Community in a time of change…

I interrupt the regular programming of walking the hills, chasing Little Man, scolding the pug and cooking with my husband to  talk for a moment about community. I want to talk about belonging somewhere, calling it home, embracing its flaws and standing up for a place…taking care of it.

No matter where you live in this country you’ve probably caught bits and pieces about the changes that are occurring in Western North Dakota due to new technology that allows us to extract oil from the Bakken and other large reservoirs that lay 10,000 feet below the surface of the land…the land where our roads wind, our children run, our farmers cultivate, our schools and shops sit. The land we call community. The land we call home.

For the people who exist here oil is not a new word. Neither is the Bakken. My county is celebrating its 60th year of oil discovery soon and its county seat isn’t even 100 years old. So you can imagine many long time residents of the small “boomtowns” you’re hearing about have had their hand in the industry at one point or another in their lifetime. Some have stories about finishing high school or returning home from college and working in the oil fields in the 1970s, moving up in industry, making their place, seeing it through the rough times and coming out on the other side as leaders and veterans of the industry.

Veterans of the industry like the ranchers and farmers in this area working to exist and tend to their land while the search for oil below their wheat fields and pastures carries on around them. During rough times, times when cattle prices were low, or the rain didn’t fall, some of those landowners have taken a second job driving truck or pumping for oil to make ends meet, to pay off some debt, to get their kids through college.

These people have served as members of the school board, city council, 4-H leaders and musicians in local bands. They have helped build up their main streets, keeping small businesses in business and the doors of the schools struggling with declining enrollment open. They’ve coached volleyball and cheered on their hometown football teams. They’ve helped a neighbor with his fencing, brought their kids along on cattle drives, drove the school bus to town and back every weekday, filled the collection plate at church and then helped rebuild its steeple.

These people continue this way to this day and I expect many in this generation, my generation, will be telling similar stories when it’s all said and done…stories that start with back breaking, 80 hour a week job and end in a life made.

A kind of life we are all living out here surrounded right now by oil derricks and pumping units and wheat fields and new stop lights and cattle and badlands. And I know you’re hearing about it. It’s big news in a tough economy–an oasis of jobs,  opportunity and money in what some have come to refer to as “The Wild West” or “The Black Gold Rush.” It’s a story of hope, yes, but what we really like is the drama don’t we? We like to hear about the guy who came to North Dakota on a prayer only to live in his car in the Wal-Mart parking lot while he hunted for a job that allowed him to send money home to his wife and kids, or build a house, or a booming business. We like to talk over the dinner table about how the bars are full and the lines are long at the post office, about how a new building is going up and how the new stop lights and three lane highway is not doing enough to control the traffic.

We talk about how our lives are changing. I have been trying to wrap my mind around what this means for the place I have and always will call home. But the bottom line is that without this change, I probably wouldn’t be here to contemplate it at all.

Yesterday I worked with a small group of elementary children who are full of life and love and energy and ideas…and nearly all of them have moved with their parents to this town within the last couple years. They come from all different backgrounds, from several states away. They come with ideas and insight into a world that extends outside this small and growing town where they now live.  Some of them have left the only house they have known behind, some have left pets and horses they used to ride, wide open space and friends to live in a new place, a place much different from where they came from. A place that has work, but doesn’t have an abundance of houses their parents can chose from with big back yards where they can play.

When asked where they are from they will tell you Wyoming, California, Montana or Washington.

When asked about their home, they say it is here.

Change? Compared to these children, we know nothing of it.

Because last night I returned to the ranch after dropping off the last student only to pull on my tennis shoes and drive down the road with Husband to meet up with neighbors to play a few games of volleyball. And there we were at a small, rural recreation center surrounded by some of the community members who raised funds to build the place nearly fifteen years ago. Fifteen years ago when the pace was slower, but the most important values were there.

