Sunday Column: The “what if’s” in Boomtown


My husband and I moved back to the ranch more than five years ago. If you’ve been following along here, you’ve likely seen how much has changed, and how much hasn’t, at the ranch, in our family and in our community.

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We moved back for a few reasons. Number one was because it is where we wanted to settle down and raise a family, but the number two reason made it possible–the economy was booming due to the oil and gas industry and seemingly overnight there were more jobs and more opportunity than our small town could keep a tally on.
The results have been unprecedented growth for our small town that was once only 1,200 people and now boasts a population that is seemingly uncountable due to fluctuations and many people living in temporary housing situations. My guess is we’re likely close to 8,000 people today.

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Our small town that never had a stop light, now has many. We have a sort of suburban sprawl happening with new apartment buildings and housing units going up. We have Main Street bars and a sushi restaurant. We have little strip malls. A big grocery store. A nice daycare, a brand new high school and multi-million dollar community and event center going up, with two indoor ice slabs and a couple pools. We’re working on a new hospital and clinic.
Everything that once was is now updated, expanded and improved upon, including our roads.
When oil prices were at $100 a barrel we worked on playing catch up because the entire country was moving in.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.16.56 PMAnd now we’re planning for the future in a time we knew could come, a slow down due to lower oil prices.  We’re in a sort of eerie place where we can catch up, not realizing how we’ve gotten used to such a fast pace until there’s a shift.
In the new year I think we all wish we could see into the future, knowing that all we can do is believe in and trust in today. And today it seems like despite what looks sort of grim, my community is showing it’s a little beacon of light and hope on this cold prairie.
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by Jessie Veeder
Forum Communications

It’s been more than five years since my husband and I unloaded our hand-me-down furniture into the little brown ranch house in the barnyard where my dad grew up, fulfilling our dream of moving home, because unlike the economy the two of us grew up in during the ’80s and ’90s, there were jobs.

Everyone talks about how the oil boom seemed to happen overnight, but when you’re living among it, that sense of immediacy is only partially true.

It’s hard to explain the feeling of “what-if” that sits alongside “could it be true?” in your mind as you wonder about the alleged oil well that promises to pop up on the hill behind the house.

It seems like it could never happen, until one day you wake up and there it is.

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That’s how it’s been for the past five years around here in western North Dakota. Not believing and then believing — that there would be a stoplight in town, a four-lane highway to Williston, a fast-food restaurant, a brand new high school, dozens of new apartment buildings and so on and so on until you find yourself used to the stoplights, sushi and Southern accents surrounding you.

The “if you build it they will come” mentality wasn’t as much the case here in this once 1,200-person town. No, it was more of the “they have come so let’s do what we can to make it work better.”

And so we made time for the extra traffic, the long lines and construction detours, and have come to expect events and restaurants filled to capacity with people of all ages, races and backgrounds, our new little melting pot on the western edge of the state.

We knew it would slow down eventually, that the four new hotels that were built wouldn’t be filled to the brim every week with working residents, and instead we would have to find a way to fill them with guests.

We knew that we wouldn’t always have to make reservations for supper.

We knew that oil wouldn’t stay at $100 a barrel, and that we might get a chance to take a breath someday and catch up, even though the thought was both terrifying and relieving.

Because we knew what it was like to have our quiet and slow life interrupted, but maybe we didn’t realize how quickly we could get used to a new normal, a fast pace of planning hectic moment to hectic moment.

But that hectic moment has slowed for a bit now and, as oil prices have slid, adjustments have been made.

Is the boom over?

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That’s a question every news source and coffee conversation wants answered.

I’m not sure if anyone knows. Just like nobody seemed to know exactly what was coming five years ago. I read a different dramatic report, opinion and prediction every day.

But here’s what I know to be true for us: Oil prices have changed, but the sense of “what-if” coupled with “could it be true?” has not.

We have never settled into a sense of security in such fast-paced growth. Instead, we have remained committed to keep steady in our own plan to figure out how to stay here at the family’s ranch for the long run.

