Posted 8/04/15 (Tue)
By Nicky Ouellet
Larry Minnick points to the overgrown field between the Lunge’s farmhouse and KSI’s parking lot.
“There’s our lilac bush right there,” he says, “on the corner of my parents’ bedroom.”
Inching along a construction-choked ND 40, it would be easy to overlook the field, which bears only the faintest traces of its former use. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the lot was a neighborhood for workers at the Amerada -- now Hess -- gas plant. The Amerada camp was the original mancamp of the Bakken.
This past weekend, the children of the camp, now grown, made a pilgrimage to their old neighborhood.
“You look at this and can’t even visualize what all was here,” says Sue Hill Fretland as cars pull up bearing friends not seen in decades. “It was a wonderful place to grow up.”
The Amerada camp opened in the early 1950s to house workers and families of the first oil boom.
Like the oil field hands of today, most of the workforce was brought in from elsewhere -- Oklahoma and Texas, mainly. To lure them to the remote town of Tioga, Amerada offered inexpensive, all-inclusive housing.
“It was like the ‘Ritz’,” said LeNae Johnson, reunion organizer.
In the winter, maintenance crews shoveled sidewalks and driveways for the 30 family homes and dorm-style bunk house that made up the camp. In the summer, the crews mowed the lawns and changed out storm windows.
As more families moved into the rows of two-bedroom houses, the camp grew. The dads built up earthen dikes to make a skating rink. Amerada built a baseball diamond and a recreation hall with a kitchen, pool table and stereo.
Later, as the families themselves grew, they moved into new three-bedroom houses.
Standing on the site of her childhood home, Vanessa Hill Harris remembers sitting tucked away on top of the fridge on the day her family finally moved into their three-bedroom home.
“It was like moving into a palace,” she says.
Becky Minnick Carcich remembers summer days building forts and nights in sleeping bags outside, watching the Sputnik satellite pass across the night sky.
Her brother Larry remembers delivering the Tioga Tribune on Thursdays and saving the Wallins’ house for last to savor a slice of warm, freshly baked bread spread with butter and sugar.
Everyone remembers learning how to ride a bike by lapping the neighborhood.
By a stroke of architectural brilliance, front and rear garage doors opened one onto another from block to block. The kids rode their bikes right through from one end of the neighborhood to the other.
When the school year started, camp kids bused into Tioga, where they overwhelmed teachers who didn’t expect the camp families to stay.
“They weren’t ready for us,” says Fretland, whose own daughter now lives in Tioga.
Though the Amerada camp forged its own tight-knit community outside of Tioga city proper, the kids never felt distant from their classmates. Their parents joined local churches and city boards. They all rode the wave of the town’s first boom.
In the winter the camp’s families banded together to stave off cabin fever. The moms, most of whom did not work, bundled up their youngest and walked over to the neighbor’s for coffee. The men slogged through mountainous snow drifts to the office just south of camp. The kids dug tunnels and burrowed from house to house for snacks.
“It was a wonderful place to raise kids,” says Iva Levitts, one of the original camp moms and one of the only North Dakota natives in camp.
Levitts remembers letting her kids loose every morning before her husband walked to work. The boom was smaller then, she says, and it drew families instead of the single men in today’s worker camps. Her kids ran wild and played kick the can until the sun went down all summer long.
“You can’t do that today,” she says, standing on the raised mound of dirt that was once her driveway.
Though rare, the camp was not immune to misfortune. When Carol Birch’s father died, her grief was shared by all of the camp’s kids. It was, for each of them, their first loss. That sense of shared experience is part of what made the camp what it was, she says.
“You try to tell people what it was like and you just can’t,” she says.
Other mishaps seemed dire at the time, but are now remembered with smiles. The Great Gopher Fire of the mid-60s, when two teens accidentally set fire to a field while trying to smoke gophers out of their tunnels; careening down Dead Man’s Curve, the sledding hill that now seems much smaller.
Larry Minnick pauses in his story telling to catch his breath saying, “We had the best upbringing there ever was.”
Eventually, Hess bought out Amerada, and as the boom subsided, the housing perk became unsustainable for the company.
Some families were transferred to Williston and some sought work in the oilfields of Oklahoma.
By 1971, even the houses were gone, moved to permanent locations in Minot and Williston, where they still stand today.
Now the only physical evidence of the former neighborhood is a sidewalk that leads to nowhere and an old fencepost made of pipe and capped with a drill bit.
But for the 30 reunioners, what’s invisible for all others comes back to life, given shape by their shared memories.