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May 24, 2011

Big House on the Prairie

by Deena Winter

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A couple of years ago, an old friend from high school finished construction of a $1.7 million house that is literally in the middle of nowhere – in the rugged, oil-soaked Badlands of southwest North Dakota.

I had to see this place – but rarely get back home. I cannot remember the last time I was in my hometown. Last week, I went home for my nephew’s graduation, and was determined to see The Big House.

My friend has a Smaller House in my hometown of Bowman (population: about 1,500), but The Big House is south of the hamlet of Marmarth. On Thursday, she decided to pack up her five kids and go to the Big House, so I went along. It was raining – as it had been since I left Alliance, Neb.

We crossed the Little Missouri – which looked more like the Big Missouri.

As we drove her big black Expedition on gravel roads south of Marmarth, we met a couple in another SUV, who were on their way into town to call my friend, Heidi, and tell her all the roads to her house were impassable. A second SUV stopped, and the man inside said he’d just been to the creek near Heidi’s house, and the water was almost touching the bridge.

What once was a lazy little Beaver Creek was now a raging river. Even before the downpour, the bridge had been in such bad shape that normally they crossed the creek on a ridge they built in the creek bed, near the bridge. That path was now under several feet of water.

We parked near the bridge and debated whether to drive across or walk across and then another half-mile or so to the house. Now, Heidi is no wimp: She once played “chicken” with her sister on horseback, and their horses collided. One horse died, one sister broke her arm.

There’s little tolerance for fear out here.

We decided to leave the two twin babies in the SUV with the teenager and walk to the house. And then it occurred to us: If we got across and then the bridge went out, we’d have no way to get back to the SUV. No cell phone service, either. So we drove back to Bowman.

Two days later, the father of those five kids, Brad, returned home from the oil patch and was determined to go to the Big House. He walked his five kids across the bridge to safety, and then drove that black SUV across the bridge while they all bawled, fearing he’d drown.

Heidi and I came later – but we walked across and then got a ride from Brad. The Big House on the Prairie was worth it. As nice as any resort or hotel I’ve stayed at, it had five fireplaces, 20,000 square feet, a theater, a pool, whirlpool tubs and walk-in showers with ceramic tile. Brad has worked in the oil industry almost his whole life – following in his father’s footsteps.

And even though there are 16 oil wells pumping on his 1,500 acres, he doesn’t own the mineral rights to any of them. Neighbors are making hundreds of thousands of dollars off the oil every month – but Brad works for his oil money. He lays the pipe that transports that oil – and he has traveled the nation, following the oil.

Right now, the big play is in North Dakota — with more than 5,000 oil wells statewide, on the way to what one state official estimates will be 28,000 wells eventually. Each of those wells produces an average of 575,000 barrels of oil, he said, and each of the owners of the mineral rights gets paid an average of $6.9 million over the lifespan of the well.

Which gives you an idea how life on the prairie has changed — for some people.

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