The Call of Summer in McKenzie County The spirit of community and hard work reaches its peak every year during one unforgettable week in Watford City.

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There’s an urgency to summer in western North Dakota.

Each November, nature begins to do its best to discourage McKenzie County’s residents– to dash their dreams and to put their spirits into a deep, deep freeze. But the farmers and the ranchers and the oil workers and the folks closer to town have learned to approach winter with wisdom, patience and humor.

The winters are harsh and just living through them requires determination. In spite of all the modern-day tools we use to stay connected, it’s easy to lose touch in the dark months.

That’s why the people of McKenzie County celebrate summer. Even after a long day in the hay fields trying to beat a storm or an all-nighter on the rigs, they find time to enjoy themselves under the magnificent North Dakota sky. Like so many things in the Northern Great Plains, time for fun is boom and bust.

Words and photos by Kim Komenich


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Main Street in Watford City is lined with U.S. flags in anticipation of the Fourh of July holiday.
Main Street in Watford City is lined with U.S. flags in anticipation of the Fourh of July holiday.

It’s the time of year when the young ones lie down in the field in the warm sun and watch the rapidly moving clouds pass overhead. Their older brothers and sisters are nearby, roping fence posts, or each other, if that suits their mood.

Travis Ouellet teaches Trip Lorenz some basketball moves in a driveway in Watford City.
Travis Ouellet teaches Trip Lorenz some basketball moves in a driveway in Watford City.
Alea Gillen, right, holds a puppy as her sister Lily plays with neighbor Trip Lorenz.
Alea Gillen, right, holds a puppy as her sister Lily plays with neighbor Trip Lorenz.
Olga Hovet was born on the family homestead in 1919. A lifelong resident of Watford City, she has lived the history of western North Dakota-- through the Great Depression, World War II, and several oil booms and busts. She recalls the times she had with family and church friends when they came into town on long summer evenings. "In the 1930's the stores in Watford City used to stay open until midnight on Saturdays," Hovet remembers. "I was in my teens back then and we used to bring cream and milk to sell. After church on Sundays we would go from house to house and play music."
Olga Hovet was born on the family homestead in 1919. A lifelong resident of Watford City, she has lived the history of western North Dakota– through the Great Depression, World War II, and several oil booms and busts. She recalls the times she had with family and church friends when they came into town on long summer evenings. “In the 1930’s the stores in Watford City used to stay open until midnight on Saturdays,” Hovet remembers. “I was in my teens back then and we used to bring cream and milk to sell. After church on Sundays we would go from house to house and play music.”
The Kindel family of Arnegard sings a hymn at the Living Faith Lutheran Brethren church in Watford City.
The Kindel family of Arnegard sings a hymn at the Living Faith Lutheran Brethren church in Watford City.
Pastor Bob Lawson gives the benediction at the Living Faith Lutheran Brethren church in Watford City on July 3.
Pastor Bob Lawson gives the benediction at the Living Faith Lutheran Brethren church in Watford City on July 3.

If there’s a peak to the community’s frenzy for riding and swimming and wringing every bit of fun out of the long summer days, it has to be the week starting with the Fourth of July, leading up to the McKenzie County Fair.

The Arnegard parade kicks off on time, complete with politicians and tractors and the Sons of Norway ship. The Williston Shriners weave their tiny cars along the route. Miss McKenzie County and Miss Fourth of July stand atop a fire truck, waving and throwing candy to hundreds of children.

Dan Brevik, left, and ÒSwanky the ClownÓ, right of the Williston Shrine Roadsters prepare to drive their miniature cars in the Arnegard Fourth of July Parade. The paradeÕs organizer Bryan Bjornstad is center.
Dan Brevik, left, and “Swanky the Clown”, right of the Williston Shrine Roadsters prepare to drive their miniature cars in the Arnegard Fourth of July Parade. The parade’s organizer Bryan Bjornstad is center.
Shannon Stenhoff holds his 6 month-old daughter Legacie as he and his wife Tabitha watch the Arnegard Fourth of July parade.
Shannon Stenhoff holds his 6 month-old daughter Legacie as he and his wife Tabitha watch the Arnegard Fourth of July parade.

The crowd winds up at Nelson Park for the annual barbecue. Then, something more magical than any text or phone call or email message begins to happen. The community shares a meal and spends time together. Handshake by handshake, conversation by conversation, the bonds are renewed and deepened.

“How’ve you been?”

“My, you’re getting big. How old are you now?”

Children play on the monkey bars at Nelson Park following the Arnegard Fourth of July parade.
Children play on the monkey bars at Nelson Park following the Arnegard Fourth of July parade.

