Faces of the Boom: After reading stories of North Dakota’s boom, composer moves to Williston

Keesha Renna of Boise, Idaho, poses at an oil well site east of Williston, N.D., Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. — Keesha Renna is drawn to stories, and in her adopted city of Williston, the tales of struggle, heartache and loneliness are boundless.

Intrigued by a story she read on North Dakota’s fracking boom in Harper’s Magazine more than a year ago, Renna first landed in Minot for a few months, then moved to Williston in September 2013.

Armed with a degree in anthropology, a stint as a bartender and three years as a music promoter, the 27-year-old from Boise, Idaho, is hoping her musical take on the Bakken will reflect the many perspectives she has experienced in “one of the most pivotal moments in my time.”

“I wanted to write about this place and document what I was seeing,” she said.

In her plaintive song “Rig Up,” Renna tells the story of a man who takes a train to Williston, coming with expectations like so many others from across the county, and is suffering through a long, lonely winter.

The man is working constantly in the oil fields — his family stayed behind in a different state — and he’s asking himself, “Is it all worth it?” Renna said.

“Watch that train roll back through the hills and blow out a cloud, as thick as the night’s sky. Flare beams shoot straight up through the frost. He feels trapped and hangs his head to cry.” she sings, her voice soulful and soft, at a weekly open mic night at J Dub’s Bar and Grill.

Renna was always surrounded by music, saying her dad has the “best voice I ever heard.”

At 15, she discovered punk rock, with her musical taste and influences developing over time ranging from political punk rock, blues and folk.

Musicians such as Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Minnesota’s Charlie Parr, who plays original folk blues and traditional spirituals, and “Spider” John Koerner, a traditional American folk and country blues musician, are inspirational to Renna, who finds their storytelling captivating.

Renna works at a downtown bookstore and restaurant, but it is her music where she articulates her passion for marrying verse with song. She bought her first guitar, a Martin, in Denver and since arriving in Williston has focused on her songwriting.

Her project, Dakota Tales, will be a compilation of personal stories that she is collaborating on with a few other artists writing about the Bakken. She hopes this will become an album.

“The concept is to get as many perspectives of this town as I can through past, present, future. It’s a huge moment in history,” Renna said. “I think this place not only speaks to individuals but speaks to the country as a whole.”

Friend and roommate Frank Honer of Duluth, Minn., said Renna’s songs “grab” people — from a roughneck on a rig to a construction worker hammering nails and a bartender — with their real-life moments.

“I really like the tone, the softness of her voice. The music is very situational. … You’re going to get something from her music that rings true,” he said.

Renna’s “Bakken Blues,” Honer said, is a about a bartender told from a woman’s point of view that speaks to the challenges of being single amid a sea of lustful men, many of whom are married.

“She tells that story really well,” Honer said.

Renna, who describes her voice as honest, natural and wants it to be like breathing, said her time in Williston has provided an opportunity to witness history.

“It’s the biggest melting pot I’ve ever experienced. I’ve met so many people from around the world,” she said.


Listen online: http://www.reverbnation.com/dakotatales

Faces of the Boom: BBQ bus adds Southern flavor to small town

Tim Oldham of Mulberry, Ark., owns and operates T-N-T BBQ LLC from a school bus outfitted with a kitchen and custom-built smoker in Ray, N.D., Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

RAY, N.D. — What’s yellow and black, has six tires and a custom-built smoker?

It’s Tim Oldham’s school bus-turned-food truck in which he rustles up Southern-style

barbecue seven days a week on the outskirts of the small town of Ray in North Dakota’s oil country.

The 45-year-old from Mulberry, Ark., arrived in the Oil Patch last spring to earn enough money to put his kids through college.

His wife Teresa and their four boys, ranging in age from 12 to 23, stayed in Mulberry. Oldham said “it’s hard” to be without his family, but technology like Facetime and a huge data plan eases the distance.

The former paramedic supervisor was hurt on the job May 2 012 and out of work for two years. Oldham’s food truck, or “the BBQ bus,” is steadily making up for the loss in income.

It is also fast becoming a destination for locals who have limited dining options in a town that has seen its population likely double from about 590 in the 2010 U.S. Census.

“I wanted to do a food truck for several years. I always wanted to own and operate one. I love to cook,” Oldham said.

The self-described foodie started cooking when he was 11 or 12. Oldham, the “baby” of six children, was raised on a farm in western Arkansas.

