The Williston Report, 1958

Nine months ago I thought I’d put together a collaborative blog about the boom and bust in the Bakken. I spent a month or two trying to find collaborators, but I didn’t get too far. So I’m going to do something different.

About a month ago, I found the book I thought was writing. Or, almost. It’s The Williston Report: The Impact of Oil on the Williston Area of North Dakota, by Robert Campbell, Samuel Kelley, Ross Talbot, and Bernt Wills. It’s a meticulous report about the economic, political, and social changes that Williston has undergone because of the oil boom and bust. It’s full of maps, graphs, and pictures of man camps, all the things that interest me as context for understanding how oil affects people’s notions of home.

And it’s from 1958. That is, it’s a thorough (or relatively thorough—more about that in a second) account of the first boom to affect the region (before the second in the 1980s and the third in 2008-2014).

I’m now working with collaborators to update the book. We plan to republish the original report (which is in the public domain) along with essays that bring it forward sixty years. Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Williston Report, 1958-2018 should come out in 2018 from the Digital Press.

In the meantime I will use this blog to post the interesting bits I find as I work on cleaning up and correcting the old manuscript. The report is wide-ranging, in some places providing an excruciatingly detailed account of local politics in Williston, Ray, and Tioga, and in others, glossing over what seem to me to be major points. (Apparently, in the 1950s boom, “There were no indications available to the researchers that there had been a notable increase in, or even the presence of, organized criminal or immoral activity—gambling houses, theft rings, ‘protection’ or houses of prostitution” [p. 139]. I’m a bit skeptical.)

For right now, though, I’d like to share a comment from the end of the report. The authors, it appears, found themselves in a position like that of the mythological figure Cassandra, who prophesied truth that no one would believe:

One of the unfortunate aspects of a report of this sort that some of the predictions which are practically useful are not available early enough. We could have predicted fairly accurately the amount of immediate decrease in Tioga’s population as we were conducting the fieldwork because of our knowledge that particular individuals already knew the dates on which they were to be transferred. Furthermore, we could have predicted the decrease in activity because of the knowledge we obtained about the relative number of employees needed in exploratory as compared to development activity in the oil fields. The predictions of this sort that we expressed orally tended to be ridiculed as obviously wrong or as attempts to devaluate the importance of the oil development to the state of North Dakota. This reaction, itself, would be an interesting study. (p. 143)

I wonder what scholars can say now about Williston and the Bakken that would be of interest to people in Williston and the Bakken. I get the impression that residents are tired of people like me asking them questions, and I can’t blame them. What, I wonder, would make the work I (we) do useful or meaningful to them?

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