The Bakken oil boom has been a source of fodder for the media ever since reports came trickling in about the surging population growth, people sleeping in cars, rental prices rivaling New York and San Francisco and of course, the region’s criminal dark side. The Smithsonian Channel, though, is shedding light on the often skewed perception for those unfamiliar with the area with “Boomtowners,” a six episode documentary series premiering April 26. The first episode, “Wake up the Devil,” just became available online.
The upcoming series explores the modern-day gold rush that recently stormed the formerly serene agricultural communities of western North Dakota. The oil boom has brought a deluge of oil and gas to market, and with it, an influx of people from all walks of life. From criminals to preachers, people from around the nation looking to cash in with hard and honest work, or with nefarious intentions and exploitations, all revolving around one another and the well heads. Some are disillusioned while many are honest, others are greedy, some are lost souls and some are families looking for an adventurous means to secure their children’s futures.
The “Boomtowners” series seeks to explain the drilling process itself, the geographic area, and introduces an eclectic group of characters building their lives amidst the chaos created by the oil giants that never sleep. Some of the individuals featured in the series include the retired gun-toting land owner Sandie Beagle Angel, former U.S. Marine turned crude hauler Ben Moorhead, Richland County Judge Greg Mohr, evangelical preacher and safety inspector Sean Banks and the Senior family.
In an interview with Deanna Senior, wife, mother of four and county project manager, the Shale Plays Media team got a behind the scenes look at how the Senior clan made their trek from southern California to Williston, North Dakota, and how they’ve since made the Bakken oil patch a place to call home. “I haven’t seen the shows yet, but we’re in four of the episodes, and throughout the editing, from my understanding, the main goal of the Smithsonian was to educate people about the process and the hard working people out here,” Deanna Senior said.
The Senior family had appeared in various one-off reality television show while living back in California, and Deanna had a short stint with a cooking show. She said once you enter into that television community, nobody ever loses your number. After becoming aware of the Smithsonian looking for people to participate in the filming of “Boomtowners,” she made contact, and the rest is history that will be documented, beginning April 26. Deanna and her husband Ray, of course, were game. Their children, on the other hand, were a bit more reluctant to appearing on television. Deanna said her children’s main reaction was disbelief that their mother can find these things, but, without any mutiny, they all came around to play to the camera.
In regards to moving their family from California, Senior said, “I think we are one of the few families that have had a great transition. On our part, we were lucky that our house wasn’t ready right away, so we had that year for the buildup and to make it exciting for the kids.” Despite the excitement and anticipation, though, the trek into the unknown was overwhelming at times. Deanna commented that her oldest, Logan (14 at the time), cried all the way from California to Utah.
But the Senior’s eldest has since settled into the community. Logan has become the captain of the swim team, is involved with the student body and has found his place among friends. The Senior’s second oldest, Dillon, is following closely in his brother’s footsteps. However, Deanna said, they are quite vocal of embracing double standards. While their older boys may have more freedom, the Senior’s daughters certainly don’t allow for much freedom due to the rise in trafficking and the transient nature of the area’s workers. Deanna commented on how she’ll let her boys walk down to the store, but when it comes to her girls, she becomes overprotective. “I wouldn’t let my girls do that in a million years. At 13 and 12 my biggest fear is one of my children being taken,” she said. Despite constant outcries and debate from her daughters, she said, “I’d rather be safe than sorry.” Deanna did say, thankfully, that their family hasn’t experienced much of the area’s seedy side, but hearing the news of the occasional violence still has an emotional impact, Deanna said.
“I hope that when people watch the show they don’t come out here and think it’s all rainbows and unicorns, and then say ‘Oh my gosh, this is nothing like what I thought it would be,’” she said. Senior added that the Smithsonian was very conscious of this fact and made a conscious effort to portray the hard work required to thrive in the oil patch.
She said she was excited for the show to debunk the notion that moving to the Williston Basin results in an instant paycheck. Rather, the documentary will place focus on how “everyone here has to work extremely hard to earn every single dime they make. I’m really excited about that part,” Senior said. While some people have travelled to the region and found success, she stressed the heartbreak that comes with the many individuals moving there with the last few dollars in their pocket, banking on the prospect that jobs can be picked from a tree, only left to be stranded.
Senior commented, “When we first moved to Williston, it wasn’t as much as a melting pot as it is now. It still had that small town feel. You could go to the market and be done. But now we go to the market and see someone you know and my kids say ‘Oh my gosh mom, do you know everyone?’” Three years later, however, Senior says Williston has become much more diverse.
She says there’s a growing melting pot of cultures, including a “Nigerian community, a Russian community… you’re starting to see a lot of other cultures coming into the area.” These migrations, Senior says, are largely due to the rise in demand for the ancillary services. As menial as these tasks may seem, food supply and retail services provide critical support to the energy industry’s overall viability and functionality. She said, “You’re starting to see a real diversified group of people willing to work for whatever their wage is, and it’s really cool. The entire perspective of the community has changed, even over the past two years.”
The Senior family, however, currently has no intentions of serving their time and packing up to head elsewhere. Deanna’s husband, Ray, formerly an oil lease operator is still keeping busy. He recently shifted from working for OneOK to Flatirons and is assisting with the construction of a new natural gas plant. Deanna, commenting on the current drilling slowdown, says that their family has yet to see the impact of the oil price decline.
While there are whispers about people being laid off and a couple of businesses packing up shop, she says the pace of traffic hasn’t slowed and people are still getting hired. However, it seems now that companies are able to be more selective with who they hire. She said the slowdown might actually be a blessing in disguise, giving the city a chance to catch its breath and expand the necessary infrastructure.
Currently, the Seniors are dealing with other difficulties beyond busy streets and camera crews following them around. Their youngest daughter, Sydney, whom Deanna describes as a scrapper, is undergoing chemotherapy treatment for a curable form of lymphoma cancer. When faced with the gravity of the situation and the possibility of losing her hair, Deanna said her daughter said, “You know what mom? We’re going to own this!” Deanna expressed how blessed she is to be living in Williston at this point in their lives. Otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to receive treatment at the children’s hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The family is remaining positive, and as little Sydney said, “It’s just cancer.” A fund has been set up to help defray the costs of Sydney’s cancer treatment. You can donate to it here.
She said that despite the many facets of the boomtown, Williston has retained its small town community virtues. Deanna expressed her deep gratitude for the doctor in Williston and the members of the community that came to rally around the family in support. She said the most humbling experience for her and her husband was when their coworkers found out, they had people lining up in order to give up their time or to work extra hours so they were able to take the time needed to care for their daughter. Deanna said, “It kinda shows the heart of the community. I don’t know anywhere else where that would happen. I’m so humbled and so grateful. It shows the kind of people that are in the community.”