He bought the 38-foot yellow and black school bus from a seller in Billings, Mont., who had posted it on Craigslist, an online forum for classified ads.

After retrofitting it with two refrigerators, stainless steel sinks and counters, and the essential custom-built smoker, as well as the necessary state and county licenses, Oldham opened T-n-T BBQ in July.

Jeff Simpson, a native of Ray and owner of Simpson Welding, rents a space to Oldham in front of his business on U.S. Highway 2 just west of Ray.

It is a win-win for the two men. Oldham can operate his business and Simpson gets to sample everything from barbecue brisket pizza to gumbo, pulled pork and ribs.

“I think it’s awesome. Everyone in the town loves it,” Simpson said. “There probably isn’t anything that I haven’t tried. I’m the guinea pig.”

“He ain’t led me astray yet,” Oldham quickly replied.

He said his 15-hour days start at 8 a.m. with food prep, emphasizing dishes are homemade. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Oldham is in perpetual motion, serving up tender meats and sides including smoked beans, cole slaw and corn on the cob. Tamales and tacos have been featured, too.

“The smile that comes on people’s faces when they taste it — that’s what makes it all worthwhile,” he said.

Oldham’s catering business has picked up and come Nov. 1, he will add breakfast items to his menu such as biscuits and gravy and breakfast burritos.

He keeps customers informed via his Facebook page — The BBQ Bus — and relies on word of mouth from devotees of good food, especially the many truckers who travel the region’s busy roads.

“Good food spreads fast with truckers. Bad food spreads 10 times faster,” Oldham said.

Faces of the Boom: Williston native goes from square bales to drill bits

Kevin Mischke, left, Continental Resources Northern drilling superintendent, talks with Raymond Landry, owner of Louisiana-based Extreme Hardbanding, at Continental’s pipeyard in Williston, N.D., Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. — Western North Dakota’s energy boom has lured workers from around the world, but for Kevin Mischke, the oilfields got him off the farm but kept him close to home.

Mischke, 39, grew up on a farm and ranch northwest of Williston, played sports, worked on his family’s land and took every chance he got to “get out of having to haul square bales.”

A friend of his dad’s asked Mischke to work with him  an oil and gas company. With some college courses under his belt, the then 19-year-old thought, “cool, I got a job.”

“I started at the bottom and worked my way up to a toolpusher,” Mischke said recalling his 11 years with Nabors.

Initially he said his size and height — 5 feet, 8 inches — made the work a challenge. As the youngest roughneck on a five-man crew, it took him awhile to master the job. He said he often heard, “We’ll let you know when you’re tired, Mischke.”

In 2005, he was hired as a drilling foreman with Oklahoma-based Continental Resources. Three years ago, he was promoted to drilling superintendent, based at the company’s pipeyard in Williston.

One of seven drilling superintendents in the region, Mischke’s 11-hour day starts at 6 a.m. when “nobody’s here and I get some work done.” He runs the pipeyard, which houses pipe used in drilling oil wells and company-owned equipment.

Mischke also serves as a rig move coordinator, overseeing about 20 moves for Continental each month in the Bakken, which encompasses the Dakotas and eastern Montana.

He said he evenly splits his time between working in the office and being in the field. The Monday through Friday schedule allows him to “be home more” with his wife, Jodi, and their three children, as well as coaching sports and volunteering with youth hockey.

Married at 21, Mischke said he has stayed in the oil business because “before I knew it, I had a wife and two kids depending on me.” But he did find the work interesting, in particular the horizontal drilling, the technology that helped reignite the oil industry in the Bakken.

In Mischke, Luke Clausen, now chief operations officer for Denver-based DTC Energy Group, saw a hard worker who was bright and ambitious.

When Clausen worked as a driller at Nabors, he was Mischke’s direct supervisor for a time. The two also worked alongside each other in other capacities, Clausen said.

“It’s a small world — the oilfield,” he said.

“(Kevin) had the right stuff. He was knowledgeable,” Clausen said. “New people can be a risky proposition. I trusted that he could do the job and do it well.”

For this native son, being a part of an exciting time in the region’s history has had rewards including working with top-notch companies, a nice paycheck, meeting some “awesome” out-of-staters and having time with his family.

