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Volume 45, No. 1
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Sociology / Sara Kendall '09
Boom Town

By Adam Conner-Simons ’08

Sara Kendall ’09 spent the summer pouring beers for oil workers in a small-town tavern on the western edge of North Dakota, all for the purpose of sociological investigation. Kendall essentially held two jobs at once: tending bar in Stanley, N.D., and talking to locals informally for her research on the community of 1,200 that has found itself in the midst of an oil boom. After reading about the topic in a January New York Times article, Kendall was determined to learn more about the curious circumstances of a town suddenly inundated with people, money and resources.

After applying for and receiving a Summer Undergraduate Research Program grant with Visiting Professor of History and Environmental Analysis Char Miller, Kendall spent six weeks shooting a documentary in Stanley, which she describes as a “quintessentially quaint small town” sandwiched between endless fields of canola and Durum wheat. In addition to her barroom chats, she also conducted sit-down interviews with city and state officials, including U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan. “It was really interesting to see how people are dealing with the changes,” Kendall says. “The town started as all these homestead quarters, and now rigs and pumpers are sprouting up everywhere.”

While in Stanley, Kendall was intrigued by the culture clash between the townsfolk steeped in the region’s culture and history, and the young oil-rig workers there on a short-term basis. “There isn’t noticeable tension, but you get the sense that these people who come from such different places are still sorting out their relationships,” she says. “A bar that’s always been a spot for local farmers to unwind is now filled with guys in their 20s getting drunk.”

Many Stanley residents are wary of how long the national attention will last. In the early 1980s, the nearby city of Williston experienced a similar boom, but within a couple years the price of oil had collapsed again and the town swiftly dove $20 million into debt. “When you drive out here, you pass through so many ghost towns,” Kendall says. “There’s this sense that their future is sort of uncertain.”

Indeed, locals express mixed views about the oil-boom’s economic ramifications. The sheer amount of resources needed to power such an operation has created infrastructural strain in the form of truck-damaged roads and insufficient water resources.

Nevertheless, with the town receiving a substantial increase in state funding, the boom might be just what Stanley needs, even if that means losing some of its small-town charm. “So many people want to be there for its isolation and quiet beauty,” Kendall says, “but at the same time, [the oil-boom] is saving the area.”

A Latin-American studies major, Kendall has taken numerous classes in politics, literature and environmental analysis that have helped inform her perspective on the project. Working with her friends Noah Hutton and Sam Howard (who attend Wesleyan and NYU business school, respectively), she hopes to send the documentary, culled from more than 40 hours of footage, to film festivals all over the country. As part of the SURP grant, Kendall will also be writing a piece of creative nonfiction about her experiences.

“It’s an historian’s dream to be able to get on the ground while an oil boom is taking place and get documentary evidence,” Professor Miller says. “I can’t wait to see what she finds.”

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