The value of having a space to get together to play a game, to craft, to hold meetings and New Years Eve parties and baby showers. In that very gym where I skidded across the floor last night to hit a volleyball my neighbor passed to me was the very gym I served pancakes in as part of a youth group fundraiser when I was twelve years old. It was where I gathered with friends and family after a community member’s funeral. It was where I attended 4-H meetings and put on talent shows with my friends. And it’s where I’m going to craft club next Tuesday. Yes, nearly fifteen years after that talent show this is still my meeting place and I still get to call all of the teachers, ranchers, accountants, stay at home moms, business owners and yes, oil industry professionals who are running after fly volleyballs, laughing and joking and skidding across the floor, my neighbors. 

But you know what I need to remember? Those students and their families and the people who are on their way here to look for a better life?  They are my neighbors too. And they have a lot to teach us.

So if you ask me how life has changed, I might tell you about the traffic. I might tell you how there are a couple oil wells behind my house and how that was hard to get used to. I will tell you about the new business coming to the area and how we now have stop lights in town. I will tell you about the challenges. And then I will tell you about the people who are keeping their fingers on the pulse of this development and discovery. I will tell you about those who are asking the right questions about our environment and making the tough decisions about our infrastructure in order to better accommodate new students in our schools and new residents of our towns so that they feel they belong here the same way I belong.

They are on the front lines welcoming visitors to the museum, taking the time to ask questions at the grocery store, spending their retirement as County Commissioners, City Council and Chamber of Commerce members. I will tell you about the people who are not only sticking it out during these growing pains, but who are working every day to make their home a better home for the next generation.

Yes, right now our community is overwhelmed. Whether or not we saw this coming, whether or not we thought we were prepared, many days for many people it feels like the phone calls, the needs that can’t be met, the questions that don’t have answers yet, are overwhelming…and it’s tempting for many to pack up and leave a place they don’t feel they recognize anymore.

But here’s what I’m proposing to those living in the middle of the Wild West and to those in any community really:

Stand up for it. Go to meetings. Ask questions. Play Volleyball together. Exist in it. Don’t be afraid to be frustrated, but then do something. Anything. Invite a new person to your quilting club. Put on a talent show. Volunteer. Attend a basketball game. Mentor a student. Instead of complaining about the trash in the ditches, get your friends together to pick it up. Set a good example. Set your standards and then be prepared to put your muscles into it.


If it’s your community, make it your priority. Because it’s your community and it’s worth loving and fighting to take the frustrations and turn them into solutions. To turn the complaining into action. To shift from fear and uncertainty to a place of positive energy and open-mindedness.

It isn’t  easy, but those who have seen this through, those who have walked the main streets when the stores are full only to turn around to see them empty, those who built that school, owned that store, lived in that house for 50 years, they will tell you, not only is it worth the effort, it’s our responsibility.

Want to keep up with what’s happening in Western North Dakota and my hometown?
Visit: mckenziecounty.net for the latest in news and progress and the North Dakota Petroleum Council for information on North Dakota’s oil industry.


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36 thoughts on “Community in a time of change…

  1. Jessie, well said. I have heard and read many of the bad things from out there. I know in a realistic world there are good things that happen and bad, I chose to see and do more good because we (I and others) are our children’s future. Whether you are a parent or not, you may be an aunt/uncle or cousin. To invest in the future is very positive. Change doesn’t doesn’t come over night nor is it easy; so Kudos Jessie. Thanks and so very true. Many blessings. Nicole

  2. Wow, very well said!!! Wonderfully written. I sure hope that you sent that to every newspaper and online ND magazine for print!!!! That was wonderful!!!

