Westhope: Above and Below, 2006—2008
As wars in the Middle East, rising gas prices, and the search for alternative fuels transform American life, Westhope, North Dakota, rides the tail end of an oil boom. Rigs pepper the harsh prairie surrounding the town. While drilling depletes this non-renewable resource, my family and other descendants of Midwestern farmers-turned-drillers—face the challenge of a dwindling livelihood. Fifty years after the discovery of oil, Westhope residents live in the tension between crude and agriculture, between pump and harvest. As the oil slows, farmers begin to plant sunflowers, canola and other bio-diesel crops.
Westhope residents, numbering 471, are oil men, flush with boom money and transplanting their families to more scenic climates. They are farmers, sometimes lucky and with enough acreage and children to raise show cattle. They are mothers of young children, trying to attract young families to the community to keep the public school open, trying to raise the money for a new swimming pool. And they are the old homesteaders, the veterans of greater wars, who fill their afternoons with pinochle and bingo at the Westhope Senior Citizens Center. Each livelihood, each resident describes one aspect of this community, singular in its prosperity during this national moment of crisis but representative, at the same time, of the turning point at which the nation discovers itself.
Homesteaders first attempted to tame Westhope’s inhospitable landscape in 1904, settling at the westernmost point of the railroad and six miles south of the Canadian border. During the 1950’s, after the discovery of oil in neighboring Canada, test wells found oil in North Dakota. Farm families, previously dependent on unpredictable crops, have become millionaires. What will happen to those that only have claim to the mineral rights, and what future is there for those who have claim to the land? To the South, past the Cold War’s missile silos, Minot Air Force Base attracts no more of Westhope’s young people than it used to. There’s more money working as a roustabout on an oil derrick, or going off to college and then living in Bismarck or Fargo.
In “Westhope: Above and Below,” I explore and examine Westhope, its people, and its oil and bio-diesel fields over the course of three years. I search for traces of the adaptation in industry and environment, witnessing the community’s return to its agricultural roots-and the coexistence of, and tension between, oil and farming. I document Westhope’s rotting fall crops, its subzero and glacial winters, and its buoyant Fourth of July, noting the continuities and changes between seasons. With simultaneous respect for past and present, I create work that speaks to the future, and to the hopes and fears the future inspires.
All images © 2006-2008 Shannon Benine