N.D. workplace deaths examined in TV report

DJ Allred contemplates the explosion that tore apart this tanker in October 2014 and took the life of his best friend Dustin Payne, a Marine Corps veteran who worked in North Dakota’s oilfields. Josh Rushing / Fault Lines

WILLISTON, N.D. – Before North Dakota oil worker Dustin Payne died last fall, he sent text messages to his girlfriend about safety conditions on the worksite.

“I’m literally going to be welding something that’s full of oil. … Don’t (feel) comfortable welding this at all. Dangerous as (expletive).”

Payne, a 28-year-old Marine Corps veteran from Alabama, died from injuries he suffered last Oct. 3 when a tanker he was welding in Williston exploded.

An investigative report airing Monday on Al Jazeera America featuring interviews with his family and friends shows that Payne had voiced concerns to his employer about safety conditions, and a legal investigator interviewed by “Fault Lines” says the death could have been prevented.

Correspondent Josh Rushing and his team spent six months investigating working conditions in the Bakken, including traveling around the country to interview families of men who died in North Dakota and injured workers who are recovering.

Other findings in the episode, “Death on the Bakken Shale,” include:

– A North Dakota oil worker tells Rushing he has spent as many as 69 hours straight on a job site and has fallen asleep in a crane while operating it. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not regulate how many hours employees work.

– OSHA has nine full-time compliance officers assigned to the Bismarck area office, and some estimates show it would take decades for OSHA to inspect every workplace in North Dakota.

– OSHA fines for oil companies with safety violations are often not substantial enough to be punitive.

Payne’s death is still under investigation by OSHA, Scott Overson, assistant director of the Bismarck area OSHA office, said Friday in an interview with Forum News Service. Payne worked for Nabors Completion and Production Service, Overson said.

Payne’s family learned that he had been asked to weld on a tanker that had contained salt water, a byproduct of oil production that contains hydrocarbons, the “Fault Lines” report says.

“What happened to Dustin unfortunately was very avoidable,” Ross Rolshoven, investigator for Great Plains Claims, says in the episode. “The truck should have been put outside for 24 hours and checked for flammable gas.”

Nabors did not comment for the TV program, and a message seeking comment for Forum News Service was not returned Friday.

The recent report by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations that found North Dakota to have the highest fatality rate in the nation prompted the journalists to investigate the Bakken, Rushing said last week in an interview with Forum News Service.

Understanding the dangers of the working conditions in the Bakken required Rushing and his team to travel around the country to talk to family members and injured workers who are recovering.

“It really became this national story,” Rushing said. “The idea that these workers come from everywhere but there (North Dakota) is very important if the situation is ever to be changed.”

The program airs at 8 p.m. Central Monday, Jan. 12, on Al Jazeera America, which is Channel 158 on Midcontinent. More information is available at the show’s website.

Record numbers of births reported in Oil Patch in 2014

MINOT, N.D. – Hospitals in the three hub cities in North Dakota’s Oil Patch set records in 2014 for the number of babies born.

Trinity Health in Minot recorded 1,713 births in 2014, up 83 from the previous year. That set a record for Trinity for the second year in a row.

Sevda Raghib, women’s and children’s services director, said a few of the births were multiple births, so the number of babies born was actually higher.

In addition, Trinity had 265 admissions into its Newborn Intensive Care Unit, also a new record.

“This consistently busy pace has been the new normal as the city continues to grow,” Raghib said.

In Williston, Mercy Medical Center recorded 804 babies born in 2014. That’s an increase of 54 from the record Mercy set in 2013.

In Dickinson, CHI St. Joseph’s reported 611 births in 2014, an increase of 71 deliveries over 2013. Deb Bolin, director of obstetrics, said the Dickinson hospital has had a steady increase of deliveries each year since 2010.

Census estimates list the three cities as some of the fastest-growing communities of their size in the nation.

