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North Dakota has monument to oil boom, courtesy an innovative Alaskan

Lauren Donovan
49 feet above the ground, the top of the cupola provides this bird's-eye view.
Courtesy Lauren Donovan | Bismarck Tribune
North of Grassy Butte on U.S. Highway 85, this whimsical structure will be a landmark long after the oil boom is over.
Courtesy Lauren Donovan | Bismarck Tribune
Alaskan Rick Hyce said the building cost more than conventional construction, but its longevity is worth it.
Courtesy Lauren Donovan | Bismarck Tribune
Hyce says the third floor of the roundhouse at the Delta Constructors' location north of Grassy Butte will be a gathering room and clubhouse for the local community and workers.
Courtesy Lauren Donovan | Bismarck Tribune

GRASSY BUTTE, N.D. — Bill Meyer’s curiosity finally got the better of him.

He had driven by the round, three-story building maybe 20 times, each time guessing at what the builder could possibly be thinking. The whimsical structure has taken shape where a two-room prairie cabin along U.S. Highway 85 north of Grassy Butte has stood for years.

Two things were obvious: When a cupola with windows all around was lifted to the top two weeks ago, this was no grain silo' and this builder was no ordinary dreamer.

So, Meyer did what at least a hundred others have done over the past few weeks. He pulled into the site to get the lowdown.

He was fortunate enough to drive up to Rick Hyce, who was sitting out front for a moment. The early October sunshine was warm that afternoon and the breeze curving around the building was pleasantly cool.

Meyer rolled down the window in his pickup to ask, “What are you building here?”

Hyce patiently explained the layout — first floor, entrance and storage for a 3,000-gallon water tank; second floor, laundry and showers; third floor, clubhouse and gathering room; fourth, the cupola with a clear view to the Badlands a dozen miles to the west.

Meyer nodded. “I was pretty close. I thought it was a workers’ hotel. It’s really neat. I like it,” he said.

Hyce nodded in reply and Meyer drove off, to merge into the heavy oil field traffic out on the highway.

Hyce, bearded and quiet-spoken, is one of thousands of men and women who come from someplace else to this frontier of the oil patch. He brought his business, Delta Constructors, and oil field know-how from Wasilla, Alaska, a place made famous by Sarah Palin. He’d spent years on the North Slope at Prudhoe Bay.

He ventured into the North Dakota oil patch in February, looking for a place to start over, leaving his wife and high school-age children behind for now.

“The oil industry up there’s been taxed to death. Opportunities are far and few between,” Hyce said.

He found the north side of the patch “already saturated with contractors” and made an offer on the south side of the patch, for seven acres in McKenzie County, not far from Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s north unit.

He has a crew of 33, people from all over the country, many of them his employees at Prudhoe Bay. They’re doing electrical construction work for some of the big names in the oil field. They're living in travel trailers, and eventually Hyce plans to build a bunkhouse behind the roundhouse. The clubhouse portion will be for workers and the community. For himself, he’ll fix up the prairie cabin, which isn’t in bad shape, considering its age and history.

Hyce has a few chickens and a pig he bought at a local 4-H fair. He planted 10 apple trees and plans to be around long enough to see them bear fruit.

One day an older woman drove in and asked him not to cut down the trees on the back of the property. She had miscarried and buried the sad remains under the willows, she told him. It’s a corner where hard times were lived, harder than long hours working in a new place.

Hyce said he could have spent less money on a conventional building instead of a round one that peaks out at 49 feet. “But then it would be like every other trashy oil field thing out here,” he said.

When the boom is over, a distinctive building will remain, he said.

“Hopefully, it will interest someone, maybe for lodging — there’s no lodging around the park,” he said. “People said North Dakota was ugly and flat, but the Badlands are some of the most beautiful country I’ve seen.”

His name and his precise circumstances may be forgotten as details blur with the passage of years, but he’ll always be the guy from Alaska who built a three-story roundhouse during that wild Bakken oil boom.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Bismarck Tribune.