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Stories from Williston: Boomtown residents come from all over, and they have tales of toil and riches

Lucas Lowman sits in his living room in Williston. Lowman moved to North Dakota from Georgia as a pre-med student with the hopes of making enough money to help pay for the remainder of his med-school classes. (FNS Photo by Kile Brewer) 1 / 2
Respiratory therapist Ryan Schofield stands near an oil well just outside Williston. Schofield works Mercy Medical Center, the hospital in Williston. (FNS Photo by Kile Brewer) 2 / 2

WILLISTON — Everyone in this town seems to have a story. From a hotel receptionist from Kenya to a pre-med major from Georgia working on an oil rig, Williston has a bit of everything, and everybody.

Years into the oil boom, news of Williston’s explosive growth, and the wealth and strains that have come with it, has been well-documented.

But not all the stories relate to oil. Not everyone does, or can, work in the oil fields. Some jobs require certain training while others require lifting 100-plus-pound pipes for 10 hours straight.

Although everyone isn’t coming to Williston for oil work, the oil boom is still why they come.

For some, the boom has provided lucrative oil work or other high-paying jobs. For others, inflated housing prices, congested truck traffic and a faster-paced small town have outweighed the benefits of finding work there.

But the allure of Williston’s opportunities has drawn people from everywhere, and they all have something to say about this place.

What follows are the stories of four people drawn here from all over the country, and world, to try their shot at boomtown.

Getting rich, saving money

Lucas Lowman, 26, moved from Atlanta to work really hard and make a lot of money.

By casing pipe in the oil fields for up to $60 per hour, he’s done just that, but it hasn’t been easy.

Lowman, who can bench more than 300 pounds and has forearms that resemble tree trunks, said he is one of the smaller guys on his crew. They work 10- to 12-hour shifts a few times a week, during which they set 10,000 feet of pipe, with pieces weighing 100 pounds.

“Casing is sort of a young man’s game,” he said. “You definitely have to be pretty strong.”

For a while, he thought it would kill him, he said. At one point in the winter he got frostbite on both of his big toes, which still haven’t regained feeling.

“We worked every single day,” he said. “The cold, man, is unbelievable. It nearly killed me and I wanted to quit but never did because the money was so good. Anyone that’s here is here for one reason only, and that’s for the money.”

Lowman, who graduated college with a pre-med degree in molecular biology, moved here after a friend living in Williston messaged him about the job market.

“He would send me pictures of his paycheck, and I just couldn’t believe (the number),” Lowman said.

Before he moved, Lowman had been working and studying for the MCAT to apply for medical school, but he said he was mentally exhausted and wanted to take a break to work.

When he got to Williston, Lowman slept in his car for a few days while trying to find work and a place to stay. He worked briefly at Elite Health and Fitness, where he would shave and shower every morning before work.

Since then, he has held a couple of different oil-related jobs until getting promoted to his current one.

Now, with the winter behind him and a lucrative oil job, things have turned around. He has gone on vacation to Bali and India. He paid off his Lexus, bought a Rolex and a new Chevy Silverado, and is still putting away money to live on while he’s in medical school.

“Realistically, once you’ve been out here a while you get into a habit of spending a lot,” he said. “I had a day off and too much time on my hands, and I went to the Chevy Dealership and bought a truck.”

But even with his new expendable income, he doesn’t plan on settling in Williston. He’s currently living with a friend in half of an old duplex. While Lowman sat in an old recliner and watched SportsCenter, you could hear a family and a dog on the other side of the wall.

Still, Lowman said Williston exceeded his expectations compared to the negative things he’d heard related to the town’s massive growth.

“For the most part, the people, community and city of Williston are much better than I expected and (compared to how) people make it out to be,” he said.

But as Lowman said, he’s here to make his money and go; it’s just a matter of reaching his savings goal of $30,000 to $40,000.

“Once I get there, I’m out,” he said.

The work of finding work

Kyle Tennessen’s job is getting other people jobs. When you do that in Williston, it gets really busy.

“We get bodies galore in here,” Tennessen said.

Tennessen, 29, is the branch manager at Command Center Inc., which connects companies, mainly those in construction, with workers looking for jobs in and around Williston.

He comes into the Command Center building by the Amtrak station every day around 5 a.m. to brew coffee and prepare for the 6 a.m. daily rush of workers coming in to get day labor tickets or apply for jobs.

He usually doesn’t leave until 7 p.m., and often holds the company’s on-call phone from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. in case an employer calls asking for more workers early the next day.

“Sleep is not one of my priorities in life,” Tennessen said. But he loves his job, which he has held for two years since moving from Milwaukee when his wife took a job at Williston Public Schools.

Tennessen has a background in blue-collar work. He used to work the closing shift at a grocery store one day before coming in to stock produce at 2 a.m. He also has worked as a truck driver, among other jobs.

Tennessen said he uses his experiences working odd jobs and tough hours to relate to those coming in looking for work.

“That’s a way to connect with them,” he said.

In peak summer season, Tennessen says 70 people will come through the door looking for work, and he helps them get it in a number of ways.

People come in to fill out applications, and based on their experience or qualifications, Command Center lines them up with companies that need workers, whether it be for one day, three days or full time.