“I’ve made some good friends, and I’ve seen a lot of the country and the world,” he said

Faces of the Boom: Developer brings new vision for Williston’s Downtown Plaza

Raymond Melendez, a developer and builder from Hughson, Calif., first arrived to western North Dakota in April 2010. He has now moved his family to Williston, N.D., where he is developing the Downtown Plaza project. Kathleen J. Bryan / Forum News Service

Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. — Raymond Melendez’s vision for Williston is to create a vibrant downtown and build community.

His Downtown Plaza project, 20,000-square-feet of mixed-use development in an existing building, will breath new life into the city’s historic district and serve as an anchor on Main Street.

“About 14,000 square feet was not being utilized, so we saw the vision of creating a true plaza in the downtown. The vision consisted of retail shops and Class A office spaces,” Melendez, 44, said.

Melendez, a developer and builder from Hughson, Calif., first arrived to western North Dakota in April 2010 to expand the metal building division of his company. What he saw was explosive growth and a need for multi-family and single-family homes in Williston, which would lead to the creation of a development company, Ventana Design and Development.

He commuted between North Dakota and California, where wife Karen and their six children lived, spending 18 months doing residential development.

Along with business partners, Melendez started purchasing commercial and residential property, he said, to help meet the need for commercial services and Williston’s housing need.

Karen and five of their children moved to Williston in January 2013, he said. They range in age from 16 to 23. One of their son’s is attending law enforcement training at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake.

For Melendez, it’s about providing services that fill immediate needs vs. long-term solutions.

He said the Downtown Plaza, which he purchased in February, will provide a short-term need with an array of retail shops and 6,000 square feet of office space on the top floor.

Williston Economic Development Executive Director Shawn Wenko said Melendez’s project “really fits into our vision for the downtown. It’s exciting to see.”

Wenko, who remembers a quiet downtown after the boom of the ‘70s went bust, said the city’s center is a place where people will gather and patronize unique shops, restaurants, bistro and maybe even a old English pub as revitalization continues to flourish.

The Plaza’s former Castle Cafe was recently christened The Grill on Main and offers fresh food and daily specials, Melendez said, adding 400 square feet will be added with a Main Street entry.

Karen and daughter Megan Galt, 23, took over a home decor shop and are busy infusing it with their design aesthetic.

Come mid-October a health food shop and the relocated Lynden Chocolate and Candy Shop will open. A floral shop will be ready for customers in early November.

“We’ll try to have some synergy between businesses to maintain traffic flow through the plaza, which obviously generates dollars and provides the community with a facility they feel comfortable doing business in,” Melendez said.

The city has grown more diverse since 2010, he said. He notes his Mexican and Spanish roots with pride and tells his children to aim high.

“We’ve made a substantial contribution to this investment,” Melendez said. “With amount that we’ve committed to Williston, it’s really planted us here.”

Faces of the Boom: Couple’s romance booming in the Oil Patch

Joey and Louise Skaare stand in a soybean field on the family’s nearly century-old farm in Alamo, N.D., Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

ALAMO, N.D. — Louise Skaare came to western North Dakota for love — not a high-paying job in the oil fields.

The Lower Merion, Pa., native met Joey Skaare, 25, of Williston through a mutual friend, Ashley Olyoe of Williston, when she was 19.

Olyoe set about matchmaking the city girl and the country boy, deeming them “perfect” for one another. She was working as a nanny in Philadelphia when Joey visited her and met Louise, a soon-to-be freshman at Temple University, a school of more than 35,000 in the heart of the historic city.

Joey said he thought she was cute. Louise looked at Joey and could only see their differences.

“This farmer from North Dakota comes in, and it’s just not going to work,” she said, recalling their first meeting.

But Louise stayed, because he was sincere and something “drew me to him.” Joey asked her to go for a walk and the two spent the evening getting to know each other, he said.

“We had such an intense conversation about family and what we wanted out of life,” Louise said. “It’s not bad to judge from first appearance. It’s what you do with that.”

They exchanged telephone numbers. Louise went on a two-week mission trip to Peru and Joey returned home to attend the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton.

The two, the “baby” in their respective families, had “random communication” until the following July when Louise, then 21, traveled to North Dakota with Olyoe to stay a month “to know if this is real.”

Joey, who was also working as an electrician at longtime Williston business Triangle Electric, said on their first date he took Louise to his family’s nearly century-old farm in Alamo.

They parted, again, but this time their romance blossomed via letters, phone calls, visits and video chats, Louise said.

“I was wooed long-distance,” she said.