  3. Jess your words could apply to every town in America. Not just energy areas but places that need everyone pulling together to make their town a place that people are proud to call home. It takes unbelievable amounts of work to make it happen but the results can be very satisfying. God’s speed!! Rich

  4. Jessie..keep leading the way. My generation went through similar changes. I suppose what we learned was to raise our children to refute the thought of North Dakota as a Buffalo Commons. Now we have to refute the becomming the next Detroit. Your thoughts are golden.JS

  5. My husband moved to Watford City three months ago. The kids and I are still in Oregon but will be moving there soon. We made this step mainly because of the job situation, but also because your town and the people that make up your community were given such high praise by friends who have been there for two yrs now. We look forward to becoming a part of your community and making it our home. I have not stepped foot in the town but because of your post and the conversations I have had with Jan Dodge I already feel welcomed. Thank you so much for that.
    Sincerely, Jeana Davis

  6. Jessie, I see your point(s). We all love the land more than anything, but, we have to earn a living, too. We only hope that someday, when the rigs are gone and the towns return to their original size, we can say it was worth it. Will Sylas say it was worth it. That’s what really matters. K

  7. Thanks for writing this. I love Watford City! It has changed so much in the 2 1/2 years since we came here on a wing and a prayer. We lived two months in an RV at Cherry Creek. Then through a miracle we were able to purchase our home from Chad and Chelsie Ellis. They were our life savers! We appreciate every kindness that the residents of Watford and McKenzie County have shown us. We want to be part of the greatness that is Warford! But, I have found myself complaining too often about the issues of traffic and housing and the cost of food. Your article has reminded me to be patient with myself and others. Thanks again!

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  9. Jessie
    Enjoyed meeting you and your folks this last summer. Returned to SW Colorado for the winter, but look forword to returning to ND in a couple months. I met some of the best folks there that anyone could hope for! Doing my little deck building business was not even like a job, it was fun.
    Maybe this year I,ll take some time to go fishing or even talk you guys into a horseback ride. (I did make it to “Turkey Bingo”)
    All the bes and see you all soon.

    Glenn

  10. Thanks for the poignant writing about your community. Change is inevitable yet difficult sometimes, so you’re right about harnessing community power for prosperity for all. Thank you for a glimpse of the real North Dakota.

  11. This is a great post. I hear so many people saying–and I’ve said it myself—that “why can’t it go back to the way it was?” But then I think about the problems western ND was facing 10 years ago….”what’s going to happen when our school/grocery store/hospital closes? How can we get people to stay?” Communities were dying and there was nothing to draw people back.

    Now we’ve got the opposite problem, but we can’t make it go away. Like you said, why not look for every way possible that these changes can enrich our communities? A lot of the new people want to be invited to be part of the community and have a lot to contribute. They don’t deserve to be judged because of newcomers who have made trouble.

    Your post brought to mind Art Link’s speech, “When the Landscape is Quiet Again.” If people work together we can make the best of it when it’s all said and done.

  12. Great post, Jesse. As someone who moved to Watford City in the early 90′s because my dad worked in the oil field this really hits home. I can appreciate that differences in that I moved there in a slow oil time and now there are mass influxes of people. However, I ended up spending my high school years in a place I proudly proclaim to be my hometown and since my family moved there and made it their home, I visit whenever I can. And this most recent boom has allowed my dad, one of the hardest working people you’ll ever meet, to start a business and watch it grow.

    I enjoyed a fantastic childhood, one that expanded exponentially when I moved to Watford City. I felt the town embraced me and my family and I would recommend living there to anyone. I’d hate to know that there are kids there now that are like a young me that leave and never want to come back to one of the best places I’ve had the pleasure of living. I’m sure there will be many that will be in Watford City for awhile, move away and not this twice about the town again. However, there will also be many that either stay forever or eventually move and promote this great city to those they encounter. I hope there are many more of the latter and for that to happen, they need to feel like it is home.

  13. Excellent article Jessie! I hear from many newcomers that North Dakotans are the friendliest and happiest people thay have ever met! I just hope they will try to keep it clean for us!