Toward sundown the dogs get nervous as hundreds of family fireworks displays begin to illuminate the pale blue sky. A child drops her first sparkler and runs away, but returns to giggle and squeal with joy as her dad lights the second one.

Cindy Smith and Tommy Glover watch fireworks at the end of a day long barbecue and party at their Watford City home.
Cindy Smith and Tommy Glover watch fireworks at the end of a day-long barbecue and party at their Watford City home.
Daniel Krohn lights a couple of stubborn fireworks in front of his Watford City home.
Daniel Krohn lights a couple of stubborn fireworks in front of his Watford City home.
The Ninneman family van arrives packed with fireworks at the home of Grayson and Cori Long in preparation for a 4th of July fireworks display.
The Ninneman family van arrives packed with fireworks at the home of Grayson and Cori Long in preparation for a 4th of July fireworks display.

Later, after the last Thunder Kings and Yowzas have exploded and the sulfur smoke subsides, the stars once again take prominence over the prairie sky.

Spectators watch the finale of a fireworks display performed by the Ninneman family at the home of Grayson and Cori Long.
Spectators watch the finale of a fireworks display performed by the Ninneman family at the home of Grayson and Cori Long.

The next morning reality sets in. The McKenzie County Fair opens in two days and the bakers and the ranchers and the quilters are making their final preparations. 4H’ers have been feeding and caring for their steers since November and for the first time they get to see all of their friends’ animals at the weigh-in. They brush their steers while they wait for their turn at the scale.

Stran Sorenson, 9, waits to have his steer evaluated during the McKenzie County Fair 4H weigh-in on July 7. His brother Tel, 11, is in the background.
Stran Sorenson, 9, waits to have his steer evaluated during the McKenzie County Fair 4H weigh-in on July 7. His brother Tel, 11, is in the background.
Children watch the goat judging at the McKenzie County Fair on July 7.
Children watch the goat judging at the McKenzie County Fair on July 7.
Breann Obritsch holds on to her own lamb while catching a lamb belonging to Jake Ceynar, left, during the 4H market lamb judging at the McKenzie County Fair on July 7.
Breann Obritsch holds on to her own lamb while catching a lamb belonging to Jake Ceynar, left, during the 4H market lamb judging at the McKenzie County Fair on July 7.

Across town, Jim and Kathie Konsor of the Bakken Oil Rush Ministry and their volunteers are busy sorting donated clothing and household items for the ministry’s mobile free thrift center, which they open for a few hours a week just north of the airport. The ministry’s fall coat giveaway and gathering place events are often the first stop for newly-arrived families who are often down on their luck and desperate for warm clothing.

Jim confides that the ministry’s startup funding from the United Methodist Church is being reduced and that he hopes to involve other churches and community organizations. “As we became connected to the community we realized that this will be an ongoing need to fill,” he said.

Kathie Konsor hugs Shawna Parham outside the Bakken Oil Rush MinistryÕs mobile free thrift center in Watford City. Shawna has been a customer since Kathie and husband Jim opened the shop in 2014.
Kathie Konsor hugs Shawna Parham outside the Bakken Oil Rush Ministry’s mobile free thrift center in Watford City. Shawna has been a customer since Kathie and husband Jim opened the shop in 2014.

Throughout the county, farmers are trying to cut the last big hay field before the rains hit in the afternoon. Teams load bales on to trucks as flares from nearby oil rigs blaze in the background.

Corbin Knudsen throws a bale of hay to Jade Hepper on the Hepper family farm in Keene, ND on July 6. A flare from a nearby well burns in the background.
Corbin Knudsen throws a bale of hay to Jade Hepper on the Hepper family farm in Keene on July 6. A flare from a nearby well burns in the background.
Chad Hawkins prepares a hose that will transfer filtered salt water from a well site near Watford City, ND to a disposal site. Hawkins works for MBI Energy Services of Watford City.
Chad Hawkins prepares a hose that will transfer filtered salt water from a well site near Watford City to a disposal site. Hawkins works for MBI Energy Services of Watford City.
Dakota Access Pipeline workers position equipment at a site south of Watford City.
Dakota Access Pipeline workers position their equipment at a site south of Watford City.


The McKenzie County Fair opens on July 7 with a parade down Main Street in Watford City. Somehow, this 24/7/365 agricultural and oil community finds the time to turn out and showcase the things that matter.

Children eagerly await the flying candy being thrown from passing cars and floats during the McKenzie County Fair parade in Watford City.
Children catch candy being thrown from passing cars and floats during the McKenzie County Fair parade in Watford City.
Strollers filled with babies from the Wolf Pup Daycare Center line the Main St. sidewalk in anticipation of the McKenzie County fair parade on July 6.
Strollers filled with babies from the Wolf Pup Daycare Center line the Main Street sidewalk in anticipation of the McKenzie County fair parade on July 7.

