Yesterday was may day off from my work at Polis on Cyprus and while I spent a little time just relaxing, I spent most of the day writing up an overdue submission to a forthcoming reprint to the Robert B. Campbell, Samuel C. Kelley, Ross B. Talbot, and Bernt L. Wills’s Williston Report: The Impact of Oil on the Williston Area of North Dakota (Grand Forks, UND Press 1958). Kyle Conway will edit the volume and it will appear from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and as part of the larger Bakken Bookshelf project.
Our essay will focus on housing in the 1958 report and in the 21st-century boom. I’ll emphasize that what I’ve written below was very much composed on the fly. This isn’t my usual method of writing.
The Williston Report provided an invaluable snapshot of the 1950s oil boom. The statistics presented offers a window into the scale of the boom, as well as the challenge of counting and documenting a mobile and temporary workforce and measuring the impact of social change. In the absence of consistent and high-resolution data, the authors of the Williston Report supplemented their study with interviews and more impressionistic readings of the situation.
The Williston Report is very much a report, in that it approached various different aspects of the 1950s oil boom largely on their own terms. There is little effort to locate the 1950s Bakken boom within the history of the state, the region, or larger conversations on extractive industries or changes in the mobility of the American workforce in the post war era. As the author notes, this report is a case study rather than a policy brief or an argument for understanding the broader causes and patterns of social change.
That being said, Campbell and his colleagues’ observations are not without judgment or coherence. In terms of housing, they assert that some of the housing in the Bakken, particularly around Tioga was, indeed, “substandard,” including tarpaper shacks moved from farms, structures rough enough to be thought of as “grain bins” by some observers, and closely-placed trailers. In fact, the photos in the volume showed light-weight, closely-spaced buildings that the owner could move two at a time with a farm truck (pp. 33-34). Interviews with a resident of these buildings, who had come to the region from the south, confirmed their unsuitability. At the same time, they observe that communities like Ray and Tioga also subdivided more substantial, existing structures to accommodate workers. Some oil companies also provided mobile housing units to accommodate their employees in the oil patch.
Second, they noted the tight housing market caused by the boom had motivated communities and developers to invest in high quality housing. This housing tended to attract individuals who already enjoyed stable housing in the region and enjoyed higher incomes. As a result, the construction of this housing did little to alleviate the challenges facing new and temporary residents of the region. Pressures to limit the extent and impact of temporary housing, however, accompanied the new construction and communities and developers reduced the options available to the temporary residents.
Finally, there were clear similarities in the settlement structure of the 1950s oil boom and that of the 21st century. The cluster of camps between US Route 2 and Tioga and on Route 85 on the northern side of Williston neatly parallel the clusters of camps in the recent boom. Campbell also noted, however, that the divide between housing for new arrivals and housing for pre-boom residents is more varied than the stark social divide between the groups would suggest. Ray, Tioga, and Williston demonstrate both new neighborhoods occupied largely by new arrivals in the Bakken and infilling of older neighborhoods with new residences.
Campbell remained reluctant to argue that housing represented a genuine “social problem” in the Bakken. Some of this might be a semantic issue as he distinguished between issues that he regarded as “personal problems,” which implied a greater significance of a particular problem for a single individual than the community at large, and larger social problems, which had an impact across the entire community and region. In this regard, the 1958 Williston report echoed many of the sentiments found in our own research in the Bakken. Housing, while “disturbing to the researcher” (p. 131) was only rarely articulated clearly as problem by the residents. At the same time, Campbell’s report and our own work, has demonstrated that housing in the Bakken remained a general concern for existing communities in the region. The tensions between the scale and significance of housing as an issue represent a key element in understanding the trajectory of housing on individual and regional level in the 21st century Bakken.
Historiography of Short-Term Housing and Home
Campbell’s interest in housing in the Williston Report reflects a long-standing interest in short-term, boom-time housing and anticipates the 21st century considerations of a global housing crisis. Scholars have long had a strong interest in housing and settlement associated with extractive industries and large scale construction projects in the American West. John Bickerstaff Jackson’s 1953 study of the “westward moving house,” and his late 1950s research on housing in the Four Corners area of the Southwest recognized housing in the American West as a distinct phenomenon adapted both to the identity of the owner and to the economic needs of a region. More recent studies on temporary worker housing during World War II and in the rise of the mobile homes and RVs as expressions of the tension between mobility and stability in the American suburbs likewise saw the middle of the 20th century as a period during which housing and the concept of domesticity came to intersect with new materials, plans, and social roles. Set against this backdrop, Campbell’s ambivalent attitude toward the housing problem in the 1950s Bakken reflected the significant changes taking place within American attitudes toward the house and domesticity in the same decade (see Hayden 1984 for the classic treatment of this period).
In recent years, housing has emerged as a global concern with the expansion of ad hoc housing around urban areas in the global south, the challenges associated housing the growing number of refugees and migrants, and growing workforce of laborers engaged in precarious manufacturing jobs, construction projects, and other short-term ventures fueled by the increased mobility of global capital. Activists and scholars alike have come to recognize that the housing needs of workers, migrants, refugees, and urban dwellers is more than simply a practical concern, but involves issues of social, economic, and environment justice. Recent critiques have made clear, for example, that Williston Report’s recognition of the tendency for developers to invest in high cost and high profit units at the expense of affordable housing has contributed to the global housing crisis (e.g. Madden and Marcuse 2016).
These trends in the historiography give the observations on housing in the 1958 Williston Report offer an almost uncanny relevance for anyone interested in the challenges facing 21st-century society. Even Campbell’s observation that housing in the 1950s Bakken representing more of a “personal problem,” than a social one, offers useful reminder that temporary housing often represents a negotiation between the denizens of these dwellings and global ideals of domesticity, material and environmental limits, and the perspective of surrounding residents who often seek to balance the pressure of global and national capital with their own access to local and regional political and social capital. In this context, the temporary housing in the Bakken and the conditions that produced its appearance emerge as less an exceptional response to an unexpected boom and more of a grim model for housing the growing class of precarious workers.