By Rebecca Colnar
What is the well-dressed person wearing in the Bakken? Chances are a sturdy coat, jeans, safety boots and a hard hat are what’s de rigeur in the oilfield. Still, there are trends and much of the purchases are weather-dependent. Enough workers need clothes resulting in retail stores, like the Boot Barn at the Prairie Hills Mall in Dickson popping up and others, like the Home of Economy in Williston, are expanding.
“I can’t say how much business has picked up in the last two years because our store has only been here for about two months,” says Carol Magnuson, manager of the Boot Barn in Dickinson. “It’s a good move for Boot Barn to be here because we are always busy.”
Magnuson explains that the Dickinson Boot Barn carries everything that’s work-related, including hard hats and fire-resistant (FR) clothes. They sell plenty of Carhartt clothing along with Wrangler jeans, Rock and Roll jeans and Cinch FR. Living up to its name, the store carries lots of boots.
“I think when we opened we had about 3,500 pairs of boots for purchase, and we’re continuing to keep those shelves stocked,” she explains.
“Even though we’re in the mall, we’re not a mall store. In fact, it’s interesting because one of the differences here is the number of customers during a holiday. I worked retail at a mall for a long time and on the Fourth of July, the mall would be really slow. But here, because there’s not much else to do, we were very busy,” says Magnuson.
“Because people are paid well here, they not only buy work wear because they need it, but also buy nice western wear because they can; things like cowboy hats, nice shirts and good boots. In addition, we carry women’s wear, so that is additional clientele,” she notes. “Although we have local folks coming in, we see people from all over the country who are in the area to work.”
The Home of Economy in Williston is another store that sells just about everything, including a wide range of work wear. Heidi Wilson is the work wear manager, and says that most guys are looking for coveralls or bib overalls. “We see a lot of people new to the area who need to get clothes so they can do what they do.”
Wilson explains that she’s only been at the Home of Economy since February, although because of her experience in retail sales, the company brought her in as a manager. “We offer Carhartt products at a price that’s usually less than other places, and we have a variety of work wear. We sell a lot of Wrangler jeans as well as Pacific & Maine Spentex FR clothes. Spentex is made for hot weather and keeps you drier. Of course in winter, then we’re selling the insulated bibs and coats.”
Wilson notes that the fire-resistant products are popular since many companies require workers to wear them. “We are getting new styles for the fall, and we’re getting in a lot of new flannel shirt to get ready for winter. In the last few weeks, we’ve seen quite a few women looking for work clothes that will fit. Some women are quite small, and they have trouble finding clothing in their size. We are also seeing FR clothing for women.”
The work wear manager notes that women aren’t necessarily asking for pink or brightly colored clothes. “They want to do their work and not stand out. Basically, they just like the dark blue or tan work clothes.”
Liz Douglas, boot manager for the Home of Economy in Williston, says square-toed safety boots that are waterproof are in demand. “It’s the ‘in’ thing,” she says. “Out here they need a boot that is waterproof and boots that are going to last as long as they can. You don’t want something that will get torn up quickly. There is definitely a high demand for mud boots.”
Douglas explains that what’s becoming more popular than a steel toe is a composite toe. “Its safety rating is the same, but it makes for a lighter-weight boot and won’t hold the cold like steel does,” she says. “However, nobody is making a composite, square-toed waterproof boot.”
Douglas says safety boots range around $189 to $200, with the cost of the composite being slighter higher.
Not only do you need to buy boots for work, but a boot dryer is a necessity year-round.
“In the winter your feet will get sweaty and you have to dry the boots every night,” Douglas explains. “In the summer, it’s the same thing; your feet get sweaty from overheating. It’s important to have a boot dryer and good socks. The one thing is you don’t want is a cotton sock; cotton is absorbent and that sock will act like a sponge, sucking in the moisture. Socks are more comfortable with synthetics or wool.”
Douglas strives to help every customer get a boot that’s right for them. “We have a good selection of work boots. I’d say we have 15 different brands of work boots that doesn’t even count RedWing. Western work boots are very popular. We do try hard to stay with American-made boots. We’re expanding the store, so who knows how many boots I can order.” she states.
