By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News
Posted 3/24/15 (Tue)
Driving through Beulah and stopping twice recently reminded me of a time not so long ago when that Mercer County community was North Dakota’s black sheep.
In the early 1980s there were two power plants being built; one just southwest of Beulah called the Coyote Power Station and the second was northwest of town and that is called the Great Plains SynFuel Plant.
Both of those structures are massive and it took thousands of workers to build them. As a result, Beulah, Hazen, Zap, Golden Valley, Stanton and Center were literally overrun with people who were making beaucoup dineros.
That translated into the highest cost of living in North Dakota, hyperinflation in other costs and a severe shortage of housing.
Even more demanding was the sharp rise in local population. In 1980, the census showed Beulah with a population of 2,900. By 1983, that population was estimated at more than 7,000.
It was uncanny for a community to grow that rapidly. Services like plumbing and auto repair were nearly impossible to find, sitting down at a restaurant was a waste of time and the local public school was exploding with new students.
Along with those people came crime, and lots of it, including drugs, burglaries, attempted murders, rapes, aggravated assaults and the list goes on.
In 1983, there were several young people from Pennsylvania living in Beulah who didn’t work. They seemed to be making a pretty good living like the plant workers but they didn’t have jobs.
It turns out they were bringing illegal drugs back from Pennsylvania and selling them in the Beulah area. These were typical American young people, in their 20s, driving sports cars, playing on the local softball team and often volunteering for public service.
Unfortunately, these guys were just the tip of the iceberg. There was so much illegal activity going on in Beulah, it was scary.
In fact, when the Beulah Police Department released its annual crime report in May 1983, it was a shock because the crime rate in Beulah rivaled every statistic in the city of Fargo, except robbery.
Just think about that for a second. Crime in a community of 7,000 that is nearly identical to a city (at that time) of 65,000.
If you have any doubt about these numbers, that report was filed in the Beulah Beacon that month.
And for the long-term residents of Beulah, they were on their own. There was no extra assistance from the state of North Dakota. The coal severance tax was going to Bismarck but Beulah, and Hazen were left to fend for themselves.
It got to a point where Neighborhood Crime Watch areas were established because there weren’t enough police to handle all the calls that were coming in.
Drugs were turning up in the schools, found on city streets and in grocery store parking lots.
An additional statistic that nobody likes to talk about is suicide, and that too sharply increased.
That was 1983. Last Sunday is 2015. Beulah has changed like night and day since that bleak time in Mercer County history. Temporary workers made the money and locals paid the high cost of living.
It’s hard to say how many years it took, but for an outsider looking in, I certainly hope it didn’t take 32 years to bring Beulah back to that small-town, laid back, trustworthy atmosphere.
Today, it appears quiet and peaceful. No rubber being squealed on the city streets, you don’t hear gunshots or people yelling at each other outside local taverns and workers in the service industry are actually cordial to customers.
This type of social chaos is going on in Williston, Watford City, New Town and other communities right now. Doesn’t it seem hauntingly familiar to what happened in Beulah in the early ‘80s, but to a much greater magnitude?
This kind of behavior also occurred in Langdon in the early 1970s and the only difference in that scenario was the influx of people was brought in by the U.S. government for missile defense.
Ask anyone from Langdon about the early 1970s and they will tell you stories that make this Beulah thing seem like just that, a story.
There are people in Langdon, and Beulah, who still resent what happened, they still resent the government for not being more proactive in those communities and they resent the people who then assumed leadership roles.
Let’s just hope that it doesn’t take 32 years for Williston or Watford City to get back to some sort of normalcy that many of us knew just 10 years ago. But if it does, look at Beulah and there is hope.