Some 400 cows come running down the North Dakota hillside. Their eyes are bugged out, their mooing loud and incessant.
It’s a Sunday morning and eight horses soon crest the same gentle ridge, their riders hollering as they steer the cattle into a makeshift metal corral.
Milo Wisness, one of the largest landowners in McKenzie County, yelps from the saddle on his horse, Ringo. The wind sweeps 11-year-old Abby Hepper’s blond hair. And below the shadow of his straw cowboy hat, Ray Gilstad grins. He’s 79 and has been coming to this annual branding for 70 years now.
For the next few hours, calves will be separated from their mothers, lassoed around their hind legs, dragged out of the corral as kids wrestle them to the ground. It’s a scene that has played out on these plains for more than a century.
Except for the oil tanker truck making its way through a nearby gully.
It kicks up a cloud of orange dust from a new soft clay road, airbrakes whistling as it stops 100 yards away where the head of an oil well rhythmically nods. The driver climbs one of the tanks and throws a valve to fill his truck with oil.
The well wasn’t here at last year’s branding. It’s another reminder of the massive transformation unfolding in North Dakota. Thousands of workers — and $30 billion of investment — have arrived and oil production records are rewritten monthly.
North Dakota now trails only Texas in oil production with more than 911,000 barrels a day getting sucked from its shale. And its population, after largely shrinking for decades, is suddenly growing faster than any other state.
All the frenzy has thrust quiet, tiny dots on the map such as Keene, N.D., into cataclysmic change — forever altering the stark landscape and the lives of families whose ancestors settled here generations ago. Many lay buried behind a Lutheran church on the hill, along with webs of new hydraulic fractured wells snaking below its cemetery out back — earning the church hefty royalty checks from oil companies.
“They don’t hit dry holes around here anymore,” says Gilstad, the dean at the branding and North Dakota’s 1956 bareback bronc-riding champ. “We’re right in the middle of it here.”
Families are cashing in. There are new pickups and Caribbean cruises, but residents lying in bed at night can also hear the roar of natural gas flares and the constant pounding of trucks out on Hwy. 23.
“Ranchers like to piss and moan about the truck traffic and such out here, but they don’t tell you how much their checks are worth,” Jeff Hepper, Abby’s dad, says during a break from lassoing and branding. “There are good parts and bad, and things have changed, but damn few would make the choice to go back to the way things were 10 years ago.”
Global cog on the prairie
Mention the Bakken oil boom and people think of Williston — the city mushrooming faster than its housing and infrastructure can handle in the vortex of the North Dakota oil rush. But Williston is merely the center of a wheel encompassing nearly 20,000 square miles, its spokes reaching out to little towns like Keene.
The town’s official population stands at 262. But most residents are spread out on ranches far from the three- block town center tucked behind the Cenex gas station on the highway.
“We used to be able to count the population on our fingers and toes; now there must be more than 30 in town,” says Lisa Thompson, whose Keene Kuts hair salon is in a converted house amid the three-stall aluminum fire hall, Dixie’s Almost Famous Diner (so says the sign over the front door) and the Keene Dome community center (not a dome, just a wood-frame building).
Keene once stood 4 miles north. When its post office moved in the 1930s, the town did as well, usurping what used to be known as Union Center. While old Keene withered and died, modern-day Keene didn’t exactly flourish either. But it held its own, even feeling blips from earlier oil booms in the 1950s and ’80s, before they went bust.
This boom, everyone says, is different. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has changed the game. Earlier technology consisted mainly of poking a deep hole in the ground and hoping for a gusher. Gilstad says about one-third of those earlier holes turned out dry.
Not anymore. Fracking has removed the guesswork. Scientists are now 99 percent sure they’ll strike oil, so tank pads often go up before drilling commences. And for every well drilled, it takes 2,300 truckloads hauling workers, water and equipment to bring it into production, according to the North Dakota Transportation Department.
Gilstad bought 1,520 acres in the 1970s with money he earned when he “drove truck,” bladed roads, ran heavy equipment and worked as a maintenance roustabout before earlier booms fizzled.
Most of his acres’ mineral rights were sold off decades ago. But oil companies still write Gilstad checks to rent his land for their drilling pads and another outfit pays him to quarry his scoria. The soft reddish clay, flattened and used like gravel for new roads, used to fetch 20 cents for a cubic yard; these days, it’s worth between $7 and $18 a yard.
