Sometimes rapid changes make us all feel like tourists even in familiar places.
When historians Bret Weber and Bill Caraher first set out for the Bakken during the oil boom, they found the sights, sounds, and bustle overwhelming and foreign. They were tourists in their home state. After nearly 20 trips to the Bakken, they set out to document their efforts to come to terms with this unfamiliar landscape through the comfortable medium of the tourist guide.
The latest addition to the “Bakken Bookshelf,” The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape, is part tourist guide, part documentation of the oil boom, and part “punk archaeology.”
The Bakken was written by William Caraher, associate professor of history, and Bret Weber, associate professor of social work. It’s the first volume of the Heritage Guide Series by NDSU Press.
The authors describe it as both a practical guide suitable for visitors to the Bakken, but also as a peer-reviewed scholarly undertaking that sought to unpack the complex experiences of encountering a modern, industrial landscape through an archaeological lens.
It started as a social media project and a way to understand the changes in North Dakota during the oil boom, said Caraher, who also wrote The Bakken Goes Boom with former faculty member Kyle Conway and founded The North Dakota Man Camp Project with Weber.
An expert on ancient sites in Cyprus in Greece, Caraher has explored the Bakken for years. The Bakken Goes Boom and his blog, The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, which also contains musings about the Bakken, became a source of information as the oil boom exploded in northwestern North Dakota.
“I would get one or two calls a month from people asking about the Bakken and what it was like out there,” Caraher said. Weber also received calls and emails from the media and the curious.
Then the calls became dozens, from academics, reporters, photojournalists, study tours, and other interested people.
He and Weber were doing research in Cyprus when they conceived the idea of writing a tour guide about the Bakken experience.
“We were wandering around building maps, a tedious, mind-numbing job with GPS and 50,000 points,” Caraher said.
As they compared seasonal temporary housing for farm workers in ancient Greece and man camps in the Bakken, the idea for the book began.
They made trip after trip to northwestern North Dakota, visiting with longtime residents, oil workers, housing owners and anyone else they could find.
Telling the Bakken story
“We had fun doing this,” Weber said. “We went on a loop from Minot to Stanley, Ray, Williston to Ft. Berthold and visited 50 man camps. We called it the ‘fur line route.’ Bill looked at the archaeology and the way people lived. I interviewed people about their lives. People were lonely, and they knew they were part of something historical. They had a chance to tell their story.”
“Even people getting off long shifts would stop and chat for a few minutes,” said Caraher. “They were aware that this should be documented. I cold-called Enbridge, and they were willing to talk to me. So was Hess in Tioga. They were all super friendly. Short- and long-time residents were aware of the historical moment they were witnessing.”
“The book is whimsical and unusual, yet serious,” said Weber. “It tells you how to get a haircut at Home of Economy in Minot and what to wear. The introduction and conclusion are academic, and it explores the industrial history of North Dakota. It’s a series of little trips to take people around the Bakken.”
“I’m interested in both the archaeology of the modern world and Greece,” said Caraher, “There is a dynamism to rural spaces. We think the countryside is unchanging, but some towns in North Dakota only lasted 20 years and people moved on. We’re doing that again with oil. It’s a reflection on long-term trends of settlement of the countryside. This is worth talking about.”
“North Dakota is our home, and it was rewarding to get to know the state better,” Weber said. “Every time we went to the Bakken, I would try to wrap my head around what it was at that moment. And then it would shake loose. It was so dynamic. It was constantly changing.”
The book is available at https://bakkenguide.org/about/ and on Amazon.