The Magazine

The New Pioneers

Starting over in North Dakota.

Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Williston, N.D.
In O. E. Rølvaag’s Giants in the Earth, homesteader Per Hansa and his family depart from the safety of their Norwegian immigrant community in Minnesota for the open land of the Dakota Territory. This is something Americans have done for hundreds of years—leave home for the chance to start anew. Today, the frontier isn’t far from where the homesteaders of the 19th century settled. North Dakota (unemployment rate 3.2 percent and falling) is a place where plenty of Americans are finding their second chance.

Michelle Westlund

Michelle Westlund

Michelle Westlund

Michelle Westlund, the 48-year-old owner of Lynden Chocolate on Second Avenue in Williston, is one of them. Since opening her store in March, she’s been busier than she ever was in six years in her old shop in Washington state. She sells fudge, chocolate truffles, chocolate-covered pretzels and nuts, and much more—all of it made on site.

“These hands make it!” she tells me, shaking her fingers to emphasize the point. “A truck doesn’t come in.”

But the customers sure do. One week, a few months after she opened, Michelle’s candy flew off the shelves faster than she could make it. By Saturday, her cases were empty, and she had to turn people away. “It’s hard for me to keep up,” she says.

That’s the way life is in North Dakota now. The oil boom that began in 2007 has transformed this area of sleepy ranching communities into America’s new energy powerhouse. Shortly after the drilling process called hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as “fracking”) made available the oil and natural gas buried two miles beneath the surface in the Bakken shale formation, the engineers and drill hands and rig workers swooped into town. That brought more people, with more disposable income. Businesses not directly connected to the energy sector soon followed to serve the growing region: retailers, service stations, hotels and man camps, fast-food restaurants, and, yes, boutiques like Lynden Chocolate.

Michelle attributes much of her shop’s success to a positive write-up in the local newspaper. But there’s also the fact that here in the heart of the oil patch, a lot of men are working long hours, with money to spend and girlfriends or wives to keep happy. Those oil workers like to buy quality chocolate—milk, not dark, is the favorite in Williston, she says—and lots of it.

“Once my thing came out in the Williston Herald, it was like Christmas,” Michelle says. “And I was working seven days a week, 12-, 15-hour days. I would get up, start work at nine, and I was going to bed at midnight every day.”

Michelle decided to close on Sundays and Mondays, to give herself a break. “Sunday, I don’t even look at chocolate, and then Monday I work all day and all night if I have to, but I don’t get interrupted.”

Clearly, there was an untapped market in Williston for something better than a box of Russell Stover from the drugstore. But Michelle didn’t move here with plans to become the chocolate queen of the Bakken. She didn’t even know how to find Williston on a map when her husband, Mark, said he wanted them to move there from their adopted hometown of Lynden, Washington. (The Westlunds are originally from just across the border in British Columbia.)

Mark, 52, had worked in construction for 30 years, installing drywall and pouring foundations. But the real estate collapse in Washington state after 2008 was devastating to his career, and years of lifting heavy slabs of sheetrock were putting a strain on his body. Mark’s unemployment and Michelle’s struggles as a small-business owner in the Great Recession depleted the couple’s savings. Then Mark heard about the oil boom hundreds of miles east and the demand for truck drivers.

“He’s always wanted to be a truck driver,” Michelle says, rolling her eyes. “So I’m just like, ‘Whatever, Mark! Just do it.’ ”

Mark got his commercial driver’s license and found a driving job based in Williston. He moved to North Dakota, living in a trailer he had purchased for $1,500. The drive from Lynden to Williston takes nearly 24 hours—too long for regular weekend trips for Mark or Michelle. So they packed up their home and their shop, made eight long car trips back and forth between Washington and North Dakota to transport everything, and began their new life.

Some, like Mark and Michelle, find in North Dakota the ability to start over in middle age. It’s not uncommon to hear of new arrivals who are well into their sixties looking for jobs in Williston. But for the younger pioneers, moving to the Bakken can be a chance to correct course.

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