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Man Camp Project focuses on the Bakken’s unique housing situations


Posted 8/04/15 (Tue)

By Nicky Ouellet
Most people wouldn’t connect the villages of ancient Greece with the Bakken, but for Bret Weber and Bill Caraher, the link is clear.
In 2008 the two men, both professors at UND, were in Cyprus excavating an ancient village. Worker housing was part of that village, and as the men walked through the partially exposed edifices, they began to consider the similarities to what was just starting back at home.
“We were already hearing about camps,” said Weber over a recent dinner at Tioga’s Capital Lodge. “So while we were wandering around the hills of Cyprus, we were talking about housing there and housing here.”
That consideration became a formal study in 2012. Weber and Caraher were joined by several other professors to create the Man Camp Project, a multidisciplinary study and documentation of the various housing situations of the Bakken’s temporary workers.
Last Friday, the research team, which includes a social worker, an architect, an archaeologist, historians and photographers, visited Capital Lodge to discuss their research and early hypotheses as part of the Man Camp Dialogues.
Their research centers around interviews and photographic documentation of 50 of the Bakken’s various crew camps.
Though none of them started with a burning, lifelong interest in workers’ housing, the researchers see the importance of their study as baseline data for rural communities and industries in the future to better accommodate boom time population swings.
“There was a great convergence of thinking about this thing,” said Richard Rothaus, the team’s archaeologist. Rothaus was working in Montana studying coal mining camps, but quickly joined Weber and Caraher in the Bakken when things started to heat up.
They were here to see the new workers who lived in their trucks in the parking lot at Walmart in Williston.
They were here to talk to families who built semi-permanent attachments, called mudrooms, to set down roots in their mobile homes.
And they will be here when the boom inevitably busts to see what is left behind when the temporary workers leave.
Now three years into their study, the team generalizes crew camp housing into three types. 
Type 1 is the style of Capital Lodge: standardized, convenient, all-inclusive, but leaving little room for personalization.
Type 2 is the more rugged and individualized, but still well-regulated and well-equipped, RV park. 
Type 3 is rare these days, but was common in 2012: areas of sprawling trailers with no hookups for water or electricity that allowed for nearly total individualization, but also required a large amount of personal responsibility.
With these types defined, the professors -- and often the subjects of their study -- engage in argument and debate to wrap their heads around how these various housing types promote or dissuade community-building.
The consensus at the Capital Lodge discussion was that Type 1, though richest in offering creature comforts and communal space, is actually poorest at fostering a sense of community.
The strongest ties, the team finds, are forged through shared experience building mudrooms, or grilling in the backwoods of the prairie, or exchanging advice to fix a generator. 
The RV villages that hint at permanence fascinate members of the team, who continually reevaluate their own understandings of the Bakken’s man camps.
“This thing [RV] is designed for mobility and that’s actually what makes it so optimal for a lot of the people that work in the patch,” said Bill Caraher, a historian and archaeologist. “But as soon as you get some place, the first thing you do is make it less mobile.”
Caraher described a mudroom that connected the side-doors of two separate campers as an example of the freedom and creativity that comes hand in hand with the Type 3 lifestyle. When the owner left town and removed one camper, what remained was a cross-section of his former home, an “RV beef Wellington.”
“Our hope is sometime soon one of these Type 3 parks is going to be abandoned,” he said, adding that seeing the area return to nature will be just as informative as watching the unofficial village spring up.
His wish may soon be fulfilled. Recent changes to the county’s temporary housing codes will severely limit the number of conditional use permits awarded to crew camp outfits. By May 1 of next year, most of the smaller camps will be phased out entirely.
When they are, the Project will be there.

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