Oil, Culture, and What Small Places Have to Teach Us

Oil development nearly crowds out Stanley’s Welcome. (Rick Edwards)

By Rick Edwards

Oil production in North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation and Alberta’s tar sands is helping to reshape oil markets, creating a worldwide glut and sending prices plunging. Opposition to developing these resources has focused mainly on their contribution to global climate change and on the Keystone XL pipeline, designed to carry crude to refineries. NASA scientist James Hanson famously declared that if the tar sands are developed, “it will be game over for the climate.”

Less attention has focused on the social and cultural effects of frenzied, reckless oil exploitation. While most small towns in the Great Plains wrestle with depopulation, western North Dakota is presumably enjoying the pleasures of growth. The boom has indeed brought an influx of newcomers, new businesses, and tax revenues, yet in some ways its effects are as devastating as population decline.

I grew up, to age twelve, in Stanley, North Dakota, then a small, dusty wheat town. I left in 1956. When I returned in 2007 to begin work on Natives of a Dry Place: Stories of Dakota Before the Boom, I found that the town had remained largely unchanged. The Dakota Drug was still there on Main Street, Springan’s Furniture a block away was doing a quiet Saturday business, and the majestic courthouse stood amid its outriders of ash and a few surviving elms. Folks still gathered for morning coffee and pancakes at Joyce’s Cafe. Now they were talking on cellphones and driving air-conditioned pickups, of course, but otherwise much seemed as I had remembered.

But it turned out my trip was like visiting New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina or the Jersey shore before Superstorm Sandy. For a time Stanley was the exact epicenter of the oil boom, which has completely changed the town, rapidly sweeping away the Old Stanley I knew. As oil does almost everywhere in the world, it brought to Stanley disruptive, transformative change, straining friendships and rupturing community ties. New folks, truckers, drillers, construction crews, heavy-equipment mechanics, project managers, roustabouts, land and leasing agents, supply and logistics men, and all manner of other oil-field types flooded the town, overcrowding housing, bringing previously unimaginable crime, adding kids to the schools faster than new teachers can be hired. The pressure on housing is intense; one national survey in 2014 found that Williston, an oil hub seventy miles to the west of Stanley, has the highest rents in the nation.

Houses became dormitories for the overwhelmingly male labor force. Late morning one weekday in 2011 I drove past our old house, the three-bedroom, one-bath structure my father had built in 1928.

Now eight mud-spattered SUVs and pickups were parked in its littered, untended yard: my dad’s handiwork had been demoted to a dormitory.

The boom has made millionaires of some town residents. Larry Lystad, a retired science teacher with a well on his property, was reported to be reaping as much as a million dollars a year. His Scandinavian and German homesteader ancestors, he said, “have been farming rocks for generations. It’s like winning the lottery.” Derald Hoover worked for the rural electric company for forty-two years; he reportedly receives royalties from three wells. “It’s not very hard to be a millionaire nowadays,” he says.

But town residents who don’t own land haven’t shared in the bonanza, and even some farmers have lost out as well, having sold their mineral rights years or decades ago. Mountrail County Extension agent James Hennessey characterizes the oil boom as “the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good is the guy with seven wells who’s a millionaire in twenty-four hours. The bad are those who own the land but not the minerals underneath, and whose roads are tore up and they’re not getting anything. And the ugly is the disparity, which creates a lot of animosity.”

Then too, oil is fickle. Oil prices were high—ninety to one hundred dollars a barrel—for the past decade, so Bakken oil, which costs about seventy dollars a barrel to produce, created enormous wealth. But in the last ten months, oil prices collapsed to around fifty dollars a barrel or less, making further drilling in Bakken a chancy proposition. Operators idled their drilling rigs; active rigs having declined from nearly two hundred at the peak to around eighty today. No one knows if prices will stay low, but the oil glut doesn’t look like it’s going away soon. Towns in western North Dakota may be left with new sidewalks and sewers leading to hoped-for but unbuilt subdivisions, new classrooms with few students, new municipal bonds without the expected tax revenues to pay them off. Regardless, the boom changed Stanley forever.

The Old Stanley of my memory, like many Great Plains towns, was already being effaced by death and time, and by those larger forces that erode the uniqueness of small places everywhere—the loss of local civic connections because of TV and the Internet, the rise of hyper-individualism, the increasing dominance of international markets in shaping consumer identities, and a growing national culture that divides us into celebrities and nobodies in what some have called the “winner-take-all” society. But in Stanley oil is speeding up this process, finally and fully washing away the town I knew. When I called the Stanley post office, where my father served as a rural mail carrier for thirty-three years, to ask a question about its history, the current postmistress replied, “Oh, I wouldn’t know. I’ve only been in Stanley a year. Everybody here is new.”

