WHITE EARTH - The tiny old bank sits decaying, a reminder of days long ago when horses might be tied up out front. The school has been closed as long as anyone can remember, windows broken and bricks crumbling. Bushes reach above the shingles on weathered and abandoned homes.
With the exception of a few folks who chose to maintain a residence there, White Earth had all the appearances of a ghost town. Then came the Bakken oil boom.
Oh my, how things have changed!
RV parks have been springing up in remote White Earth. It is estimated that “Bakken Boomers” had more than quadrupled the number of residents.
The population of White Earth, including those who farm and ranch nearby, was listed at a very generous 63 in 2011. The population today is estimated at 400 and remains on the increase. Bakken oil boomers have arrived. Some have chosen to do their best to make old buildings liveable. Others have brought in campers or motorhomes. The deteriorating town has seen a dramatic reversal.
"It's crazy. They just keep moving people in here," said Daryl Belik, who lives four miles east of White Earth.
While most of the newcomers have no ties to the area, a few do. The latter includes Mike Hanson, who manages "Boomtown RV Spaces & Cabin Rentals" in White Earth. Hanson returned from Montana to the small town he became aquainted with as a child.
"My grandma and grandpa used to be here, and all my aunts and uncles," said Hanson. "I've got people in the cemetery on top of the hill. I used to come here on vacations with mom and dad. It's amazing how much this place is changing. You can't believe it."
In addition to the refurbishing of abandoned buildings, the quaint little town now boasts five RV parks. Rental space for an RV ranges up to $800 per month.
"I know of a 14 x 60 mobile home renting for $3,800 month. Can you even believe it?" asked Hanson. "I'm charging for a piece of dirt. I know I can raise it and they'd pay it, but I can't do it. I have to sleep at night. I'm trying to survive just like they are."
Hanson's story is like many others in the Bakken. The home builder ran out of work in Montana. North Dakota seemed like the next best place to try and earn a living. Hanson works construction in addition to overseeing the RV park.
"I've been blessed enough to have some work over here," remarked Hanson. "My wife quit her job after 32 years and came over, but she misses the heck out of the grandkids."
At the north edge of White Earth is Railroad Springs RV Park, a still-under-construction but nevertheless filled to capacity facility operated by two Byron Clay Roys - father and son.
"We're not millionaires coming in here. Were doing it as we can afford it," said Byron Clay Roy, Sr. "Let's face it. North Dakota is saving this nation. I believe that 100 percent. Look around here and you'll see license plates from all over."
Roy said a relative who had been out of work in Idaho for nearly three months finally found work in that state at $11 an hour.
"He was tickled pink to get it," said Roy. "And that's with a wife and three children. Here you have to pay $25 for good help."
Railroad Springs RV Park is filled with 31 RV's. Two buildings are under construction within the park. One was destined to become a combination convenience store, laundromat and showerhouse. The other an apartment. Construction on the combination building hit a snag when an investor was killed in a motorcycle accident. Roy isn't certain about the building's future.
One thing he does know, though, is that he and his son had reached their limit of sharing space in a motorhome.
"We been living for a year in a motorhome that's not really convenient for the two of us," explained Roy. "We decided we needed an apartment, so we started building with the idea of having our apartments on the bottom and one for another fellow on the top."
That arrangement hit a snag when the person who wanted the upper-level apartment decided the price was too high for his liking. As a solution, the Roys decided to alter the building plans and turn the upper floor into two smaller studio apartments. Construction has been slow.
"We're getting there," said Roy. "We feel like we're trying to really enhance the community to a degree. Most of the people believe in what we are doing."
Some don't though, preferring the old White Earth over the "booming" White Earth. There were a few new residents that didn't fit in well either. Roy put it this way.
"We police our own. For the most part, people are quite happy," said Roy, a native of southern Idaho. His son retired from the Air Force in Spokane, Wash.
"Here lives some of the finests dads and husbands I've ever come across on this planet," added Hanson. "That's all there is to it. They grew up here and are educated young men."
In contrast, says Hanson, he's had reporters from as far away as California wanting to "exploit and take pictures" of Bakken boomers flooding RV parks, those who are seeking to turn their lives around with good paying jobs.
"It is hard on these families. Some can't do it," said an emotional Hanson. "They've lost their homes, jobs, no credit and are embarrassed. I've got a wife, husband and two teenage daughters living in a motorhome. This is tough on people."
Still, they come. Most seeking places to live in White Earth are now being turned away. Growth has been so rapid that there has been little time to plan ahead but, like everything else in the Bakken, more changes can be expected. Usually with a cost.
"Back home a Porta-Potty is $75 a month," said Hanson. "Here it is $75 a week, but back home the bar in town used to be a church. Darndest thing you ever saw."
That hasn't happened in White Earth, as least not yet.