Tennessen said the main goal is to try to get people into long-term placement, and they try to do that by having people build experience and make a resume.

“The biggest issue is resumes, and people are surprised to hear that all the time,” he said.

In the two years he has worked at Command Center, Tennessen said he has placed between 100 and 125 people into full-time jobs, including one vice president position paying more than $100,000 per year.

A second chance

Brian Kariuki, 36, works the front desk at the Microtel Inn & Suites here. The hotel is one of a half-dozen new hotels surrounding the Walmart right off U.S. Highway 2 on the way into town.

During his shift, Kariuki would see people from all over the world come through Microtel’s front doors. Families visit loved ones working in Williston, and oil workers without permanent housing eat the complimentary hot breakfast at 4 a.m. before heading off to work. From toddlers to towering men clad in oil-stained work gear, the hotel is constantly booked full.

“This is the best place in the country to get a job,” said Kariuki, who also came to Williston for work.

He moved from Kenya to the U.S. when he was 25 to attend college. After graduating, he began working for Northwest Mutual Co. in Seattle, but a death in the family forced him to return home for a year.

When he returned to the U.S., he struggled with his student loans and hurt his credit score, which made it difficult for him to get another job in finance.

Kariuki then bounced from job to job trying to make ends meet, but had trouble finding anything that would last.

One day, his girlfriend told him about Williston, where she said the unemployment rate was right around 1 percent. He couldn’t believe what she was saying.

“I had never heard anything like that in my life,” he said.

So two months ago, Kariuki moved to Williston, joking that he would “try his luck as a roughneck” in the oilfield. But he soon found that he needed some sort of licensing or training for some jobs. He eventually landed a job at Microtel, which he proudly says is the nicest hotel in town.

Kariuki is a funny, personable employee and seems by all means to enjoy his job. He is saving money and sending some back home to family in Kenya. In a few weeks, he will be eligible for an employee discount so his girlfriend can visit and stay in one of the company’s other hotels at a reduced rate. The hotel option makes more sense, as Kariuki currently shares one bedroom in a three-bedroom apartment with a truck driver.

But Kariuki’s biggest problem in Williston isn’t the congested truck traffic, heavy influx of people or inflated housing prices. It’s getting around town.

“They should really work on public transit,” Kariuki said.

Public transportation is one aspect of Williston’s small-town infrastructure struggling to keep up with boomtown growth. The only form of public transportation, Northwest Dakota Public Transit, is currently run by the town’s senior center. It consists of five shuttle vans and a car that do door-to-door service at $3 per round-trip ride.

“Our main problem is we don’t have enough buses to take care of everybody, and that’s the hard part,” said Carol Fixen, executive director of the Williston Council for the Aging and Northwest Dakota Public Transit.

Prior to the oil boom, Fixen said the majority of the service’s riders were seniors, but the demand for rides by workers in town without a car has made it impossible to keep up.

For now, Kariuki makes do walking to work or taking a bus when one is available, but he said he’s afraid of how well that will work in the winter.

“For a guy like me with no car, it’s pretty tough,” Kariuki said

Seeing struggle in boomtown

Ryan Schofield, 30, stood atop a hill at the end of a dirt drive in Williston. He faced away from the sunset in the direction of a similar color: a burning oil flare.

Situated between three oil derricks, Schofield could look out over Williston and the rapidly expanding town.

“This is the hottest spot in the world,” he said. “I mean that.”

Although he works as a respiratory therapist, Schofield knows a little about both oil drilling and boomtowns.

After Schofield graduated from high school, he worked on an offshore oil rig before entering the Navy. While in the Navy, he visited Dubai in the early 2000s, when most of the elaborate skyscrapers were still under construction.

Today, he sees the same thing happening on a smaller scale in Williston, which is what drew him to town. After graduating from college with degrees in math and respiratory therapy, he couldn’t find work where he was living in Southern California. Then a friend told him about all the jobs in Williston.

“I came up here and swung the bat and hit the ground running,” he said.

Williston has turned Schofield’s luck around, but it hasn’t been the same for everyone. Schofield has been working at Mercy Medical Center since moving to Williston in January, but others are already trying to leave.

He said he has had co-workers and friends who have left jobs to work new jobs related to the oil industry. That way, their paychecks will keep up with the rising housing prices caused by the oil boom.

“There’s an imbalance that needs to be hammered out,” he said.

Specifically, he’d like to see the wages of public servants such as teachers and law enforcement officers catch up to the cost of living.

“Something needs to be done about that,” he said.

Aside from financial issues facing co-workers and friends, Schofield said he has enjoyed Williston and the people he has met. He thinks all the headlines about crime and violence exaggerate what the town actually is like.

Even with the rush of people who are around for the oil money and oil-fueled job market, Schofield said he thinks the population boom will be temporary.

“It’s still a small town,” he said. “A lot of people come and go pretty quickly.”

Garrett Richie
Garrett Richie is a general assignment reporter and digital writer for The Grand Forks Herald. Richie is a 2014 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and is formerly of The Ludington Daily News in Ludington, Mich. Have a good story idea? Contact Richie by either phone or email, both of which are listed below. If you would like to comment on a story, send a letter to the editor with Richie's name and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words, and all letters are subject to editing. Email to or mail to The Grand Forks Herald.
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