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Alaskan builds roundhouse in western ND oil patch

Posted: October 13, 2012 - 11:09pm
ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY OCT. 14 - In this Sept. 30, 2012 photo, this unique and whimsical building  on U.S. Highway 85 will be a landmark structure long after the oil boom is over, in Grassy Butte, N.D. (AP Photo/The Bismarck Tribune, Lauren Donovan)  Lauren Donovan
Lauren Donovan
ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY OCT. 14 - In this Sept. 30, 2012 photo, this unique and whimsical building on U.S. Highway 85 will be a landmark structure long after the oil boom is over, in Grassy Butte, N.D. (AP Photo/The Bismarck Tribune, Lauren Donovan)

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 for years has stood a two-room prairie cabin along U.S. Highway 85 north of Grassy Butte.

Two things were obvious when a cupola with windows all around was lifted to the very top a few 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 come from someplace else to this new frontier of the oil patch.

He brought his business, Delta Constructors, and oil field know-how from Wasilla, Alaska. 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 are 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 human 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.

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