And I’ll tell you, it’s been much easier with better jobs and more opportunity at our fingertips. But along with that, for whatever challenges we continue to face, what our community has become in the wake of the boom has made this an easier and exciting place to live in many ways.

And for that we have been grateful.

I think that realization might be the case for most people who, after coming here for the work, have decided to make this place their permanent home now. Because of the jobs, yes, but also because, like us, they see a future here.

And it’s because of those people it seems our new population is remaining more steady than predicted. Yes, people are losing jobs and families are moving away, but businesses are also still hiring and new residents still seem to see the value in a community that has moved from building to keep up with the present into building for a future we want for our families.

For more information on Watford City and McKenzie County, and for other perspectives on Boomtown Living visit: 

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Jessie Veeder-“Boomtown”-Official Music Video

And now for the video!

The premier of the music video for my song “Boomtown” happens today! I hope it give your a glimpse into the some of the stories hanging around Boomtown. I am so happy and excited to have this out in the world.

Thanks to Nolan with Quantum Productions and to those willing to share their stories with us that day.

Please pass it along!

Sunday Column: On slowing down

photo-79Well, I found a bluebell yesterday.

I was out cleaning the ditches between the two places, doing my part in a community weekend designated to “Picking up the Patch.”

There has been a lot of traffic on that pink road stretching from highway to highway the last few months. Behind our house at night, over the hill and across from the grain bins men and women from all walks of life are traveling to and from that highway to do their part to get the oil out of the ground below this ranch and the ranches beside us.

It’s noisy work, that oil drilling. At night we can hear the creaks and groans of pipe being pulled out of the ground, the blow of a horn, the hum of the trucks driving by, and if the wind is right I might hear those men hollering to one another.

And this traffic leaves residue. Pieces of these men’s lives thrown from the windows of their pickups on purpose or blown from the backs of their pickups on accident.  Everyone is going somewhere. To and from. Some care about this place.

Some don’t.

Some days it’s exhausting.

Some days I don’t notice much.

This noise won’t last forever, but the landscape is forever changed.

And in the spring, it needs cleaning.

So I went out in it, leaving my husband at home building new steps into our house inside our new garage with the fancy new concrete floor.


We are building out here too. We’re noisy too. We’re making impacts, moving dirt and changing things that can’t be unchanged.

Some days we’re not so quiet ourselves.

Some days we need to remember to clean it all up too. So that’s what I did yesterday. I tried to beautify. I sorted my closets, gloves from neckerchiefs,


I hauled construction material out of my yard, I swept the dirt from the floors and I used my legs to walk those ditches and pick up cans, watching the trucks slow down as they passed a girl and a dog cleaning up after anonymous faces.

And I was feeling good under that blue sky. It was a warm day. Hardly any wind. I was thinking we could be fishing or riding. Those were my two top choices.

But there were things to be done. The earth is greening up and working on showing us her best side. I wanted to help her along.

So I was feeling good. And then I was feeling bad. Each bottle, each leftover cup from Taco Johns, every wrapper and Copenhagen can a slap of carelessness for this place. I wanted to put my hands on my hips and stomp my foot and scream, “Don’t you care?!”


But there was no one to scream at. They couldn’t hear me in the cabs of their pickups or behind the wheels of their big rigs. And they likely weren’t the culprits anyway. Most, like my husband at home building us new steps, are probably from here. Some might have places like this of their own. Some might have been out cleaning up their own section of ditches in the last few days. Most of them are doing good enough. Well enough. Just doing their jobs.

And screaming generally doesn’t help a thing.

But doing something about it does. So I filled the bags and step by step I felt a little better about it anyway. That I could at least clean up. That it was a nice day. That there were others out there doing the same thing.

And then I found the bluebell. A sweet, fragile little flower poking out brightly from the greening up grass, all hopeful and brave and beautiful like it knows something that I don’t.

Like thank you.

Like summer comes no matter what.

Like you should work hard like all of these people around you, and then you should look up and look down and look closely here. Slow down and look at me.

