EPPING, N.D. — The drive to the town of Epping, past the bobbing oil wells and towering drilling rigs that dot the prairie, is one of the few journeys in western North Dakota's oil patch today where travelers, at times, can have the road to themselves.
North Dakota's oil boom has developed this part of the state at a frenzied pace in recent years, with truck traffic choking roads and ballooning worker populations turning one- or no-stoplight towns into sprawling settlements of trailer parks, crew camps and apartment blocks.
Mile-long oil trains roll through here and natural gas flares light the surrounding countryside, but tiny Epping, a town of less than 100 about 20 miles northeast of boom epicenter Williston, still hints at an older and quieter North Dakota. The town's unpaved streets are home to a small post office, a museum that sees 250 visitors a year, a cafe open some afternoons and a bar. The only reason outsiders might know the town is for its 1977 high school basketball team, which made it all the way to the state championship even though the school had just 24 students.
But Epping is about to change.
The tens of thousands of workers who have flocked to high-paying jobs have driven huge demand for housing in oil patch towns. Now, a half-mile from town, developers are building Epping Ranch, a subdivision that will have 400 cookie-cutter homes, a contrast to the western facades of Main Street.
"There will probably be a few thousand people there - that's a small city," said Lee Luscht, a listing agent for the agency handling Epping Ranch. "I think the little post office there is about to get pretty crowded."
Small towns like Epping sprouted across North Dakota's plains around a century ago as homesteaders settled the rugged land. Many followed a familiar pattern over the decades: losing population, eventually surrendering their post offices and ZIP codes before seeing their buildings melt into the prairie grass. Places like Trotters, Angie and Temple, where the state's first batch of oil was loaded onto a train, no longer exist.
Epping might have suffered the same fate if not for the oil boom.
Heather Feiring is a former farmer turned beauty consultant. She moved to Epping from the larger nearby town of Tioga more than a decade ago, and lives now in the countryside near the town.
"What brought us to Epping was the sense of community," she said. When she moved to Epping, when you needed to talk to somebody, you went to the saloon and neighbors would do household chores - getting into homes through unlocked doors - when someone was out of town, she said.
Epping's population has already been churning.
Shelly Hayes, a lifelong resident, estimates only three or four families originally from Epping still live in town. Many residents have moved out over the years, with their spots taken by new workers. Feiring, too, says she knows fewer people today than in years past. With crime spiking in the oil patch alongside the boom, she has the worries that come with living among strangers.
"I hate that I have to lock my car and keep a gun loaded on the top shelf," said Feiring.
Hayes said the development might bring businesses closer to town. Apart from the bar and cafe, the nearest store is a truck stop with a fried chicken joint attached about 15 miles away. She said she hopes those who move to Epping Ranch are "not just here for the paycheck" and will be a part of the community.
Luscht, the Epping Ranch listing agent, said the community is going to aim to be a place for families to make a home, with parks and streets that are paved and lit.
"We don't want it to turn into a large man camp," she said, referring to the big barracks-style housing often found in the oil patch.