Faces of the Boom: Mobile unit brings quick relief to health care shortage

From left, nurse practitioner Paula Moch, Deb Spurgeon, nurse coordinator, and tech Zach Bruner pose in front of Sanford Health mobileMED unit in Watford City, N.D., Monday, Dec. 29, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WATFORD CITY, N.D. — The finely tuned trio of health care workers on board a rig here provide medical services on the front lines in North Dakota’s oilfields.

The rig is not a towering structure high above the prairie. Instead, it’s a 45-foot-long Sanford Health mobileMED unit on wheels, which serves oil-producing companies and other companies supporting the energy industry.

Since the unit opened in July, nurse practitioner Paula Moch, Deb Spurgeon, nurse coordinator, and tech Zach Bruner have seen on average between seven and 10 patients a day, with 98 percent male, ages 19 to 60.

The trio provides a range of services including drug and alcohol screening, treatment of injuries and illness, and pre-employment exams and state Department of Transportation certification on Monday through Friday in a self-contained rig equipped with a small reception area, a lab, a restroom and two exam rooms.

The ability to contact any doctor within the Sanford Health system using telemedicine also ensures greater access to clinical health care despite the distance in rural communities in the Oil Patch.

Sanford invested $1.12 million in two mobileMED units for the Oil Patch, according to a company spokesperson. The second one operates in Tioga.

Bruner, a Mandan native and former farm worker, has worked with Sanford for nearly a year and said he welcomes the opportunity to work with out-of-staters — and women.

“Oh, I like it. It’s different. I’m used to working with guys,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing to have people here to work, to see that it’s not just desolate North Dakota.”

Spurgeon came to western North Dakota in November 2013 to be with her husband, a truck driver for Belfield-based MBI Energy Services. The couple, who own a house and farm in Jackson, Mo., live in an RV in Belfield, west of Dickinson.

Spurgeon said her colleagues have “become a second family,” with stays at a local hotel during their three-day, 12-hour shifts giving them ample time together.

“Everybody just seems to get along really well. Everybody works together,” she said.

Moch, whose husband is a third-generation farmer near Linton, said their busiest times are mid-morning and after 3 p.m. They see a lot of back and knee injuries, mostly due to overuse.

“People are not used to the hard labor required on the [oil] rigs,” she said, adding workers in second-growth businesses such as the food and hospitality industry and taxicab drivers have also sought medical help.

With the 21-year-old Bruner as the official driver, the mobile unit can also travel to a work site or company location to help expedite new worker testing and screenings, and to provide treatment to ill and injured workers. Bruner also is trained to do many of those services.

Moch said the med unit helps to take the pressure off emergency rooms, to not bog down primary care. Citing initial response by some as direct competition, she said the unit is meant to augment, not take business from other providers.

“We’re committed to this area and we have the budget to be here. We’re here to work and we’re here to be a presence in the state despite the changes that come with oil,” Moch said.

Faces of the Boom: Authors paint a picture of a previous boom

Authors Quinn O’Connell Jr., left, and James J. Patterson hold a copy of “Roughnecks,” a story chronicling O’Connell’s year working on oil rigs in the Williston Basin. Washington, D.C., Monday, Dec. 22, 2014. Photo courtesy of the authors.

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WASHINGTON — It was late summer in 1979 when Zachary Harper drove into Watford City in a dirt-covered Jeep, looking for work on an oil drilling crew.

He had a name — just one name to go on — and his cousin’s voice urging caution as he walked into a bar in the small outpost in western North Dakota.

So begins the story of 27-year-old Harper, the alter ego of Quinn O’Connell, Jr. of Chevy Chase, Md., who along with James J. Patterson of Bethesda, Md., wrote the newly released “Roughnecks,” a novel based on O’Connell’s year working in the oilfields of eastern Montana and North Dakota.

“As an East Coaster, it was a spiritual experience for me. … venturing out to the unknown. I was looking at my inner soul and what really matters in life,” O’Connell said.