“There’s always a few bucks to be made out here,” Gilstad says. The windfall is trickling all the way down to the Keene diner, a seven-table, five-stool, three-generation operation. Signs reading “Bulls” and “Heifers” point out the bathrooms. The landscapes on the wall were painted by Patsy, mother of chef Dixie and grandmother of waitress Cassidy Chapin.
“My mother has quit three times — this week,” Dixie says with a chortle from the grill.
Cassidy has worked here since she was 8. Now 18, she’s feeling the uptick in her bank account from well-paid, hungry oil workers.
“I used to get $20 or $25 in tips per day before the boom started,” she said. “Now I can make $150 on an average day.” She’s thinking of using her savings to go to flower decoration school.
Shacks with stories to tell
Vehicles zipping down the two-lane highway might miss downtown Keene. The town, nestled amid hilly terrain and flat expanses, stands south of the snaking Missouri River, roughly between Williston (70 miles west) and Minot (100 miles east).
It’s one of the most productive swaths of the North Dakota oil boom. And like much of the prairie, weathered homesteader shacks and skeletons of one-room schoolhouses sprout up every few minutes.
To those passing by, the haunting relics are grim, anonymous ruins. To Paul Wisness, a 67-year-old Vietnam War medic and grandfather of three, they’re alive — with stories to tell. He loves nothing more than cruising the country roads and memory lanes in his gray Ford F-150 pickup.
“I guess I’m kind of proud of this community,” he says, “and these old structures.”
Along with his brother, Milo, Wisness inherited much of this land originally homesteaded by his grandfather, who emigrated as a teenager from Norway in 1903. According to the McKenzie County treasurer’s records, the brothers own nearly 10,000 acres, not counting their land holdings in other counties.
They grow wheat, durum, barley, oats, canola, lentils and corn where they can and run their Angus cattle on the tougher-to-till acreage.
At one dilapidated shack — built by his grandfather, Andrew — the roof is collapsing, as are some bed frames inside. Pots still sit on the stove. There’s a bird’s nest constructed atop an old kitchen clock, a cookbook open on a Formica table and an old water-tube fire extinguisher on the wall.
Wisness grew up next door, in the new house the family built in the 1950s. At another shack nearby, this one his great uncle’s handiwork, there’s a low draw cradling a small pond.
“I used to stop by to pester my grandfather, and he’d take me out here and show me the furrows the buffalo had left in the dirt when they came down here for water.”
A pebble bounces off the windshield of Wisness’ pickup, snapping him out of his reverie. Seven trucks snake ahead of him on Hwy. 23 — oil tankers, water trucks, welders. Some 3,700 trucks thunder down the highways near Keene each day.
Wisness pulls up to a tattered, abandoned one-room school with faded cedar shakes on the roof outside and old tractor tires, barn swallows and farm supplies inside. “We’d put our lunchboxes on that shelf and hang up our coats there,” he says. “I went here from kindergarten through eighth grade and one teacher had to handle all those grades.”
A mile or so from the school, next to a barely standing structure that served as a granary 100 years ago, Wisness points out a new ranch-style house. His nephew Beau, Milo’s boy, will soon move in.
“Oil has done a lot of nice things for us,” he says, pulling over a few miles later by a deafening natural gas flare flaming dramatically on the roadside. The methane in the flames gives off a noxious chemical odor and the flare roars like a jet engine that Wisness says he can hear half a mile away, lying in his bed at night.
His cellphone rings. An oil company wants to buy 40 acres from him to construct an office.
“We’ll see,” he says, leaning on his pickup, cowboy boots crossed, with a wink and wry smile. “I’ll wait and see if they’ll pay for it by the square foot.”
A tough place gets easier
Despite the changes, from big tips at the cafe to the gas flares lighting up the night sky, Keene remains in some ways the same old prairie town it has been for 100 years.
Cattle ranching and grain farming are still at the community’s financial core. Long, harsh winters still define the place. And when spring finally arrives on the plains, it’s celebrated with an enduring sense of tradition.
Every weekend into early summer, families gather to help each other out as they have for decades. This weekend, it’s the Olsons. Next weekend, everyone will show up to brand the Heppers’ calves.
“Keene is like one large family — and we all look after each other,” says Charlene Olson, 68, who’s kept the cattle ranch going since her husband, Harley, died eight years ago.
She owns half the cattle at the branding. The rest belong to her son, Doug Olson.
“Used to be we’d sit in our pickups, talking to neighbors on the road, but nowadays we’d get run over by one of those oil trucks,” says Doug, 44. “So brandings like this have become our place to socialize.”
