Famous Bakken formation named for North Dakota homesteaders

Lorin Bakken, pictured here on Oct. 21, 2012, walks on his family homestead near the site of the Henry O. Bakken well near Tioga, N.D. The well gave the Bakken oil formation its name. Amy Dalrymple/Forum Communications

TIOGA, N.D. –  Lorin Bakken recalls it was 2007 when he began seeing his name in the newspaper and on TV frequently as the oil boom started to heat up.

Since then, his family name has become synonymous with oil and opportunity.

“I feel so honored,” Lorin said in a rare interview.

Lorin is the only son of Henry O. Bakken. The Bakken formation — the pool of oil that lies beneath western North Dakota, northeast Montana and part of Canada — is named for the well drilled in 1951 and 1952 on the Henry O. Bakken farm northeast of Tioga.

While Lorin Bakken, 59, says he feels honored, he avoids the attention he could easily draw to himself. He still lives in Tioga, but he keeps such a low profile that many people don’t know he’s connected to the Bakken boom.

He lives in a modest house, doesn’t own a car and hasn’t worked since he stopped working on his family’s farm in 1992. He primarily keeps to himself, although he regularly attends Zion Lutheran Church, eats lunch twice a week at the senior center and does errands in downtown Tioga.

Lorin said he was private before his name became famous, and he hasn’t changed.

Kathy Neset, a geologist who has been working in Tioga since 1979 and regularly gives talks on the Bakken formation, has never met Lorin, even though her farm is about 2 miles north of his family homestead.

“What a treasure we have here to know we have a family member right here,” Neset said.

Neset said it’s fitting that North Dakota’s famous formation would be named for a quiet, private family.

“It speaks to the culture of North Dakota. People are very reserved, they’re not going to be speaking out on their wealth or the naming of the formation for them,” Neset said. “I admire that trait and that quality and the good Scandinavian heritage here.”

First Iverson

The date of North Dakota’s first oil discovery is considered April 4, 1951, at the Clarence Iverson farm near Tioga, according to Mud, Sweat & Oil, a book about North Dakota’s first year of oil written by journalist and historian Bill Shemorry.

Shemorry’s photo of the Clarence Iverson No. 1 well became famous and the site is home to a historical marker.

The Clarence Iverson well produced from the Silurian, Duperow and Madison formations, but not the Bakken, Neset said. There are several oil-producing formations at different depths within the larger Williston Basin.

“The Clarence Iverson takes the nod because it was the first oil discovered,” Neset said. “It’s really the well that put the 1950s boom on the map.”

But another oil strike near Tioga – aptly known as the oil capital of North Dakota – would put the state on the map decades later.

The Amerada Petroleum Co. began drilling the Henry O. Bakken well on July 13, 1951, and first encountered oil on Sept. 5 of that year, according to a program for an oil strike celebration the family held weeks later.

Production didn’t begin on the well until April 1952, according to the North Dakota Industrial Commission. Today, Bakken wells are drilled in less than a month.

“Back in those days, that was a huge undertaking, drilling to that depth,” Neset said.

The Henry O. Bakken well produced a total of 255,526 barrels of oil, which is a significant amount for a well that was drilled vertically, Neset said. She believes they must have encountered a naturally occurring fracture in the rock layer to get that much production.

The Bakken formation frustrated geologists for years because they knew the oil was there but they didn’t have the technology to extract the oil, said Neset, who came to North Dakota from New Jersey in 1979.

“The Henry O. Bakken well didn’t really get its just excitement until we came back and made the Bakken economically successful with horizontal drilling and fracture stimulation,” Neset said.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses water, sand and chemicals to stimulate or create fractures in the rock to help extract the oil.

Cause for celebration

Lorin, who was born in 1953, said he recalls his family talking more about the celebration than about the oil strike itself.

A program for the celebration that is in the Norseman Museum in Tioga shows that Henry Bakken hosted a free barbecue with several family members and neighbors to celebrate the oil strike with performances by the school band and a vocalist. A free will offering was collected to benefit the new nursing home building.

That first well is often called the H.O. Bakken well, but is known in the Industrial Commission records as Henry O. Bakken.

Lorin said both his father, Henry, and uncle, Harry, had the same initials and were equal partners in the farm, so he considered the well to be named for both of them.

Their brothers Ludvig, Otto and Oscar, owned adjoining farms at the time of the oil celebration, according to the program.

Norway, Minnesota roots

Lorin is the grandson of Norwegian immigrants Otto and Mary Bakken, who were married near Granite Falls, Minn., according to Otto’s obituary.

Henry Bakken, Lorin’s father, was born March 25, 1901, in Maynard, Minn.

Harry Bakken was two years younger than Henry, born March 15, 1903.

The Wonder of Williams, a book by the Williams County Historical Society, says this about the Otto and Mary Bakken family:

They had 13 children and lived in Thief River Falls, but their farm was too small and land prices were too high to provide a living for their family.

In 1907, Otto and Mary moved to North Dakota with eight of their children. Otto’s brother, Carl Bakken, was a land locator and helped him find land northeast of Tioga. For a time, the Bakkens lived in a two-room house owned by Carl.

“When Henry gets started, he likes to talk and sometimes he doesn’t know when to stop,” says the description of Henry in the Wonder of Williams book.

Harry married Mildred Schenstad on Dec. 26, 1951, at Hanks, N.D. They had two daughters who died at infancy and a son who died at age 2.

Henry Bakken got married at age 51 to Lois Ulvin in Sept. 30, 1952, in Williston. Lorin was their only son.

Harry and Mildred were Lorin’s godparents and Lorin at times lived with them.

“Those four people were together all their lives,” Lorin said of his parents and his aunt and uncle.

A country person 

Lorin graduated from Tioga High School in 1972 and worked on the farm until he moved with his aunt and uncle into town in 1992.

“I was happy and content to be on the farm,” Lorin said.” Once you’re a country person, you’re always a country person.”

Lorin, who never married, still owns the homestead and has never considered selling it. He said he didn’t keep in touch with relatives who moved out of the area, so he’s not aware of other surviving Bakken family descendants.

Lorin’s land currently has one producing oil well on it. He is private about his personal gains from oil.

Even though he’s a Bakken, Lorin has mixed feelings on the Bakken boom. He sees the economic benefits, but is nostalgic for the wide, open spaces that are changing as more wells are drilled and the population soars.

“On one hand, it’s economic growth and it’s good for the state and good for the people,” Lorin said. “On the other hand … you miss it the way it used to be, too.”

5 thoughts on “Famous Bakken formation named for North Dakota homesteaders

  1. The book Wonder of Williams. Can I get a copy of this book. It might have some information about the Glans, who had a farm in Tioga. I believe my grandparents are buried in a cemetary close by. Thank You

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  4. Found this fascinating as my Great grandparents are Carl & Olea (Brooten) Bakken, brother to Ottis Bakken, mentioned- both of Tioga, Williams, ND. My great grandfather Carl was also known as Senator Carl Bakker 1925-1927. Thank you for sharing this info!! .. Cherished.

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