The Bakken then, the Bakken now

I spent the winter break reading and correcting the text of The Williston Report, the public domain book from 1958 that will be republished (alongside updated chapters) by the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota this year or next.

I’ve also been reading a number of current books, including Bill Caraher and Bret Weber’s The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (an excellent book about which I’ll have more to say later) and Rick Ruddell’s Oil, Gas, and Crime (also excellent). Reading them side-by-side has revealed a number of points of comparison that give insight into the differences between the 1950s boom and the 2008–2014 boom. Over the next couple posts, I plan to highlight a few of them.

The first (and most revealing) is simply the scale of production. Here’s a table (derived from Samuel Kelley’s chapter, “The Economic Impact of Oil Development”) describing annual production from 1951 to 1954:

PRODUCTION OF CRUDE PETROLEUM, NORTH DAKOTA AND SELECTED AREAS, 1951–1954 (THOUSANDS OF BARRELS)
1951 1952 1953 1954
Williams County 25 1,481 4,248 4,135
Mountrail County 0 91 900 1,253
Other 0 26 218 637
North Dakota (TOTAL) 25 1,598 5,466 6,025

Here’s the updated version (from the statistics on p. xiv of “Oil In North Dakota: 2016 Production Statistics,” a report produced by the North Dakota Industrial Commission):

Granted, these reports don’t measure exactly the same thing, but the difference in scale is clear enough. The 1950s boom barely registers in comparison to the boom of the 1980s or, more dramatically, the most recent boom. Production in 1954 (in the entire state) was about 6 million barrels. Production in 2015 was more than 400 million barrels.

Soon (whatever that means!) I’ll post more points of comparison. They reveal that the effects of the most recent boom were also magnified, not surprisingly. So, more soon.

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More on archival documents

For reasons I myself don’t understand, I have two blogs. I’m using this one to talk about historical aspects of my research and the other to talk about theoretical aspects. It’s an untenable distinction, but it’s heuristically useful to me as I write. At any rate, over there, I’ve posted a description of how I plan to use these historical documents. It’s called “Everything I Needed to Know about Petromodernity I Learned from the American Petroleum Institute.”

American Frontier (1953)

I’ve continued to dig through various electronic archives, looking for contemporary accounts of the oil boom in Williston in the 1950s. Tonight I hit upon gold, a 1953 film sponsored by the Oil Industry Information Committee of the American Petroleum Institute:

I’ve embedded the YouTube link here, but the film itself is available from archive.org. It’s public domain, so you can download it in various forms if you like.

I’ve just watched it, and there’s a lot to say. The theme of the frontier dominates, and the only time the narrator mentions any residents who predate the Norwegian settlers is when an oil prospector picks up an arrowhead as a good luck charm.

(Also, the film begins oddly. The first sentence, intoned over images of wind-blown prairies, is nonsense: “The wind blows west from the Great Lakes.” Anyone who has lived in Williston knows (1) the wind comes from the west and blows toward the east, and (2) the closest Great Lake is 700 miles away.)

I will come back to this film later. It’s of a piece with other documents from the Oil Industry Information Committee, which published a series of booklets for schools “designed to provide a reciprocal exchange of information and understanding between the oil industry and the schools,” according to the authors of The Williston Report, published in 1958. I’ve ordered a copy of one of those publications (thanks to AbeBooks), and I’ll revisit the film and report once the booklet arrives.

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?