  14. I was born and raised in the oil fields with my parents, lived in Watford City, Williston, my family all came from and around Alexander. We had to leave after the last big boom in the 80″s. There were no more jobs for us. We were like gypsy when I was a child. I remember how the local’s did not like us. we were like carnival trash!! However, I still call North Dakota My Home! I was born there, no matter where we lived in the mix of things, my Mother made sure she had her babies in Williston. It was a terrible thing when everything was over, if you were not a farmer or landowner or nurse, Doctor, teacher? There was simply no place for us anymore. I am so proud that North Dakota can claim the lowest unemployment rate. That they are going forward. Most of my friends here in Oregon have never heard of the oil boom in North Dakota, their children are out of work, they feel they have no future. Everyone is afraid!!! I believe we have to go forward or forever backwards. My Dad is gone now but he would have loved to have seen this boom that is sposed to put all the rest to shame. Hang on to it people. Enjoy the prosperity it brings. Deal with the bad parts, one at a time. Give your Children a Chance to survive!! Perhaps the biggest nasayers are the ones with no oil rights to their land?

  15. What an amazing post! I’m glad Carmen G. shared this on Facebook because that’s where I found it. I have been very saddened at what Watford City has become – that it doesn’t seem very safe anymore, all the traffic, etc. I was home over Christmas after being away for about 7 years and was amazed at all the changes – esp. all the mancamps, including one just east of my parents home. It was that same area that we as kids went snowmobiling, horseback riding, sledding, and buried our beloved dog, Freckles.

    Your article puts it all in a very good perspective and I hope that for the locals that aren’t choosing to leave, they will welcome those moving into the area and that the newcomers will be an asset to the community.

  16. This is an excellent writeup , and very refreshing to read .. all that we have been reading about and hearing is negative, negative.. and to have someone say ; here we live , make it work .. and in a positive way , it is your community , embrace the change .. I love this attitude .. God Bless America .. !!!

  17. This is great, Jessie. This positive outlook is what we need right now. Embracing change is always going to be easier than fighting it. And you know what, no matter what, things can never go back the way they were. Even without the gigantic changes like we’ve been experiencing, nothing EVER stays the same! Except maybe the negative attitudes of the nay-sayers. They are the ones to feel sorry for – the ones who can’t, or won’t change and grow.

    It’s also great that your positiveness about the situation is reaching such a far-flung audience. Keep up the good work!

  18. Thank you! It’s disappointing to hear people complaining about the boom, when so many people in our nation are struggling. We are blessed. Yes, it is hard, and there are many huge changes, but it’s not all bad.

  19. I guess if I could find 20 more employees to run my business I would have time to do those things – sure sounds wonderful. Kind of like the community I grew up in.

  20. It is so nice to see someone be positive for a change with all this. I am so tired of all the complaining and never hearing anyone simply step back and say man are we lucky to have all this when the rest of the country is in such dire shape. Maybe it would be different if cattle and wheat were not at record highs. For many of us in the western side of the state the great fear was always we would lose our schools now we are talking of building new ones. There are bad things as there is with anything but in the end the good will outweigh the bad and many of us will have gained beautiful memories from this time of rapid change.
    Whats the saying??? Take the lemons and go make some lemonade!!!!!

  21. My mother was born in Wheelock, my father in Skaar. My grandfather and grandmother, who homesteaded in Bookly county, are buried in Williston, my parents ashes are in Brooklyn county on the family homestead. I’ve been to Williston in the good times and bad. Visited the museum in Epping. An Alter Cloth my grandmother tatted is on display there. Though I have never lived in North Dakota, when I have visited it has always felt like home. Your beautiful essay reminded me of why I am still drawn to the area. When I visited last summer I marveled at the intense change the oil boom has brought. What hasn’t changed is the spirit of the people who live there and the spirit of the brave people who move there in search of a better life. Thank you.

  22. Thanks for this great article on our changing communities. It’s a good reminder to look at the positive while putting up with the inconveniences of this sudden growth. I have sent it on to friends near and far to give them a better perspective of our area. As we travel, people from all over the country are wondering about our “black gold rush”. When we were first married we went into “the world” to seek our fortune and found it was right here in our ND back yard. Glad you came back home.

  23. It is bittersweet to go home now. I feel so sad for old folks, like my mom, who had to move out of Williston because her rent was increased to $2000 a month. She was born in Williams county and lived there all of her 87 years. She had to leave my dad’s gravesite. It is hardest on the older folks who built the area and now there is no room for them. They don’t take it so well.

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