While researching this project, I made several calls to men and women living in the oil patch. From my office in Minneapolis, I was trying to get a sense for the issues that were on people’s minds. I also had practical concerns such as “Where am I going to live?” I knew housing was tough to find so I started asking everyone for advice. The best tip I received was from an oil worker whose job it is to send explosives down drilling holes. “If you find a place, rent it,” he said.
A few days later, I saw an ad on the Bismarck Tribune website for apartments near Stanley, a small town that’s getting bigger every day. I quickly called the listed phone number. At that point, I was put at the top of the list for an apartment building that was due to open about the time my project started. Although I’d never seen the apartment in person — or even pictures on the Internet — I took it. The cost: $1,100 per month, which is $50 more per month than my son paid on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when he moved there two years ago.
When I arrived on March 1, 2012, I found a long, narrow building that’s reminiscent of a three-lane bowling alley. Lane 1, on the left, is one row of rooms. Lane 2, in the middle, is a long narrow hallway. Lane 3, on the right, is a second row of rooms. I was assigned Apartment 1, the first door on the left at the beginning of Lane 1. The apartment consists of two rooms. Neither room includes a kitchen or bathroom.
The first room features a table, recliner, mini-fridge, dresser, television and a window that overlooks Main Street. From this perch, I can see the Post Office (it’s open until 12:30 p.m. every day), Bowbells Crop Insurance, A & L Truck Sales and Farmer’s Union Oil Company. These comprise the majority of businesses in Bowbells. The second room contains a bed, dresser, bedside table and television. Both rooms are about the size of prison cells. The walls are cinder block and covered with a shade of light green paint. The bedroom floor is carpeted; the first isn’t. Despite wearing thick wool socks, my feet are often cold in the non-carpeted room so I sometimes place an old bath towel under my feet.
The bathrooms and kitchen are located elsewhere. A pair of restrooms is located about nine or ten steps away. These don’t include showers. Those are set in a row just inside a big that’s occupies the end of Lane 3. That same L-shaped room also houses two sets of washer/dryers, a dining room table with chairs and two vending machines. One sells soda, the other sells candy and microwave popcorn. In the rear are two doors: One leads outside and the other leads to a kitchen. There’s an oven, sink, cabinets, table and refrigerator. This sign hangs on the fridge: “Honor System. Tombstone Pizza – $7.00. Bottles of Water – .25¢ each. If Honor System does not work it will no longer be available.” Then in handwritten letters: “Breakfast Sandwich $2.00. Lunch Sandwich – $3.00.”
Nomadic groups of oil hands and drivers move in and out of the building. Some stay overnight or a few days. I’m not sure they even know where they’ll be the next day. One night, several Haliburton guys show up, pull their suitcases in on wheels and then hang out in the hallways chatting. I overhear one of the crew members tell a friend, “This is just like a man camp, only there’s no food.”
Farmer’s Union Oil Company sells gas, diesel, coffee, chips and all the usual convenience store stuff. The boom has prompted them to offer daily food specials. On two occasions in the past week or so, the special has been goulash and breadsticks for $3.50. On my first full day in Bowbells, I looked for people drinking coffee and gossiping inside the store. I was not disappointed. Mary, a sturdy woman of sixty years or more, invited me to sit down and even offered to get me coffee. I declined, excused myself and poured a dark, hot cup in a Styrofoam container. For the next 45 minutes, Mary peppered me with questions and I tried to wake up. An older man, sitting in a folding chair next to her, thumbed through a tractor magazine and kept one ear on the conversation. After a while, a second man showed up. He wore an NRA cap and talked about a loose dog that came after him one day while he was mowing the lawn. He thought about shooting it, he said.
That’s a little bit of what it’s like to live in Bowbells. I’ve since found a place to live in Williston, which is the heart of the boom, for the same price.
I will be moving soon.
— Todd Melby, March 2012