Should we care whether this culture, or that of small towns and settlements throughout the Great Plains facing depopulation, disappears? Some would say no, there never was much there to mourn over. New York Times reporter Chip Brown was referring to North Dakota but could just as well have been describing other places in the Great Plains when he wrote, “For many years North Dakota has been a frontier—not the classic 19th-century kind based on American avarice and the lure of opportunity in unsettled lands, but the kind that comes afterward, when a place has been stripped bare or just forgotten because it was a hard garden that no one wanted too much to begin with, and now it has reverted to the wilderness that widens around dying towns.” Such a judgment, as Jon Lauck noted, comes from correspondents “sent to the region [who are] seemingly so removed from its interior rhythms [they] would continue to ‘write like foreign correspondents.’” How easy it is for such write-and-run journalists to dismiss the region, boarding pass in hand.

As I write in Natives of a Dry Place, our small-town and rural history still has much to teach us. Mostly these towns were filled with ordinary people doing ordinary things. We recognize and celebrate exceptional people they produced—Ted Sorenson and Willa Cather and Johnny Carson—yet I have come to think that there were exceptional things in the lives of the region’s ordinary people, and especially in the values and virtues they developed and aspired to. Remembering their stories helps us know and develop our own character. Just as we are often blinded to a painter’s talent until after he or she is gone, so too we may miss what was exceptional about small places as they pass from sight. But unlike painters, who leave behind their art to argue for their genius, the residents of small towns leave only us, their descendants, to preserve their legacy.

Before these places and their cultures disappear, perhaps we should pause and reflect on what they offered. For example, people in Old Stanley, like others in the northern Great Plains, cultivated a distinctive way of thinking about the world and how an upstanding person ought to behave in it, a set of character traits and habits of mind—for lack of a better word I’ll just call them virtues—that they admired in others and strived for in themselves. This is how they wanted to be. Old Stanley virtues were attributes that people implicitly understood to be right, a kind of internal guide such that when they acted this way they felt good about themselves and when they failed to do so they knew they had fallen short.

What were the virtues Old Stanleyites admired? In the more than two dozen interviews I did for Natives of a Dry Place, people described resoluteness, a kind of implacable acceptance and embracing of what needs to be done regardless of inconvenience or possible danger; steadfastness, the virtue, established over years, of being a reliable person whom others could count on every day; devotion to community, where contributions are made without expectation of praise or benefit in return; living up to one’s commitments; pluck; an insistent, dauntless optimism; a spirit of adventure; and personal modesty. One could mention others as well, such as an insistence on fair play and personal honesty, the kind that requires no calculation or self-prompting.

Some might label these as “conservative” values, but that is surely wrong, at least as the term is used today. The people I knew in Old Stanley would find little in common with the “I’ve got mine,” greed-is-good, government-is-bad, culture-war fanaticism of modern right-wingers. They would be appalled by modern conservatism’s implied callousness toward neighbors, put off by its lack of appreciation not just for the benefits but for the necessity of community and cooperation, and dismayed by its vilifying of science and education, which they revered. We cannot understand them if we try to force them into today’s partisan categories.

Residents of Old Stanley and places like it were probably no better at achieving their ideals than people elsewhere; they were ordinary people, neither more virtuous nor less venal than others. But a place’s constellation of admired virtues is not unimportant: a society usually gets what it celebrates, so if (as at present in our national society) it celebrates greed, it gets greed, and if it celebrates glitz and celebrity and indulgence, it gets that. Old Stanley’s values produced strong, civic-minded, hard-working, and modest people who had a sense of their own self-worth within a community they valued.

As we now struggle with the problem of stupendous and growing inequality in our society, perhaps these small towns still have something to teach us. In Natives of a Dry Place I retell personal stories of people I knew who displayed the admired virtues of Stanley. They created a fairly democratic, egalitarian, and caring society—not a perfect society, to be sure, but one that fostered lives of fulfillment within a strong community. We, the offspring of those towns and villages scattered across the Great Plains, have the responsibility to remember and learn from them before they pass from view.

 

Natives of a Dry Place: Stories of Dakota Before the Oil Boom will be published on September 25 by the South Dakota Historical Society Press and can be preordered at sdhspress.com or Amazon.com.

 

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