The two 62-year-olds met in fourth grade at a Catholic school in Washington, D.C., their native city. They served as altar boys at the local church and bonded over summer vacations.

“Quinn became like a brother and a part of the family,” Patterson said.

O’Connell’s roots in the Dakotas include ties to the Hustead family and their iconic Wall Drug in Wall, S.D., where he worked in the summers.

He worked alongside cousins Ted and Jon Hustead. Ted would go on to have long career in the oilfields, first in Gillette, Wyo., then eventually making his way to the North Slope of Alaska.

After college, O’Connell worked at a Washington, D.C., bank, where he applied his studies in international banking and Arabic.

But his cousin’s tales of working on the oil rigs, coupled with a desire to understand his purpose, set in motion an adventure O’Connell considers defining and one of self-discovery.

“I really wanted to reflect upon my experience at the bank and in the corporate world and look inward. Why am I here, and what am I here for?” he said.

Like the character Zachary Harper, O’Connell visited his cousin (Ted) in Grand Forks, N.D., where he was attending college, then headed west to Watford City with “$100 in my pocket” and the name of a man who could possibly help him find work in the oilfields.

O’Connell kept a diary — sporadically — during the year he “punched two holes in Scobey, Montana,” then back to the Watford City area, which he said was a “frenzy of activity — nothing on the scale as now.”

O’Connell and Patterson would spend a year working on the book after O’Connell left the oilfields.

Patterson made three trips to the region in the early ‘80’s through the mid-’90s, logging hundreds of interviews, doing research and writing down “everything I saw.”

He estimates he spent seven years over a 33-year period working on the novel that Patterson calls a “coming-of-age, find yourself story — a quest.”

“We all come from a generation of the great American novel, where a person goes out one way and comes out a completely different person,” Patterson said, adding the depictions of Scobey and Watford City are accurate, however, many of the book’s characters are composites of  multiple individuals.

O’Connell, who now owns a law practice in, said his lifelong friend “did a masterful job of capturing” a window in time, of his “new reality” that, at times, was frightening and scary. It was a world in which men put their lives in each other’s hand and a person’s word could mean life or death.

“A person’s word is his life. … These roughnecks, these oilfield men, are gifted on so many fronts. They can conquer the most indomitable tasks,” O’Connell said. “There was nothing better than the moments when we were on fire as a crew.”


To learn more about author James J. Patterson, vist http://jamesjpatterson.com

Faces of the Boom: California journalist sets out to document life in the Bakken

From left, photojournalist Brad DeCecco, journalist Blaire Briody and documentary filmmaker Ashley Panzera pose in front of the trailer they pulled from California to Williston, N.D., Aug. 25, 2013. Courtesy Brad DeCecco

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. — It was in her senior year of college that Blaire Briody fell in love.

The 30-year-old native Californian had wanted to be a writer since she was a child, but it wasn’t until she took a journalism course that she considered it a potential career.

“I really fell in love with journalism. I don’t think I had ever conceptualized it as a job that I would ever have. … it inspired me to try it out as a career,” Briody said.

After graduating in 2006 with a degree in international relations, Briody headed east to The Big Apple where she worked as a writer and editor at The Fiscal Times, an online platform for financial policy, economic and consumer issues.

But around 2011, Briody heard about a boom — an oil boom — that would eventually compel her to resign her position, pull up stakes and drive her parent’s trailer to Williston in July 2013.

“It reminded me of the Gold Rush or some big event. The remote, harsh area really fascinated me at the same time the recession was happening everywhere else,” she said.

Briody, along with photojournalist Brad DeCecco and documentary filmmaker Ashley Panzera, raised about $10,000 through an online crowdfunding campaign for a multimedia project to document a modern-day boom and explore the lives of people living and working in the Oil Patch.

The trio provided daily updates via their blog and set about making a short documentary, “When the Land Turned Black,” which, Briody said, is currently making the circuit of film festivals.

