History of the Bakken Counties
I.2. Practical Notes on Travel, Roads, and Weather in the Bakken
I.3. Technical Notes and Key Terms about the Bakken
I.4. Controversies and Concerns
I.5. The North Dakota Man Camp Project
I.6. Further Reading

II. Route 1: Minot to Ross
II1. Route 1a: Ross to White Earth

III. Route 2: Ross to Tioga

IV: Route 3: Tioga to Williston
IV.1. Route 3a: Wheelock, Nession Flats, East Williston
IV.2. Route 3b: Wildrose

V: Route 4: Williston to Watford City

VI: Route 5: Williston to Sidney, MT

VII: Route 6: Watford City to New Town

VIII. Conclusions: Industrial Tourism and Some Theoretical Reflections