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FOTB: Working on North Dakota’s first oil well: Tioga man recalls novelty, dangers of industry

FNS Photo by Amy Dalrymple Raymond “Maggie” Magnuson, who worked on North Dakota’s first producing oil well, the Clarence Iverson No. 1, looks at historic photos on Wednesday in Tioga.

TIOGA — In 1950, northwest North Dakota farmer Raymond Magnuson decided to try working for an oil drilling crew to supplement his income.

“Rent was high-priced, $25 a month in Ray,” said 87-year-old Magnuson of Tioga, known to his friends and family as Maggie.

He began his oilfield career on the well that put North Dakota on the map as an oil-producing state: the Clarence Iverson No. 1 well, the state’s first successful oil well.

The brutal winter was too harsh for some out-of-state workers, he said. Magnuson, who started as a floorhand, remembers driving on a prairie trail to the well south of Tioga and getting stranded for two or three days without food during winter storms.

“Tough winter. Tough year. It ain’t like they got it nowadays at the rigs,” Magnuson said.

An April 4, 1951, test at the Clarence Iverson well marked the discovery of oil in North Dakota.

Spectators came from all around to check out the discovery well in Clarence Iverson’s wheat field. Some took samples of the oil in empty pop cans or bottles, he said.

Magnuson said he was paid $1.41 an hour for working on the well. He worked eight-hour days, seven days a week, and continued farming near Ray.

His next job was another notable well in North Dakota — the H.O. Bakken well, the namesake for the Bakken formation. There, he earned 20 cents more an hour.

“That was a neat well, too,” Magnuson said.

After the wells were completed, it was customary for the mineral owners to take the crew out for dinner at the Missouri Club or another restaurant, he recalled.

Crew members who stayed from start to finish often received a $150 bonus, Magnuson said.

Decades later, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing unlocked the Bakken formation in North Dakota, pushing the state to the No. 2 oil-producing state in the country. Last week, the state Department of Mineral Resources announced North Dakota now produces 1 million barrels a day.

“It’s kind of unbelievable,” Magnuson said.

The North Dakota Petroleum Council is sponsoring a celebration on Wednesday of the million barrel milestone, including tours of the site of the Clarence Iverson well.

Magnuson spent 25 years working in the oil industry, either working for a drilling crew, driving truck or moving rigs. He had several back injuries during his career and saw a couple of guys get killed in drilling rig accidents.

“They didn’t have much safety rules in them days. You had to look out for yourself,” Magnuson said. “We were lucky there wasn’t more people killed.”

Magnuson, who has many family members who went on to work in North Dakota’s oil industry, has had people offer to take him to a current drilling rig site. But he hasn’t taken them up on their offers.

“I wouldn’t know what to do anymore,” Magnuson said. “Everything is run by a push button now.”