North Dakota's Millionaires Multiplied After Oil Discovered in Wheat Field in 1951 Spurred a 6-Decade Production Boom
by Associated Press
Posted on 10/25/2008
Cliff Iverson still rises before dawn every morning, although he doesn't have to. He still grows durum wheat on his farm, though he can afford not to. When his 51-year-old cab-less combine wears out, he'll consider retiring. But he's not likely to.
Oil has made Iverson and many others in North Dakota wealth, but it's hard picking them out. The rhythm of their lives is no different today than before gold was found beneath the grain.
"Around here, there might be millionaires walking around and they're just as friendly as if they never had a million," Iverson said. "One thing about North Dakota, when oil came in it really didn't change anybody I know."
Iverson doesn't need to farm to pay the bills; oil royalties help with that. For him, farming is by choice.
"I'm 76 years old, and I would be lost if I quit the farm - I love to farm," Iverson said. "I've been farming since I was old enough to walk, tagging along with my dad."
5 billion barrels The 680-acre farm in northwest North Dakota belonged to Clarence Iverson when Amerada Corp. struck oil on April 4, 1951, spurring a production boom that has lasted six decades throughout the Williston Basin, a 134,000-square-mile area that includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Western North Dakota accounts for more than a third of the Williston Basin acreage.
Through August, the Williston Basin has produced more than 5 billion barrels of oil this year. Saskatchewan has recovered 2.2 billion barrels, followed by North Dakota's 1.6 billion barrels. Montana has tallied 924 million barrels; Manitoba, 247 million barrels and South Dakota, 45 million barrels.
State and industry officials say North Dakota is on pace to set a state oil-production record this year, surpassing the 52.6 million barrels produced in 1984. A record number of drill rigs are piercing the prairie and North Dakota has nearly 4,000 active oil wells.
Dry holes produced doubt Clarence Iverson wasn't pleased when seismologists looking for oil exploded dynamite in his wheat fields.
"He worried a lot about his water wells," his son said.
He remembers his late father smiling when oil surfaced. The farm, which was homesteaded by Cliff's great-grandfather, suddenly became one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Upper Midwest.
"They came from as far as Minnesota and all over North Dakota and Montana," Iverson said. "People knew it was history in the making, and it changed a lot of people's lives."
Sid Anderson, a former state geologist and petroleum engineer, was a college student at the University of North Dakota when oil was discovered.
"It was brand new then, and pretty exciting times," said Anderson, of Grand Forks.
The amber-colored oil was of such high quality, Anderson recalled, that "you could have run a diesel with it straight from the well."
Retired roughneck Tude Gordon, 93, still remembers how the locals scoffed at outside oilmen poking around the countryside. Years of effort to find oil had turned up only dry holes, and North Dakotans had reason for doubt.
"One man told me he'd drink every drop of oil that comes out of North Dakota," Gordon said. "I told him to watch out because he might have to eat his words."
Gordon and other roughnecks from Oklahoma and Texas endured bitter winters of drilling wildcat wells in North Dakota, and even they became wary.
Over $1 million income But at one well south of Tioga, on Clarence Iverson's hilly wheat farm, Gordon said he and others saw promise.
"I told Clarence Iverson: 'It looks to me like you'll be able to go to Arizona in the winter time,' " Gordon said.
Gordon was one of about a dozen men on the well when oil was first brought to the surface, and he is now the only one living.
Today, nodding oil pumps are scattered throughout the region, and roads are heavy with oil traffic. The well site at Iverson's farm is marked with a granite monument and overgrown with durum. But oil is still being recovered two miles underground because of new horizontal drilling techniques in the Bakken Formation, which encompasses 25,000 square miles within the Williston Basin.
In April, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that up to 4.3 billion barrels of oil can be recovered using current technology from the Bakken, which rhymes with rockin'. The agency said the rich deposit is the largest continuous oil accumulation it has ever assessed.
And that's made millionaires of many North Dakotans.
The number of taxpayers reporting adjusted gross income of more than $1 million in North Dakota rose from 266 in 2005 to 388 in 2006.
Mum on royalties Cliff Iverson won't say how much money his family has made from oil royalties over the years. With sliding oil prices, it could have been as little as $3 a barrel. Around here, good folks don't talk about such things.
Iverson said his dad bought a house in Arizona, where his parents spent a few winters, and turned the farm over to their two girls and three boys. Although he still supervised the boys by phone.
The house in Tioga got a fresh coat of paint and over the years Iverson has treated himself to a few extra rounds of golf, but he says he's "a long way" from being wealthy.
"Guys that are used to living simply are hard to change," he said. "You can't run and play very long without getting bored. You got to keep your mind occupied."