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Three tales of oil, 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. Photo by Kile Brewer / Forum News Service1 / 3
Respiratory therapist Ryan Schofield works at Mercy Medical Center in Williston, N.D. Photo by Kile Brewer / Forum News Service2 / 3
Brian Kariuki, a native of Kenya, stands at the front desk of the recently built Microtel in Williston, N.D. Photo by Kile Brewer / Forum News Service3 / 3

WILLISTON, N.D. - 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 oilfields. 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 three people drawn here from all over the country, and world, to try their shot at boom town.

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 oilfields 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 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.

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.

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.

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 sees people from all over the world come through Microtel’s front doors. 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 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 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.

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.

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

Seeing struggle

Ryan Schofield, 30, stood atop a hill at the end of a dirt drive in Williston.

“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 boom towns.

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.

Aside from financial issues facing co-workers and friends, Schofield said he has enjoyed Williston and the people he has met.

“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 letters@gfherald.com or mail to The Grand Forks Herald.
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