During her two months living in her parent’s trailer north of Williston in 2013, Briody said she conducted about 100 interviews and thought the stories, as well as the “controversial” practice of hydraulic fracturing, “could be a book project.”

“It’s been something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” she said.

By last March, Briody’s book proposal was accepted and sold to New York City-based St. Martin’s Press.

She said the narrative, non-fiction book will focus on several real-life characters: a farmer with a connection to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, a Williston local, an oilfield crew, a man who has been living intermittently in his car and a family.

“The New Wild West,” Briody said, will be a case study on how new drilling technology (including fracking) affects a region, incorporating personal stories of hardship, environmental impacts and what it’s like for workers in the oil fields.

“They’re all very compelling in their own way. … Everyone has a fascinating story and they’re in fascinating circumstances,” Briody said. “It takes a certain person to come out here — or to stay out here.”

With three additional one- to two-week visits to western North Dakota from her home in Santa Rosa in northern California, she said she’s written about 30 to 40 percent of the manuscript. A book advance and earnings from freelancing writing allow Briody to spend as much as 90 percent of her time working on the book.

The plan is to submit the manuscript next summer, with a publication date in 2016.

Envisioning the day she holds the book in hand will be a dream come true.

“It’s like a lifelong dream. That will be a pretty incredible moment, I’m sure,” Briody said.

To read more about The Oil Men multimedia project and Briody’s upcoming book, visit  http://theoilmen.wordpress.com or www.facebook.com/TheOilMen

Faces of the Boom: Tennessee family enjoying new life in Minot

Nick Vaughn, 34, of Gallatin, Tenn., moved to North Dakota in September and now tends bar at the Blind Duck Lounge and Casino in Minot. Kathleen Bryan / Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

MINOT, N.D. — Nick Vaughn earns in two nights what took him two weeks to make in his home state of Tennessee.

The 34-year-old Gallatin, Tenn., man uprooted his family  — wife Burgandy and four children — in September in hopes of finding a better life in Minot.

The former automotive factory worker who was earning $9 an hour now tends bar at the Blind Duck Lounge and Casino. His wife quickly found work as a licensed practical nurse in a retirement home, increasing her salary by $3 per hour.

Vaughn said his brother-in-law, a retired Air Force service member who has been working in the Oil Patch since July, coaxed the family to move, saying “There’s a better life here for you.”

Life in Gallatin saw “plenty of work,” he said, but the growth rate of the Nashville suburb that had a population of more than 30,000 in the 2010 Census has outpaced available housing, forcing buyers and renters to pay a premium for a place to live.

And for Vaughn and his family that meant staying with relatives, he said.

Vaughn said unless a worker wants to join the ranks of middle management, the most a person can make is $9 to $10 an hour.

As a bartender at the Blind Duck, it’s on Friday and Saturday nights where he earns the majority of his money.

“We’re actually able to save and pay off debt. We can provide the kids with necessities, things they would normally have to wait a while to get. We were barely able to make ends meet,” Vaughn said.

His 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift allow him to be the “taxi in the one-car family,” driving his wife and kids, ages 7 to 13, to and from work and school.

“I take everybody where they got to go,” he said.

A dyed-in-the-wool Southerner and native of Selma, Ala., Vaughn said he still roots for the Crimson Tide, the University of Alabama’s football team. On game days, every TV in the Blind Duck is set to the game to watch, and you had better not touch that dial.

Patrons “love” the bar’s karaoke nights, Vaughn said. The top three most popular drinks are Bud Light on tap or in bottles, whiskey or rum with Coke and Patrón tequila.

On a recent mid-week evening, a Christmas tree bedecked with sparkly lights welcomed patrons and festive garland and ornaments hung above the bar. Vaughn served up drinks with an occasional “Yes, ma’am” in his soft Southern drawl.

The Peace Garden State is home now, and Minot is just the fresh start Vaughn and his family were counting on.