On Jan. 11, 2011 Joey gave her a diamond necklace to make their dating official. By fall 2012

Louise had transferred to Minot State University to pursue a degree in secondary education — and her relationship with Joey.

“It was unbelievable. I thought I was going to have to beg her to come out,” he said.

On April 5 the two families celebrated the nuptials of Louise and Joey at a church on the New Jersey coast. Louise said the wedding was a blend of city and country to honor their cultural roots.

Joey’s mom, Meri Skaare, said she and husband Lynden had an inkling something was up.

She, too, was from a different region of the country, the Spokane, Wash., area, when she met

Lynden in her late teens.

“I can relate. There’s real similarities. We both left our homes. She came from the East Coast, I came from the west,” Meri said.

Harvest has been a busy time for Joey and his family. Louise has found her niche, too, and readying for the Nov. 1 opening of Lantern Coffee Company west of the Walmart in Williston. She said the shop will serve as a “light in the community,” bringing people together over a good cup of coffee and special events.

Louise said there’s something “really cool” about a slower pace of life in North Dakota with Joey.

“Why spend money on things that don’t define you? I need to support him, that’s his living and his family,” she said. “I came to solidify the love. … Boom or not, I’d be here.”

Faces of the Boom: Home-seller likes ‘crazy busy’ of Williston market

Carmel Schwab, Centennial Homes assistant sales manager, poses at its location in Williston, N.D., Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. — Three years ago, Carmel Schwab sold 134 homes in the heart of the Bakken — in just one year.

After relocating to Williston in 2010 to help run Aberdeen, S.D.-based Centennial Homes’ first location in North Dakota oil country, she proved she had the muscle to be a tour de force in the housing market.

Schwab said her family and friends thought she was crazy to move to western North Dakota, leaving behind two grown children and a comfortable life in Bismarck.

“I like crazy busy — that’s my personality,” she said.

Now an assistant sales manager, the former farm girl from Hazen, N.D., began working as a sales consultant at Centennial Homes in Bismarck in May 2008. Schwab said the company was doing so much business in Williston, Tioga, Watford City and the New Town areas that it decided to open a location in the Bakken.

Initially she traveled back and forth between Bismarck and Williston, but finding employees was difficult so Schwab made the move to a “crazy” city with trucks galore and lines at Walmart and the handful of restaurants.

She said her typical day then was from 6 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m. Sundays, too.

“It was myself and a secretary, literally like a revolving door,” Schwab said.

Centennial opened its second Bakken location in Dickinson in July 2011 and has seen a 35 percent increase in sales in western North Dakota. The company has offices in Montana as well.

Schwab said the modular and manufactured homes are appealing because of their price and quick completion time compared to traditional stick-built homes. A 16-foot-by-80-foot single-wide version, the most popular, cost about $70,000 and can be ready to move in anywhere from six to nine weeks.

She said in 2010, the average customer was a single man or one without his family. A year ago, Schwab noticed a shift in the demographic. So far this year, about 60 percent of her sales are to men with a wife or girlfriend.

“Now we’re seeing they’re bringing their girlfriend or wife and family, and looking for a single-family home,” she said.

Randy Rempher, Centennial’s regional vice president of sales, said Schwab takes care of her customers.

“She definitely knows the business and treats people with respect. … She’s broken every record for Centennial Homes in the country,” Rempher said, noting Schwab’s banner year of 134 homes sold in 2011.

The average for a Centennial salesperson is 45 to 50 homes per year, he said.

With new manufactured developments in the works for Williston, Schwab said she’s confident about the company’s continued success to meet the “huge need for housing.”

“I actually like Williston. I’ve met great people from all walks of life and from all over the country. It’s been an experience, and 30 years down the road I can say I was able to be part of history,” she said.

Faces of the Boom: Veteran trucker sees challenges of Oil Patch driving

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. — Darrel Harris is something of a Renaissance man.

The 62-year-old truck driver from Milton-Freewater, Ore., has worked as a teacher, commercial fisherman and for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He even managed an auto parts store in southeast Asia for five years.

“I get bored. I like doing new things,” Harris said.

Two years ago, he came to western North Dakota to work for his nephew’s trucking company, Williston-based Rawhide Trucking, as a truck driver, a skill he first learned at 19 or 20 in Northern California’s logging industry. For nearly a decade, he operated heavy machinery, with two of those years hauling logs.

“I enjoyed logging — liked the smell or trees and getting up early in the morning,” Harris said. “I liked the danger of it. … You had to be very alert.”

