For a boomtown, Williston is a tough place to get to, tucked into the northwest corner of North Dakota. And if you are looking for a hotel room, forget about it. Every room is booked for months, filled with workers who can't find housing elsewhere. While planning my visit, I nearly gave up until one hotel receptionist told me I might want to try "Kathy." That would be Kathy Walton, who about a year ago began housing workers in her farmhouse on the outskirts of town.
She agreed to house me after only a brief phone conversation and my promise to pay at least $70 a night, cash or check. When I arrived, after driving up a two-mile stretch of dirt road, I was greeted by chickens, horses, her grandchildren and her dog, Rex.
Ms. Walton has two rules: no smoking or drinking in the house. The first night we broke one of the rules, washing down dinner with beer and blackberry brandy. We would repeat the ritual each evening during my three-night stay as I learned more about Ms. Walton and the workers I stayed with, whose stories of hardship and hope are emblematic of the people flocking to this town.
Ms. Walton, who grew up on a farm in Minnesota, moved to Williston in the early 1970s with her husband, who came here to set up his veterinarian practice. He died in early 2008. "I miss him," she said, and thought "I'd just be coasting the rest of my life." But the boom thrust Ms. Walton into a new role -- as den mother to the transient workers who are lucky enough to find her. She decided to begin hosting workers after talking to her friend -- the hotel receptionist who referred me -- after the two decided it "would be nice to be able to put some of these people up."
Ms. Walton hosted her first worker in January and has now put up a total of 28 people, charging as little as $20 a night for a spot in one of six beds in basement and more for an upstairs room, where I stayed. Most stay for months at a time, finding her the same way I did. While she makes a little money along the way, Ms. Walton, a conservative Republican and avid Fox News viewer, also likes to help people who are helping themselves. "All of these guys, they work and they sleep," she said.
They include Dan Mowlds, a heavy-equipment operator who was forced to move to Texas to live with family after losing his job in Oregon back in 2009. In another life Mr. Mowlds would be a rock-and-blues guitarist. In this life, he's just looking for some stability and a paycheck. To pay for the two-day road trip to North Dakota, he sold his prized possession, a Fender Telecaster guitar. He arrived on a Friday in July and landed a job by Sunday, making $20 an hour clearing the ground for oil-well pads. While I was there, he landed an even better-paying job with benefits.
Mr. Mowlds' roommate in the basement is Tommy Keils, who came here in March from Michigan desperate for a job. He found out about Williston from a guy in his local library, drove here with a friend and landed a $17-an-hour job stringing pipe, plus a bonus of $3 an hour for each hour worked if he stays till November. He sends money to his girlfriend back home and wants to move back to be with her soon.
On the main floor is Tom Permoda, who is here for a job that has nothing to do with the oil boom. He is an engineer working on an upgrade for the local Amtrak station, but is crashing at Ms. Walton's house because it's the only place he could find. When Ad Age 's freelance photographer could not find a place to stay, she hosted him, too.
There's even somebody in Ms. Walton's backyard -- Michael McLauglin, who lives in a camper. He and his wife ran a real-estate and construction business in Baja California, Mexico, that went belly up in the housing bust. He then moved back to his hometown in Idaho for a truck-driving job, and came here for a better-paying trucking job. "We lost a good, solid business and are starting over at 56 years old," said Mr. McLauglin, whose wife will soon join him here. "This is what America is . Pull up your pants, put on a coat, and if you are here, put on some gloves and go to work."
Ms. Walton cooks for the crew two nights a week, including Mondays, which is casserole night. Scribbled down on a worn legal pad are the names and phone numbers of everyone she has hosted. She shows off their photos like a proud parent, including one of Mr. Keils getting his driver's license while out here. Laughter fills the house. Kitchen -table games provide the nightly entertainment. "It's just fun," Ms. Walton said. "They watch out for me. I feel safer with the people I have in the house than I would if I were alone all the time," she said. "Everybody here looks out for each other. We've come to a place where we are kind of family."