“It’s a great town — good people,” he said. “The kids were ready to leave. This is something new, a fresh start. We love it here, the quality of life has gotten 10 times better.”

Faces of the Boom: Michigan woman brings acupuncture practice to the Bakken

Rebecca Lloyd of Marquette, Mich., opened her acupuncture practice in downtown Williston, N.D., in September. Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. — Rebecca Lloyd has had just one patient who says they get a good night’s sleep.

It’s likely because of the stress in western North Dakota’s boom town. But the 49-year-old from Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, who arrived in Williston in August and started her acupuncture practice a month later, is trying to do something about it.

She’s hoping to increase the quality of life in Williston and the surrounding area.

“I just wanted to bring something new and help them. I’ve only had one patient who says they sleep well at night. Nobody has a good night’s sleep, there’s a lot of stress,” Lloyd said.

Acupuncture is a complementary or alternative medicine that involves inserting thin needles into the skin to alleviate pain and various physical and emotional ailments.

Lloyd said her patients always think of the needles, expecting them to be “big hypodermic needles” and instead are surprised by their small size, and “they don’t hurt.”

She said placing the needles at specific points on a person’s body activates neural activity and stimulates healing. Through her practice, ND Acupuncture, Lloyd provides treatment for conditions such as asthma, muscle and back pain, stress and headaches.

She sees about 10 patients each week, but could “comfortably” see 10 a day. Men and women ranging in age from 20 to 80 make up an equal share of her caseload, however, the majority of the men work in the oil fields or in a support capacity, many logging a lot of hours on the computer or behind the wheel of a truck.

They struggle with numbness and tingling in their hands or pinching muscles, Lloyd said. Inserting needles along the neck and shoulders eases the symptoms, leading to results.

“I work with needles, not a magic wand. It will not give you miraculous results in one visit,” she said.

For acute back pain, a treatment plan may involve two sessions per week over a two-week period. She then monitors the pain and spaces out the treatments, she said.

Williston native and chiropractor Jackie Johnsrud met Lloyd soon after she opened her practice in the city’s downtown.

About 95 percent of Johnsrud’s patients are directly linked to the oil fields. She said truck drivers with back pain often come in for adjustments and relief.

She sees Lloyd’s practice growing with the influx of people, many who are “more accepting” of alternative medicine.

“I think she’ll help quite a few people. … We both can work at the cause of the pain instead of masking [it], instead of giving a muscle relaxant or pain killer. We try to fix the problem,” she said.

Easing the pain is something dear to Lloyd. The former lumber mill and flooring sales worker knew she wanted to do more with her life after her father’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent death in 2009 inspired her to learn about easing nausea and pain, which led her to acupuncture.

Lloyd “followed her heart,” sold her house in Marquette and moved to Minnesota to pursue a master’s in acupuncture in September 2011.

Her graduate studies at Bloomington, Minn.-based Northwestern Sciences Health University included coursework in Chinese theory and ancient principles elicited confusion at times.

But when the time came for the practical application, the relationship between mind and body and its ability to heal, it began to make sense to her.

“I like making someone’s day better. … Acupuncture helps increase a person’s quality of life. It absolutely is not meant to replace Western medicine, but works beautifully side-by-side with it,” Lloyd said.

Faces of the Boom: At 72, man having fun working in Oil Patch

Former dairy farmer Clint Perry, 72, of Nampa, Idaho, poses at the senior community where he lives in Williston, N.D., Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. — Seventy-two-year-old Clint Perry was seeking adventure and a bit of hope when he moved to western North Dakota in August.

“Every place else the economy is in a slump. If it’s not in a slump, prices are on the increase,” the Idaho native said. “For the elderly, the partially handicapped and handicapped, the only hope is to get on disability, but you can’t live on it.”

In Williston — Boomtown, USA — Perry said there are jobs even for senior citizens.

“Here, there is hope. … hope for something better,” he said.

As a part-time greeter at Walmart, Perry earns $17 per hour — nearly $10 more than the state’s minimum wage.