Being alert is paramount in the state’s Oil Patch, contractor Vernon Woodruff says. A veteran truck driver, he said the region is a “whole different world” and “takes very skilled drivers”  — like Harris — who are focused and safe.

The two met last fall when Harris was hauling heavy equipment for Bainville, Mont.,-based Craik Trucking.

“If I had 10 drivers like him, I’d be the happiest camper alive,”  Woodruff said. “Darrel is the type of driver when you send him out to do a job, he gets the job done. He always has a smile and is very positive.”

With his cowboy hat and boots, wire-rim glasses, goatee and mustache, Harris cuts a striking figure in the rugged landscape of prairie, dust, oil rigs and pump jacks.

The father of two grown daughters, Harris said hauling equipment requires a special skill called common sense — one he sees lacking in some drivers who have been lured to the oil-rich Bakken by high-paying jobs.

“It’s challenging around these parts of the woods. You have to be real cautious because of other people’s driving skills. People pull out in front of you and don’t realize how heavy a load you’ve got. You can’t stop on a dime,” Harris said.

In a region where dirt and gravel roads have sprung up to keep step with the demand by oil and gas development, finding locations like drilling sites and pipeline terminals can be challenging, too.

He said his territory ranges from the Canadian border, west to Montana and east to Minot, Bismarck and the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. And when there’s dense fog or snow and ice on the road, driving can be “treacherous,” he said.

Harris strives for balance in his life, maintaining his health with a vegetarian diet and reserving Saturdays for “my God,” he said. He sees North Dakota as a land of opportunity for those seeking financial reward.

“It’s a great opportunity for young people. It’s a good opportunity for older people, too. It’s just harder,” Harris said. “It’s a good way to save money if you’re smart.”

Faces of the Boom: Woman who moved from Tennessee ready to put down roots

Scale operator Megan English, 23, of Kingsport, Tenn., talks to fleet operations manager Javier Martinez of Albuquerque, N.M., before he scales out at Wildcat Minerals in New Town, N.D., Monday, Sept. 1, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

NEW TOWN, N.D. — Megan English was working at an automotive factory before she came to western North Dakota and more than doubled her hourly wage.

The 23-year-old from Kingsport, Tenn., along with her brother and sister-in-law, moved to the Oil Patch in May to make a better life for herself and 20-month-old daughter Regan, she said.

As a scale operator for Lakewood, Colo.-based Wildcat Minerals, she oversees the weigh scale utilizing a computerized program to supply trucks with silica sand used in hydraulic fracturing in the oilfields.

Wildcat leases a New Town grain elevator owned by Dakota Quality Grain Cooperative for its operations, said terminal manager Peter Kalligher of Duluth, Minn. He said the terminal loads an average of 40-50 trucks per day, depending on the number of oil wells being fracked.

English said she was only making $8 per hour at the factory in Tennessee. When her brother and sister-in-law found jobs in North Dakota, she decided to tag along, with Regan in tow.

“I came out here hoping I would find a job,” she said.

The four live in “the only place we could find” — a three-bedroom trailer on the edge of New Town, the largest community on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. New Town has seen its population grow from about 1,900 in the 2010 U.S. Census to more than 3,000.

English said she initially cleaned workforce housing, however, she jumped at the chance to work for Wildcat.

“I had to go into homes where men were living, and I didn’t feel comfortable about it,” English said.

Her 12-hour shift at Wildcat keeps her busy weighing trucks in and out of the terminal, communicating with drivers, and on occasion assisting in loading sand from a railcar.

English said many of the truckers are “very respectful,” but there have been a few who have been inappropriate, coaxing her to stand her ground.

“I find that my attitude’s changed a lot since I’ve been here,” she said. “I used to not care about what people said to me. Now I speak my mind.”

Kalligher described English as an employee who has “ears that work” and “above average computer skills,” which, he said, is important for a scale operator.

English said she is one of three female scale operators among a total of eight staff. The terminal runs 24/7, Kalligher said.

Regan is cared for by English’s aunt when she is working. She said she has a good support network that also includes two uncles and two cousins, and their boyfriends and children, who all came to North Dakota to work.

A 2011 high school graduate, English she said she hopes to become a surgical assistant one day because she loves to help people, she said. In the meantime, putting down roots has become her new chapter.