The small talk gives way to the hard work of cow wrangling. Women with inoculation machines, slung by straps over their shoulders, administer a few shots to prevent lice and something called black leg.
Gilstad, a close friend of Harley’s and mentor to Doug, presses his boot on the calves’ flanks and sizzles a flaming iron on their hides, emblazoning an N over an empty A to mark Doug’s cattle and an H and half a V for Charlene’s.
The young males are castrated, their testicles dropped in a cooler and then roasted for the kids to eat like squishy candy. Ear tags are punched in and, within a few minutes, the calves jog off to reunite with worried mothers — looking no worse for the terror.
Everyone gathers around pickup trucks — their gates down — for sloppy joes, cans of beer, potato salad and brownies. Charlene shoots some smartphone video of her grandkids — Hunter, Taylor and Tanner — before heading home to prepare supper for everyone. Cheesy hash browns and roast beef are her specialties.
Like most of the Scandinavian stock here, Charlene doesn’t talk about the money she receives from Newfield Oil, the Houston-based firm that put up the new well behind the branding corral. But she’s happy to discuss her recent travels to France, England and Germany.
There are trade-offs, though.
“They’re tearing up the old countryside,” Gilstad says, a few months later, sitting on his tractor, baling hay. He points over a ridge.
“There’s a place over there where you used to only have a fence, and I was probably the only guy who ever went out there,” he says.
“Now, there’s a new road with 40 trucks a day.”
Wisness drives up the hill a few miles north at the white steeple of the First Keene Lutheran Church. The cornerstone was laid on Sept, 18, 1910. Less than two years later, a tornado tore it down on July 22, 1912.
His grandfather used to tell stories about how he and 50 other men came out with saws and hammers and put the church back together.
Most of Keene can trace their heritage to the Good Hope Cemetery behind the church. Wisness points out his grandparents’ graves. Andrew lived from 1881 to 1968, dying right after Paul returned from Vietnam. Amelia, his grandmother, lived from 1879 to 1969, seven decades of that out here.
Now, wells run 2 miles deep and 2 miles horizontally into the shale below the graveyard. The church, which shares a pastor with other towns, draws $2,000 of oil checks every month for its mineral rights.
At the Wisness farm house, a stuffed cougar, moose head and other taxidermy of deer and fish hang from the walls. Granddaughter Brynlee, 8 months old, crawls on a blanket on the floor. Wisness’ daughter, Britnee, and her husband, Tyrel, moved back from Minot, where Tyrel was earning $18 an hour as a diesel mechanic. Now he’s making $29.75, with benefits, as a pipeline gauge reader.
Together, the Wisness brothers’ acreage includes more than 120 wells. They don’t own all the mineral rights, but the massive flat-screen TV and photos from cruises to Alaska and the Caribbean all suggest they’re doing fine. They’re well-known for the philanthropy they shower on their church and community.
“We wish it weren’t here,” says Sandi, Paul’s wife. “But would we entirely give up all our oil checks …”
Paul chuckles and thinks back a few generations. Their grandparents’ images, gleaned from old photographs, have been sewn into pillows that rest on the family sofa.
He looks at his granddaughter playing with a teething toy.
“The Indians were out here for thousands of years and maybe they moved a rock, but nothing more changed,” he says. “The land looked the same year after year. I wonder sometimes what little Brynlee’s future will look like when she’s 80.
“This landscape has changed so fast just in the last four years, let alone the last 110 since my grandfather came out at 16.”
He looks at the pillow bearing his grandfather’s tight-lipped grimace.
“I think he would be sort of sad and forlorn to see how this landscape will never be the same again,” he says. “But he’d sure appreciate the money, which was in real short supply in his days.”
Paul and Sandi have purchased a couple of lots in Watford City, 27 miles southwest of Keene. They are building a house. They’ve had enough of the constant truck traffic and the roar of the gas flares. They want to move closer to health care and their two other grandkids, William and Wyatt.
Relocating will be bittersweet. Their history is so tied to this place. But Keene isn’t the same anymore.
“It used to be so pretty driving up that hill to church,” Sandi says. “Now, I’m afraid one of those trucks will run me over. I’m not even sure I want to be buried there anymore.”
She shrugs and looks at her husband.
“There’s new ones going in all the time,” he says.
They hate to even consider how many wells will crowd around the Good Hope Cemetery when their day comes and they’re laid to rest in plots near Andrew and Amelia in the little church graveyard on the hill.