by Jessie Veeder
Tuesday through Thursday, every week, you will find her there, sitting behind the desk in the building on the corner of the busiest intersection among Watford City’s humming streets.
The scrolling sign outside reads “Welcome to Watford City,” but the real welcome lies inside the Long X Visitor Center and Pioneer Museum where Bev Parton awaits, often times with a plate of her own famous homemade cookies, an offer of a hot cup of coffee and always with answers to questions, advice, stories and plenty of brochures and information for those passing through looking to discover this town so new to them in the middle of the Bakken oil play.
“Mostly it’s the maps they come in looking for,” says Bev, a long-time Watford City resident who began work at the Pioneer Museum of McKenzie County eleven years ago, before the boom, and a year before the museum’s move to a brand new lodge style building that would become the Long X Visitor’s Center.
Fast-forward to today and Bev will tell you she couldn’t have imagined how her job would have changed, from museum curator to Watford City’s expert and welcome wagon over night.
And it just keeps getting busier.
In one day Bev greets, visit with and helps dozens of guests from all over the world, from all walks of life, sending them on to City Hall for questions about new housing developments, directing them to Job Service websites, stores in town that sell warm clothes, the best restaurant for soup, the best fishing and hiking spots and everything in between.
“I remember what it was like to be new here,” said Bev, who arrived in Watford City from Cutbank, Mont. in the 80s when her husband was transferred with Texaco. It was the end of the last boom in this area and a sleepy time in Watford City’s history.
“Back then, some days, if I was in the grocery store and someone smiled at me, that would make my whole day right there,” recalls Bev.
Kindness goes miles
Little did she know how much of an impact that smile and friendly face would have on Danny Ryan, a new Environmental Engineering graduate who left his wife, Betsy, and two- year-old son, Benjamin, back home in Utah on a trip to the Bakken for a long-awaited job interview and a mission to find out if Watford City was a place he and his family could call home.
“It was difficult for me not to come with him,” said Betsy, who had been busy researching western North Dakota living conditions and lifestyle after hearing of her husband’s job opportunity.
After graduation, Danny was eager to get into the work place, but quickly learned that many companies in his area weren’t hiring young graduates without prior experience.
Six months of living with Betsy’s parents on Betsy’s income as a sign language interpreter, making phone calls, submitting resumes and finding connections through Danny’s grandmother, Danny got a call from an oil company in Watford City.
“I always prided myself on being the person who says yes to everything. My initial reaction was ‘Yes, let’s be those crazy people! We’ve spent time in Africa, India, Alaska…but not with a toddler,” said Betsy on the possibility of moving her family to North Dakota.
But her research on the area quickly revealed that in such a rapidly changing community, it didn’t seem like the Internet could keep up. The information was inconsistent, some news stories were dramatic and one sided. The lack of housing was concerning.
“I wondered how I was going to be a woman in this place, let alone a mother,” said Betsy.
So as her husband boarded the plane for his job interview, Betsy gave him another task.
“I said, you need to go talk to the moms for me,” she laughed. “I needed to know how moms lived up there.”
Danny took her up on the request, approaching mothers in the local Cash Wise Grocery store, telling them his story and asking them how they like it in Western North Dakota.
“It seemed every mom echoed similar statements,” said Betsy, who gives her husband credit for taking up her task. “Everyone he talked to said it was doable. The kids were happy. They were happy.”
Inevitably, Danny’s detective work brought him to the Long X Visitors Center, where he met Bev. The two visited and learned a bit about one another. Danny asked questions, Bev brought out the brochures and maps and talked to him about the weather, the community and what brought her here in the first place.
“Bev was the perfect person to be there, she was just so positive,” said Betsy, who was encouraged by Bev’s story of being a new-comer herself, raising her two daughters in Watford City in a time when the town had less amenities, and Bev’s most recent plans to retire with her husband in Watford City. But when Danny went to pay for a few items he picked out at the museum’s gift shop he discovered that his bank, suspicious of his unreported spending in North Dakota, had put a stop on his account.