“Although it was sad saying goodbye to my parents, it was a new beginning for my daughter and I. … I don’t ever want to leave,” she said.

Short-term federal agents not a Bakken crime solution, officials say

WILLISTON, N.D. – Fighting drug trafficking in the Bakken requires more than two-week stints from federal agents, Oil Patch police chiefs and sheriffs said here Wednesday.

Western North Dakota law enforcement joined Sen. John Hoeven and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in urging federal agencies to establish a permanent presence in Williston.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation sends agents to western North Dakota on a temporary basis, but local sheriffs and police chiefs said they typically stay for two-week assignments.

“They start a case, they’re gone, and a new guy pretty much has to start from scratch again,” said John Fulwider, McKenzie County sheriff, during a roundtable discussion with law enforcement. “So nothing is getting done.”

Hoeven, R-N.D., and Stenehjem sent a joint letter this week to the director of the FBI and the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration asking them to dedicate full-time staff to the Bakken.

Drug crimes increased 19.5 percent from 2012 to 2013 in North Dakota, but that only tells part of the story, Stenehjem said. The cases are becoming more complicated with greater amounts of narcotics and weapons, he said.

Building cases against those drug traffickers takes a long-term commitment, Stenehjem said.

“You need people that are here permanently to get the lay of the land,” he said.

Drug trafficking in the Bakken is on the national radar, including a mention in the National Drug Control Strategy released by the White House drug czar.

“We know, based on everything that we’ve seen, that this is much bigger than a local problem,” said Watford City Police Chief Art Walgren.

Hoeven said he is optimistic about the FBI establishing a permanent office in Williston.

“I think we’re going to get this and I think we’re going to get there within months,” Hoeven said.

The drug activity also contributes to an increase in aggravated assaults and other crimes, Stenehjem said.

For example, Minot Police Chief Jason Olson said burglaries more than doubled in his city between 2012 and 2013, and most were related to meth.

Getting federal agents stationed permanently in western North Dakota will help improve the quality of life for those communities, said Dickinson Police Chief Dustin Dassinger.

“It’s really the war against narcotics that’s going to play a huge part,” Dassinger said.

Faces of the Boom: Ex-Marine feels at home in male-dominated field

After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps for more than eight years, Emily Gathje now works as an airport operations manager at Sloulin Field International Airport in Williston, N.D., Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. — Emily Gathje is used to working in a man’s world.

The St. Charles, Minn., native served with the U.S. Marine Corps for more than eight years before coming to North Dakota’s Oil Patch to work as an airport operations manager at Sloulin Field International Airport in Williston.

“It’s no different than a military town. Instead of Marine Corps cammies, the men wear Carhartts and muddy boots,” Gathje, 29, said.

At just 18 — one of 76 high school graduates in her hometown of about 3,000 — she became a Marine, looking to get out of “small-town USA” and a chance to do something big.

Her early years on a dairy farm, one that had been in her family since the early 1900s, shaped her love for the outdoors and for challenges. From age 8 into her teens, she developed an interest in mechanics.

At the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., Gathje worked as a motor transport mechanic, a job that matched her interests and skills, she said.

Four years later, Gathje was stationed at nearby Marine Corps Air Station New River, where she applied her passion for aviation to her role as a crew chief for MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, doing mechanics and inspections, and assisting the pilots.

“A man’s world: It’s never bothered me, never thought anything of it. I’ve always been that way since working on a farm,” Gathje said.

In April 2012, enrolled at the University of North Dakota, where she received a degree in air traffic control.

Six months ago, Gathje landed in Williston, immersing herself in duties ranging from snow removal operations and wildlife control to aircraft rescue and firefighting at the airport, where traffic has soared with the oil boom and now includes direct flights to Houston.

Gathje said the job is a good fit for her, offers subsidized housing, allows her to be near her best friend, who lives in Watford City with her family. She the airport staff is a close-knit group.

“We all get along great and spend a lot of time together. We’re a family,” she said.

And if life isnt’ busy enough, the self-described tomboy recently started her master’s in aviation science through a distance-learning program.

Although Gathje is only one of two women in airport administration, Airport Manager Steven Kjergaard said he views her as just another staff member.

“Aviation is a male-dominated environment. Emily brings the ability to do her job extremely well. She has very good attention to detail and very good interaction with customers,” he said.

Gathje says gender isn’t an issue.

“There’s opportunities for women everywhere, as long as they’re willing to do the work and have a good attitude.”