They were lured by steady wages and the promise of better times as the country emerged from the Great Recession. Then they moved into McKenzie County's few motel rooms. After that, they began to sleep in trailers, cars, tents, and trailers to escape the cold winds blowing across the North Dakota prairie. Tanker trucks suddenly clogged once empty dirt roads. Crime rates spiked.
Everything changed quickly: the spouses and children of workers arrived. The number of classrooms increased. Neben oil rigs grew apartment buildings. The newcomers made the Northern Plains community theirs.
According to the Census Bureau, McKenzie was the nation's fastest growing county in the last decade. It swept through like a twisting dust devil, shattering the rural innocence of a region known for inhospitable winters and long summer days perfect for growing crops. It brought life to somnolent communities that had been losing their population since the 1930s, and also added youth, diversity, and better wages.
Dana Amon, a child of Watford City's county seat, grew up in a trailer with a double width. She remembers riding her horse through fields that were now filled with modest housing, lit at night by flares from the nearby oil wells.
She said, "Our small town just burst at the seams."
FIGHTS AND FRENZY
The oil boom in 2010 has seen a rise in McKenzie County jobs. Crude oil prices reached a peak last decade at $130 per barrel. They then fell to below $40 and then dropped again when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
McKenzie just kept growing.
Watford City, perched on a bluff with its skyline defined only by two grain elevators, spilled onto the surrounding farmland. Amon's childhood landscape is now a vast expanse of flat, barren land that has been dotted with worker camps, shopping centers and subdivisions.
People like Amon began to lock their doors at night after fights started to occur in bars on Main Street, and there were also many fatal accidents on the roads.
Ten years later, the frenzy is over. The tension between locals and those new to the area was lessened. Through school events, church services, and youth football games, lives were woven together.
"I tell the locals that if you guys kick me out, it's my town. Yolanda Rojas, an Arizona native, said that McKenzie County is her hometown. She moved there with her husband and five children one year after he was hired in the oilfields.
The county's crude oil production grew 1,800% between 2010 and 2014. Census figures reveal that the county's population grew more than twice to 14,704 people by the end of the decade.