So Bev reached into her drawer, pulled out her wallet and paid for Danny’s items herself.
“Danny was so touched, he called me and told me what happened,” said Betsy. “That act of kindness is something special. I thought, if I was going to leave home, my mom and my sisters, to know that there were other people here who could offer that kind of support was a big deal to me.”
Moving to Watford City
Danny, Betsy and two-year old Benjamin got off the plane in Williston on a clear and sunny autumn day in late October, just weeks after Danny’s interview, and took the 45 miles drive to Watford City where their belongings and new apartment waited.
Before making the decision to move, Danny, who happened to receive a job offer in Utah at the same time, sat down with his wife and looked at the options.
“When we looked at the job offers side by side, there was no question,” recalled Betsy, who was thrilled to find out that the company would place them in housing and offered great benefits.
“If we would have stayed in Utah we would have had to keep living with my parents for a while and I would have had to keep working,” said Betsy. “We want to have more kids and the job here meant I could be a stay at home mom, which is very important to me.”
Danny’s job as an environmental specialist also meant that he works from 9 to 5 and is home on the weekends.
The couple, who have been married for five and a half years, now have more time to spend together as a family than ever before, which is a big deal to Betsy, who has “family time” and “cooking dinner most nights” on the top of her list of goals she brought with her on her new adventure.
And one of her first stops on that adventure was a trip to the Visitor’s Center to meet Bev, bring her a plate of cookies and thank her for her kindness. Inside the card attached to those cookies was a five-dollar bill.
In turn, Bev invited Betsy to her coffee klatch that meets every morning at Larson’s Pharmacy on Main Street.
Ask Betsy, what she thinks of Watford City now, having been living and learning about it in her first few weeks.
“I was expecting something more desolate,” said Betsy, a woman with a degree from Brigham Young in writing and a minor in anthropology, who couldn’t quite find the words to explain the image she had of this small town on the edge of North Dakota.
So she recalls a recent trip to the local gas station where there were lines of people waiting to pay and the cashiers came out from behind the counter to say hello to her and Benjamin.
“I wasn’t expecting how many people there are everywhere,” she said. “And I wasn’t expecting so much warmth from the people here.”
And so Betsy has taken to writing about it, fulfilling another goal on her list: “Write, everyday, about anything.” She keeps tabs on her new experience on her blog Oil Goes Boom for herself, her family back home and for women and moms like her who are looking for a first hand account of life here.
“If I were me, I would have been emailing me,” she laughs.
And she’s working to keep busy, to meet people, to get out and discover the town and all of its quirks, because she knows keeping busy will keep her from being lonely and help make this place familiar to her.
In her first few weeks in Watford City Betsy has committed to helping reinstate a story time at the local library, participated in the Mommy and Me Gymnastics program with Benjamin and offered to teach sign language at Wolf Pup day care.
And she’s met other mothers like her, some raising more children in less space.
What else has she learned?
“People have more grit than we think. People are tough,” said Betsy who has determined that her experience here in this new place will be based on her attitude. When people don’t knock on her door to meet her, she says, it’s her responsibility to go out and make those connections for herself.
In the meantime, she’s working on her goals for her new life in Watford City, goals that include slowing down, paying off debt and having more children. And little by little this place will become familiar to her, as it became familiar to Bev, who will sit next to her at Larson’s on Main Street as Betsy sips her Diet Coke and meets a different generation of residents who remember when the streets were quieter.
Then Betsy will go home to her apartment under the new Watford City water tower, behind the busy streets of her new town and write:
“This place is good to me so far. Living here means I don’t have to work. Living here equals my husband walking in the door every night around 5pm with a smile on his face because he loves his job. Living here means I have time to write. Living here means we can afford to have more babies. I am so grateful for this place and what it means for my family….”
You can read more about Betsy’s experience in Watford City on her blog, Oil Goes Boom at www.oilgoesboom.com
Jessie Veeder is a singer, writer, and photographer who lives and works on her family’s cattle ranch in Western ND with her husband, Chad.