Coming Home: Summer a time to honor our childhood
by Jessie Veeder
Forum Communications


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: for the latest in news and progress and the North Dakota Petroleum Council for information on North Dakota’s oil industry.

Halloween in Boomtown

On a dark and kind of windy night a woman in fleece pants and an old FFA sweatshirt sat alone in her farm house in the middle of nowhere eating leftover noodle casserole, waiting for little munchkins dressed as goblins and witches to pile out of pickups and knock on her door while the news anchors on the TV told her stories she already knew about the bustling, busy, over-stretched and opportunity filled boomtown where she once went to school and now works.

As the sun disappeared over the clay buttes and the stars popped out one by one, she munched on a bite sized Snicker bar for dessert. Her Halloween costume from the weekend’s festivities still lay in a crumpled heap, a massacre of fuzzy pink flamingo in the corner of her tiny house. Two days later and she was still recovering from the celebration of one of her favorite holidays. Turns out pink flamingos can’t handle five beers and two shots in the matter of three hours.

“Sweet Martha”, the girl thought to herself as she unwrapped another piece of candy. “What happened to the good ‘ol days when coming down from a sugar high and planning your costume around the necessity of a snowsuit were your biggest worries on Halloween?”

Here I am, six years old in a clown costume my grandma made for us..

She contemplated this for a while, because she could. Because no little Lady Gagas were knocking on her door and her husband had left her here for a week alone to her own dinner plans…and she was already failing. It was day one and she had resorted to leftovers and candy. Yes, she had time to herself. Time that, in another life, would have been spent planning her Pippi Longstocking outfit with her best friend up the hill who would be putting the finishing touches on her  picnic table costume. They would have been loading up in the pickup with their little sisters in turtlenecks and scarves shoved into witch’s capes and stuffed garbage bags that looked like pumpkins. Twenty years ago she would have been visiting the neighbors who lived within a fifteen mile radius of her little house in the coulee. Twenty years ago she would have been thrilled to curl her tongue into three loops, or throw her body into a cartwheel, or recite a poem about a goblin with the Picnic Table for their neighbor down the highway. “A trick for a treat,” she would say as she clapped her hands together.

Twenty years ago she would have performed. She would have thought this out. They would have expected it, the girl and her Picnic Table friend.  Because the stakes were high out here surrounded by gravel roads, trees windswept and bare, dark, starry skies and howling coyotes. It was Halloween for the love of Butterfinger! Halloween in the country and, well, twenty years ago those girls didn’t mess around.

The neighbor girls...

No, it didn’t matter that there were only five stops, only five houses to visit on Halloween night.  That was of no concern. The girls didn’t know about sidewalks and knocking on doors and running wild through neighborhoods. The ribbon of pink road, the miles of fence posts, the grazing cattle, that was their neighborhood…and it would take them days to walk it (especially in her dad’s oversized boots and with all that silverware stuck to the giant cardboard box her friend was wearing.) So their dads would drive them down the road to farmhouses lit up with lanterns and pumpkins with faces. Houses that smelled like dinner on the stove when they drove in the yard. Houses where their friends lived. The same friends who rode the bus with them for an hour every day to get to school.

Yes, twenty years ago those best friends lived for this holiday–the planning, the creativity, the stories and  piling into the warm ranch pickup with their squishy little sisters, caramel apples, mom dressed as witches, dads dressed as monsters and, well, the treats…

Momma and Pops on Halloween

Ah, the treats. The woman in fleece pants opened a box of Nerds and closed her eyes…

First stop was the neighbors to the south who would have a bowl on their kitchen table filled with pre-packaged goodies for all of the girls: stickers, small games, skittles, candy corn, chocolate shaped as pumpkins and, on your way out grab a scotcharoo why don’t you.

Second stop a half a mile down the road: homemade popcorn balls in orange and green. Glow sticks, apple cider, and a PayDay for the road.

