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Where are they now? Going through the drill

Steve Huddleston, a 1976 graduate of Perham High School, has gone on to establish his own contracting company, and works in the oil fields of western North Dakota and Montana. Submitted photo

Steve Huddleston spends a good part of his year living out of an 8-foot-wide camper.

With no electricity, he makes do with solar power or natural gas.  In the winters, there’s no plumbing. Internet access is spotty and expensive.

He lives like this for two weeks at a time, working 12-hour shifts and then staying on call for the other 12 hours of the day while his partner takes the other shift.

He doesn’t get to see his family very often, and there’s not much in the way of ‘free time.’ Safety is a constant concern, and the weather can be brutal.

It’s a hard and exhausting way to live, but the work, he said, makes it worth it.

Steve has found a niche job at the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana.

The oil boom has been a personal boon for him. As far as jobs go at the oil fields, his is one of “the best of the best” in terms of pay, he said, and after a few more years, he should be able to retire.

He stumbled across the work almost by accident. When the economy slowed during the recent recession, his long-time home construction business suffered, and he and his son, Brad, ventured west in hopes of finding more construction work.

They were fortunate to find some, and started making business connections around the Bakken area. Before long, Steve got a job offer to work in the fields, and he took it.

“I do enjoy it,” he said, “When I see someone filling up their car, I feel I’ve done my little part in providing that gasoline... The Bakken provides a little more energy independence, for all of us, from overseas oil.”

Still, he added, “I’d rather be here at home, of course. No one is out there for the scenery.”

 young, Steve worked in construction and plumbing; he spent years at Hanson’s Plumbing and Heating in Perham. Later, he started his own construction company.

Today, that company is still in the family, run by Brad. Steve, working in the oil fields as an independent contractor, continues to be self-employed. Together, their companies operate under the umbrella of Huddleston Diversified LLP.

Running the oil business is a joint effort between Steve and Marcia. Marcia runs their office in Sidney, Mont., while Steve’s out in the oil fields.

Usually, Steve arrives to a job site right after the hydraulic fracturing process, or ‘fracking,’ has been finished. There are often hundreds of people around at first, and it’s a crowded scene, with trucks traveling in and out of the site.

Before long, however, things get much quieter, and it’s just Steve and his partner remaining.

“We get to turn on the well after everyone has left,” he said. “We flow it back using the natural pressure of the natural gas, until that pressure is reduced.”

Sometimes the pressure is gone in a week; sometimes it takes months. For the duration, Steve and his partner monitor, document and regulate the oil, salt water and gas flow of the wells, and also oversee trucks as they come to make pick-ups.

The sites are kept remarkably clean, he said, to the extent that, “any little dab of oil on the ground gets cleaned up. Men on their hands and knees chisel up bits of oil in frozen ground and haul it away for disposal. You can’t have a vehicle on site that drips even a little bit of oil.”

Safety is also a primary concern. Workers are required to wear hard hats, as well as flame-retardant clothing every day, from head to toe. Even on the hottest days of summer, they must wear flame-retardant long-sleeved shirts to protect their arms. Safety meetings are regular occurrences.

Still, Steve said, accidents can and do happen, though he’s never witnessed any himself.

And all that talk in the media about the Bakken being like the “wild, wild, west?”

“Well, some of it is,” Steve said. “But if you stay out of the bars at night and the type of life that goes along with that, you will miss most of those associated dangers.”

Steve stays away from the bar scene, and has never experienced life on a ‘man camp.’ Drugs, he said, are rumored to be a problem among some oil workers, but he’s never seen any issues at a job site. He has heard about men fighting, usually over a woman, but fights tend to happen ‘after-hours,’ as well.

For Steve, the biggest danger has been driving. With large numbers of semi-trucks and pickups with trailers traveling down poorly maintained rural roads, usually at speeds of 65mph or more, he said, “it’s a perfect storm for accidents out there.”

While he feels relatively safe off the roads, Marcia has taken to carrying a handgun when working, shopping or conducting business around the Bakken. It’s a different environment for women around there, Steve said, and handgun permits have soared as more women choose to arm themselves.

When Steve and Marcia manage to get time off together, they like to spend it at their home in Vergas, which they still consider their permanent residence despite how often they’re away.

The couple volunteers on the Perham Police Reserves and the Otter Tail County Sheriff’s Posse, and they attend the “Harvest Barn” Cowboy Church near Height of Land Lake, northeast of Detroit Lakes. Steve likes to fish, hunt, trail ride and target shoot, and they both enjoy spending time with their grandkids.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Perham Focus more than five years ago, and has since worn many hats as writer, editor and page designer. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their one-year-old son, Simon, and their yellow lab, Louisa. 

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