During this hectic week, Janice Sanford and the other volunteers at Meals on Wheels see to it that homebound seniors get their lunches. Afterward, Janice stops by the Good Shepherd Nursing Home and Horizon Assisted Living Center to visit with friends.

Janice Sanford visits Arne Holm at the Horizon Assisted Living center in Watford City.
Janice Sanford visits Arne Holm at the Horizon Assisted Living center in Watford City.
holds up her winning bingo card at the Horizon Assisted Living center in Watford City.
Lorraine Klamm holds up her winning bingo card at the Good Shepherd Nursing Home in Watford City.

The spirit of generosity is everywhere, from the little league fields to the churches to the North Dakota Badlands, where volunteers keep all 150 miles of the Maah Daah Hey Trial in pristine condition in anticipation of one of the country’s most demanding mountain bike races.

Nick Ybarra, center, flanked by Andrew Sconce (left) and Phil Helfrich (right), prepare to use brush mowers and weed whackers to groom 150 miles of the Maah Daah Hey Trail for the 2016 season. The trail, which traverses the rugged Little Missouri National Grasslands, is home to one of the most demanding mountain bike races in the United States.
Nick Ybarra, center, flanked by Andrew Sconce (left) and Phil Helfrich (right), prepare to use brush mowers and weed whackers to groom 150 miles of the Maah Daah Hey Trail for the 2016 season. The trail, which traverses the rugged Little Missouri National Grasslands, is home to one of the most demanding mountain bike races in the United States.
Nick Ybarra uses a power mower to cut grass on a stretch of the Maah Daah Hey Trail in the Little Missouri National Grasslands. He is followed by Andrew Sconce who uses a weed whacker to finish the job and fine-tune the single track trail in preparation for the MDH100 mountain bike race. Ybarra and other teams will mow 100 miles of the trail in the coming week.
Nick Ybarra mows grass on a stretch of the Maah Daah Hey Trail in the Little Missouri National Grasslands. He is followed by Andrew Sconce who uses a weed whacker to finish the job and fine-tune the single track trail in preparation for the MDH100 mountain bike race. Ybarra and other teams will mow 100 miles of the trail in the coming week.
Watford City youth baseball player Adan Garcia looks to the stands to see his father during a game on July 7.
Watford City youth baseball player Adan Garcia looks to the stands to see his father during a game on July 7.
Taylor Cronin and Ethan Hoese, both 13, ride their bikes in an RV park south of Watford City.
Taylor Cronin and Ethan Hoese, both 13, ride their bikes in an RV park south of Watford City.
Richard Goins prepares BBQ chicken in a local RV park south or Watford City. He and Diane White recently opened ÒRicky DÕs BBQ Kitchen" and have lived in Watford City for two years.
Richard Goins smokes chicken in a local RV park south of Watford City. He and Diane White recently opened “Ricky D’s BBQ Kitchen” and have lived in Watford City for two years.

The week comes to a close with the McKenzie County Fair Rodeo and one last chance to ride the ferris wheel on the arcade. There’s word that a storm is on the way, so in an instant the lights go out and the fairgoers say their goodbyes. A group of teenagers seizes the moment to dance in the dark to music by a country band as the carnies begin to pack up the rides.

Evan Entze loses his hat during the steer wrestling competition at the McKenzie county Fair on July 9.
Evan Entze loses his hat during the steer wrestling competition at the McKenzie County Fair on July 9.
A family waits for a ride on the ferris wheel at the McKenzie County Fair in Watford City on July 9.
A family waits for a ride on the ferris wheel at the McKenzie County Fair on July 9.
Sydney Faller, right whispers to Ashley Killian as Megan Meuth stands nearby during the final minutes of the McKenzie County fair on July 9.
Sydney Faller, right, whispers to Ashley Killian as Megan Meuth stands nearby during the final minutes of the McKenzie County Fair on July 9.
Savannah Corn and Dakota Anne Sipe dance on the final day of the McKenzie County Fair.
Savannah Corn and Dakota Anne Sipe dance on the final day of the McKenzie County Fair.

The music fades away as you load your cotton candy-fingered kids into the truck, trying to figure how the week could have been any better.

A child waves an American flag from the window of the Arnegard Rural Fire District truck during the Arnegard Fourth of July parade.
A child waves an American flag from the window of the Arnegard Rural Fire District truck during the Arnegard Fourth of July parade.

Intersection Journal

Special thanks to the North Dakota Humanities Council, The Roosevelt Inn & Suites, The McKenzie County Farmer, the Pioneer Museum of McKenzie County and the Long X Arts Foundation for making this story possible.

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