Third stop on the highway: Time to perform. A trick for a treat and a long visit with a retired teacher who loved them and gave them pencils and made them hot Tang and sugar cookies. And they loved her too…and knew better than to say anything about the prunes she placed in the middle of those sugar cookies.

Back to the gravel to finish off the night with caramel apples and a handful or two from the bowls at the doors and then on to the Picnic Table’s house to dump out pillowcases full of treats and trade and sort and count.

A sad clown with a broken leg. Yes, I was accident prone even as a fifth grader...

The woman tilted her head back to finish off the Nerds and then got up off of the chair to take a peek outside.

“There will be no puffy gremlin visitors tonight,” she said quietly to herself.

Because times were different. Twenty years ago this landscape she lived on was dotted with young families working to make a living out on family farms thirty miles from town. Twenty years ago the country school was still open and playing host to Halloween parties with green punch, piñatas and those to-die-for popcorn balls.

Twenty years ago the woman in fleece pants wanted to be Pippi Longstocking…

But somewhere in those years, between eight years old and twenty-eight, people got older and moved to town and no more babies were brought home to those farmsteads that smelled like dinner when you drove into the yard. Moms who once dressed as witches became grammas to babies in other states and the hair on the young dad’s head grew gray or fell out.

And there was a time in there, it occurred to her, that perhaps her dad thought all was lost. When the last of his daughters packed her pumpkin costume away in the toy chest in her old room only to pull out of the driveway to get on with growing up, that he may have believed that he and those five neighbors may be the last to make it out on this landscape where the coyotes howl and the moon is bright.

There was a time like that for him, when there were no picnic tables or Pippis to drive around and the knocks on the doors on Halloween went from ten to five to none…

But she was back. Here she was. And so was her picnic table friend. And their other friends who once walked the sidewalks in town as kids were now holding the hands of their own children on Halloween. Here they all were, back home because it seemed, the times were changing.

The woman saw it first hand after a day of work in town, she understood that the nostalgia came from the stop she made  in the local department store on her way home to help her momma hand out candy to kids trick-or-treating in town. She needed to get a taste of the magic she was missing as a childless adult on this holiday, so she stood by the door unsure of what to expect from the children in her once sleepy hometown that had come to life in the midst of an oil boom.

And what she saw was bowl after bowl of candy diminishing before her eyes as a stream of princesses and Spider Men and bumblebees and pirates paraded through the doors, smiled and opened their treat bags hour after hour. She had never seen so many adorable, sparkly, smiling children out and about at one time. Her friend’s children were dressed as army men and Buzz Lightyear, her nephew as a lion, children she worked with in 4-H were witches, children of families she had never met before wandered in all dressed up and excited…all adorable, all doing what children should be doing on Halloween, all here, in Western North Dakota, on Main Street Watford City laying roots for their futures, making memories here in the woman’s hometown.

So, on a dark and sort of windy night a woman in fleece pants and an old FFA sweatshirt sat in her house reminiscing about a childhood full of Halloweens on a landscape that was dotted with friends and neighbors and black cows. She remembered this. And then remembered  a time when she wanted nothing more to be back in that place…and a time when she thought it might never be possible.

So although that woman knew that she wouldn’t hear a knock on the door of her little farmhouse from a witch or a gremlin or a picnic table tonight, she smiled as she popped another Snickers into her mouth knowing that out there her community was changing. New goblins and firemen and zombies were walking the streets of her hometown, finding themselves bonding over skittles and costume ideas. And for one night those children in sequins and cardboard boxes and masks spoke louder than all of the truck traffic, worries, gossip and news stories that move and swell along a Main Street that is changing every day in a town that is pushed to its limits.

Yes, there, on Halloween, on the scariest night of the year, were the children– building strength, camaraderie and hope.

Hope that there is an opportunity for people to make it again, to really build something, to make it possible again for children to grow up in the hills among the hay bales, to eat a neighbor’s popcorn ball, to sit and sip hot cider, to perform a trick for a treat..

To live a good life.

To have a Happy Halloween.

Whether on sidewalks or better yet, country roads.