Douglas has been with the Home of Economy for two years. “Sometimes you hear rumors that companies are pulling out of the Bakken; but we have a stream of people looking for clothes. We will get different groups of guys from different oil companies who have vouchers for boots. I think what happens is someone comes up here, goes through winter and realizes how hard it is. They leave and are replaced by new workers.”
In the Field
Charlie Mackay, a rancher from Roscoe, Montana, has been working in the Bakken since January 2012 on a crew that handles dirt work, building pipeline right-of-ways and roads.
“The way you dress really depends on whether you’re working on a rig or not. We’re not working on rigs, so our clothing is a little different. For this job, we are required to have steel-toed boots, a hard hat for when we’re outside of the truck cab, and shirts and jeans. So far, we’re not required to wear FR clothes, but that could change. FR shirts are expensive, running around $50. In the winter, we bundle up, and wear steel-toed Muck Boots,” MacKay says. “For me, dressing here is just like being at the ranch. When it’s cold, you throw on layers.”
Keeping one’s hands warm and dry is critical to comfort. “Everyone agrees that Kinco leather gloves with linings for winter are best because they can handle the moisture without getting cold. It gets 25 to 30 below here,” Mackay notes. He says the first winter in the Bakken, he showed up wearing his wild rag (or neck scarf). “They really keep your neck warm. Well, my friend’s wife makes them, so he brought them here and must have sold about 40 or 50 in one winter.”
“The guys who work on the rigs take the brunt of the weather,” Mackay explains. “This year, the summer hasn’t been too hot, but last year, it was almost 100 degrees every day. In the winter, it’s about 40 degrees colder here than it is in Billings, Mont. The back seat of my truck is nothing but clothes. You never know what will hit.”
MacKay echoes what Douglas said about square-toed work boots being “in.”
“There is a fashion statement to be made in the Bakken,” Mackay chuckles. “Right now the popular style is the safety-toe, square-toed boots. Everyone tucks in their pants to show off their colored boot tops. There are quite a few of those boots here now. I believe the guys coming up from the south are the ones who brought that style up here.”
Loree Olsen, a master plumber with Mechanical Innovation, has been in the Williston area for a year and half. Her company works on all phases of commercial buildings and multi-family housing. Although her job doesn’t require her to wear steel-toed boots, she needs to wear a hard hat and dress for cold weather when winter hits.
“I do wear my hard hat and work boots year-round (putting a beanie under your hard hat works well to keep your head warm), and we wear safety vests and goggles, but in the summer, I just wear jeans and a T-shirt. However, in the cold months I keep adding layers and am bundled up like the kid in the Christmas story,” laughs Olsen. “We wear a lot of Muck Boots because our work is all new construction and can be very muddy.”
Although some women might not want to stand out, Olsen doesn’t mind .She often sports a pink hard hat and has pink Carhartt bibs for cold weather. “After 20 years in this business, you have it all. I have every type of bib you can imagine.”
As for the pink bibs, Olsen says she gets a lot of comments when she shows up in them. “Just last week, I ran into a couple of women who wanted to get pink bibs, too,” she says.
Advice for newcomers looking to join the industry? “Be prepared for the weather. Especially don’t forget to bring your long-johns. You’re going to be wearing those for a long time,” Olsen concludes.
The Laundry Scene
Guys living in man camps, RV parks or hotel rooms and working in the oilfield have plenty of dirty, greasy, dusty clothes. What to do? Some corporate man camps have laundry facilities. Other men have to find time—or someone else—to get the washing done.
“Often I’ll just pile up the laundry and take it home to wash every few weeks,” notes Mackay. “But there are laundry facilities. When I first came out here, there was only one laundromat and they closed at 10 p.m. But now a few others have opened and you can do laundry any time, day or night. Some even offer a service that if you drop off your clothes, they’ll wash and fold them for you.”
Places like Bubba’s Bubbles—which has two coin-operated laundry facilities—has two locations in Williston, and opened Village Laundry, a full-service laundry that will even wash oilfield clothes and gloves.
Just like in the mining camps of the 19th century, women have started businesses as modern-day laundresses. They’ll pick up the laundry, wash it, dry it, fold it and deliver it back to the owner in a timely manner. “It’s really difficult when you leave at 5:30 a.m. and get home at 7 p.m. six days a week, to get your laundry and errands done,” Mackay notes. “I think people offering a service doing errands, like laundry, can do pretty well out here.”