His skills honed during a decade of driving a taxi in Boise, Idaho, have come in handy, as he cajoles, injects humor and brightens a shopper’s day.

“Welcome to Walmart, the land of adventure!” is a typical greeting Perry says on shifts at the big-box store.

“You got to have fun with it. … You got to enjoy people just like in the taxi business,” he said.

Perry’s first trip to the Oil Patch in June gave him a chance to see for himself the prospects for work and housing. A nephew in Tioga, who works as a truck driver hauling water, put him up so he didn’t have to sleep in his car.

He applied for an apartment at an affordable housing community for seniors in Williston, a step that would bring him closer to making the move a reality.

The housing shortage coupled with a lack of reasonably-priced housing has continued to be a hurdle for the influx of people seeking to cash in on the energy boom.

“You really need to have your ducks in a row before you come here,” Perry said.

Prior to joining Walmart, he worked at The Salvation Army store in downtown Williston, a job he got through Experience Works. The national nonprofit provides training, community service and job opportunities for seniors.

“With the oil boom, one of the negatives is an increase in the cost of living. Vulnerable seniors can fall through the cracks,” said Holly Smith, a caseworker for The Salvation Army.

She said the young men who flock to the region can find jobs pretty quickly.

Even though Perry “loves seeing all the pipe and equipment, and marvels what it’s all used for,” he admits he’s too old to work in the oilfields.

For a man who claims to have been “highly unsuccessful all my life,” Perry’s career pursuits and his “tender heart” belie that notion.

The father of six adult children and granddad to 16 lost his 220-acre dairy farm during the farm crisis of the 1980s. His lost his wife as well, however, Perry said they are good friends.

After his 10-year stint as a cab driver, he owned a second-hand store until 2013.

But Perry’s true calling may be to help people. On the job at Walmart and in his daily life, he strives to be a light to the world.

“My actual prayer is to help other people. … You look them in the eye and smile at ‘em. You got to try to lighten them up a bit,” he said.

Faces of the Boom: Teacher welcomes new faces, diversity to reservation school

Camarilla Hunter, a sixth-grade teacher at New Town Middle School on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, poses in front of a mural in the school cafeteria in New Town, N.D., Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

NEW TOWN, N.D. — On a recent day in Camarilla Hunter’s sixth-grade class, rainbow-colored candy made math a whole lot sweeter and fun for her students.

“When can we eat the Skittles?” a boy interjected, as Hunter, 35, explained the goal of their

assignment was to find the fraction, decimal and percent for each color in their small bag of candy.

It was all in a day’s teaching for the third-year educator at New Town Middle School on the

Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in western North Dakota.

Earlier in the school day the students learned about the U.S. presidents playing bingo and practiced their English skills by writing pen pal postcards.

“She makes it fun. I’ve learned more than last year. I get things a lot more,” said Alli Brunelle, 11, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes — the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa.

Hunter, a member of the MHA Nation, worked for the New Town Public School District as the assistant business manager for five years and one as a teacher’s aide.

But the wife and mother to four boys wanted to set a new course, one that would challenge her and utilize her people skills. In 2012, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Fort Berthold Community College.

“It’s not boring,” she said. “I like meeting the kids, getting to know them. … It’s a challenge, every year is something new.”

With the region’s energy boom, the school district is experiencing challenges as well — an influx of people, a lack of housing and a transient workforce — issues facing many communities across the Oil Patch.

Principal Andrew DeCoteau said the 2013-14 school year saw 170 students. At the start of school this year the number had increased to 202, which he anticipates rising even more as additional housing becomes available.

Citing the “revolving door” effect, DeCoteau said four new students, one from Montana, two from Texas and one from Nebraska, had just enrolled. Hunter recalls last year having one student for only a week and another for just one day.

DeCoteau, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa, said many students and their families are living in campers, a harsh reality Hunter said is emotionally challenging.

“One student lived in a tiny trailer, and she said they didn’t have hot water and (had to) boil water. That’s how she would wash up,” Hunter said.

DeCoteau said at least 80 percent of the students are Native American. Because the teachers do a good job of welcoming students, he said racism and prejudice are issues that don’t penetrate the school’s walls.

“The good thing is they (the students) could care less. Even though we’re a public school, we don’t have those issues, which is a good thing. Everybody fits in,” he said.

Of her 22 students, Hunter has two of Spanish heritage. She said she’s learned some Spanish words to help her communicate with their parents.

Noting the value of connection to one’s culture, Hunter said she encourages her students to speak in their native language.

To help them prepare for dismissal after the fun-filled afternoon of Skittles math and science,

Hunter said words or phrases in Hidatsa.

“Huka (come here). Nishab (hurry),” she said, as the students scurried to their seats.

“I do want the kids to have a connection,” Hunter said. “I try to incorporate a positive role model: Yes, I am Native American. I am proud versus embarrassed.”

Faces of the Boom: Stanley couple’s retail store risk pays off

Ruth and Robert “Hod”€ Hysjulien opened Prairie Outfitters nearly 20 years ago on Main Street in Stanley, N.D., which has seen its popularity rise with the region’s energy boom. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Kathleen J. Bryan
Forum News Service

STANLEY, N.D. — In 1996, Ruth and Robert “Hod” Hysjulien took a risk despite a flat economy in their small western North Dakota town.

Open in time for that year’s holiday shopping season, Prairie Outfitters, their 3,600-square-foot retail store on Stanley’s Main Street, was a hit.

“We had a great Christmas. We were all amazed,” Ruth said.

Back then, the couple was unaware the future was even brighter for their town of about 1,300 — that by 2010, store sales would see a 300 percent increase.

“It was so busy in 2012,” Hod said, recalling the many people living in RVs and campers two years ago.

“We were here almost every night until 10 p.m.,” Ruth chimed in.

“It was overwhelming,” the couple said in unison.

With the region’s energy boom, gone are the days of businesses dying and business owners having to fight for sales.

“I think we were losing a lot of businesses in the ‘90s and 2000s and the population was dwindling. Now we’re growing the other way and business is expanding. … It’s hard to keep up with it,” said Mayor Gary “Fritz” Weisenberger, who has known the Hysjuliens for 40 years.

He estimates the town’s population could be as high as 3,500, more than double since the start of the boom.

What originally started as a store to fill a niche in the agricultural community has since expanded to a 6,100-square-foot space filled with flame-resistant clothing and steel-toed boots, as well as jewelry, casual wear and denim jeans with “bling” for women.

Ruth had worked at the local medical clinic for about 27 years prior to running Prairie Outfitters. After a 33-year career in the furniture and carpet industry, Hod joined her full time in 2013.

He said the big moment for their business was when an oi field company supervisor ordered 550 caps with the company logo, telling Hod they would try to do their shopping locally.

“It’s been huge. We got some of the big companies. They all talk about our prices — that our prices are lower.” Ruth said. “Word-of-mouth advertising has been awesome.”

Weisenberger said Stanley received its official designation as a Renaissance Zone last month. Business owners and residents located within 20-something blocks of the old part of the town will be eligible for tax breaks to stimulate development along Main Street.

He said at least a dozen or more businesses have opened or expanded in the past year in the downtown area or on U.S. Highway 2, including a gas station, Tractor Supply Company, O’Reilly Auto Parts and La Esperanza Mexican Restaurant.

Hod said with the population growth in the Oil Patch, comes the negative, but “our experience has not been negative.”

Ruth admitted they have made friends with a lot of the people who have come from all over the country, from Louisiana and Texas to Idaho.

As they look forward to another holiday season, the couple’s recipe for success in balancing marriage and business is a blend of flexibility, respect and care.

“We’ve just always gotten along, he’s made my job easier,” Ruth said.