In 2009, Portland-based journalist Erika Bolstad’s mother received a check in the mail from an oil company that was leasing mineral rights she had inherited in North Dakota. After her mother died, Bolstad embarked on a decade-long quest to uncover the history behind those rights, including the story of her great-grandmother Anna, who left little trace of her life as a homesteader in North Dakota in the early 1900s. In “Windfall,” Bolstad constructs a memoir revealing a tale of family tragedy and personal discovery that intersects with the boom and bust of oil derricks and natural gas flares dotting the Dakota prairies, and the price paid for the lure of riches trapped beneath the soil. Journalist and author Erika Bolstad joins us to talk about her new book, “Windfall: The prairie woman who lost her way and the great-granddaughter who found her.”
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. In 2009 Erika Bolstad’s mother received a check in the mail from an oil company. They wanted to lease the mineral rights she had inherited in North Dakota. That check, and the mystery of the great grandmother who homesteaded that land, lead the Portland-based journalist on a decade-long quest. The result is her new book “Windfall.” It explores a lot. The two oil booms and busts in North Dakota over the last 70 or so years, what those discoveries meant for her family, and how these cycles fit into the much larger history of the American West. Erica Bolstad joins me now to talk about all of this. Welcome back to the show.
Erika Bolstad: Thank you so much for having me.
Miller: Your book starts with the fact that in the middle of the great recession, your ailing mother was sent a $2,400 check from an oil company for middle rights under land where your great grandmother had once homesteaded. Your mother then died just three months after that check arrived. And then not too long after that you and your sister went back home to Oregon to take care of things including spreading her ashes. Do you mind reading us a section from that first chapter, which is from that time in 2009?
Bolstad: Yeah, absolutely.
“That evening, my sister and I sat at the smooth kitchen table our father had built from ash wood. We divided up our mother’s jewelry. This was our physical inheritance, the objects our mother once wore that we would now wear close to our skin. Steph, who wore a simple silver wedding band, chose our mother’s diamond wedding ring. I picked out my mother’s gold ginko-shaped earrings, and an old fashioned gold brooch inlaid with pearls. I had worn the brooch to my eighth grade graduation, pinned to the lace, dropped waist, Jessica McClintock dress my mother bought me at the outlet store in San Francisco. The brooch had belonged to her grandmother, Anna, my mother once told me.
“The oil company paperwork sat in a pile of papers on my father’s kitchen counter. I read over the lease, trying to puzzle out how much money we might earn from royalties if the company ever exercised its option to drill for oil on land in a remote northwest corner of North Dakota. It seemed such an improbable windfall. We didn’t even own the land, just the oil deep beneath the Earth. Besides being born, what had we done to inherit mineral rights from a woman lost to the prairies into history, until an oil company came calling 100 years later? And who was Anna, really?
“I held the brooch in my hands, my fingers rubbing the pearls. Anna had touched this object. She too, had worn the brooch pinned next to her heart. She too must have once believed her land would bring her wealth. A tiny whisper called me at the kitchen table. It was a tendril of a story beckoning me to follow, the same whisper my mother had heard all her life. We could be rich.
“My mother left me a mystery. It was my inheritance, my windfall, my story to tell.”
Miller: What was going on in your professional life at that point? It seems like it’s an important part of why you ended up actually writing this book in the first place.
Bolstad: 2009 was the height of the Great Recession, and it was also a time when newspaper, journalism was beginning a decline. A lot of people in America were suffering. People were out of work, homes were being foreclosed on, and in my personal situation my pay was cut by more than $300 a month. I lived in Washington, DC, an expensive city. And it just felt like so many options were being foreclosed, shut down all around me, my profession that I wanted to be a part of and continue to be a part of. I don’t want to say there was no hope, because this was a time of great change in America as well. But we were all suffering, not poor maybe, but broke. This was a really difficult time for a lot of Americans, and it was difficult for my family and myself too.
Miller: So let’s go back more than 100 years, because where that chapter ends, where you just ended, is big mysteries about your great grandmother, Anna. What did you hear about her when you were growing up?
Bolstad: I heard all these myths. A lot of them were based on this sort of pioneer myth that my great grandparents settled on the Great Plains, that Anna by herself did this all as a single woman. This was pretty common for women in the early 1900, there were a lot of single women who did go and settle on the prairies. And so this was part of what my mother considered her heritage. She was proud of that. A lot of people are very proud of this idea that their ancestors settled on homesteads in the Great Plains and other parts of America, and made lives out of difficult circumstances and difficult places.
I had just heard all of these myths. We sort of heard a few whispers that maybe she got carted off to an asylum, but nobody really knew for sure whatever happened to Anna. And of course my mother never knew her, she didn’t know her as a grandmother, and her father never knew his own mother either.
Miller: Can you explain how the Homesteading Act worked?
Bolstad: Oh yeah, sure. So in 1863, that’s when it began, the Homestead Act allowed people to stake claims in many parts of the United States. It varied over the decades and over the time that it existed, but for the most part it was 160 acres that you could get for a $14 filing fee. And for most of the Homestead Act’s history, it was available to all white men, and not just white men, but anyone who was not Native American, essentially. It was available to widows and to single women. It was also available for immigrants to stake claims. And you got one shot at it, that was it. You only got that 160 acres. It varied over time, expanded and contracted. But for the most part you got that one shot at that land.
And a lot of people took up the government on this offer. It was in some ways considered the largest transfer of wealth ever in the world. I don’t know how you prove that, but it was a huge program that expanded access to land and to generational wealth to a lot of Americans, especially white Americans.
Miller: It’s hard to think of an American law that is more significant in terms of the way it affected generations to come, in many positive ways, also in some negative ways, but especially in building generational wealth for the families who were able to take advantage of it.
Bolstad: It was huge. I think the comparable, more modern day examples might be like Social Security and Medicare. But it came at a cost too. I don’t want to oversell the positives of the Homestead Act, because in many places, what it did was it forced out the Indigenous people who lived there, or it made conditions so difficult that they were no longer going to be able to stay in some of those places when white settlers showed up.
Miller: So going back to your own family, you had this sort of rosy or heroic but absolutely incomplete lore. What were you able to finally piece together about what happened to your great grandmother?
Bolstad: The very first day that I officially started working on this project, I went to the National Archives. And this is something I suggest that many people do if they have some curiosity about genealogy or if they have homesteading ancestors. Anyone who filed a homestead claim has a file at the National Archives in Washington DC. And you can request that file. It takes a little bit of figuring out where it is and what exactly you’re asking for.
Miller: But you’re a journalist.
Bolstad: Yeah, so it wasn’t too hard. And so I got the file. And that was probably the most or second most shocking discovery of working on this project, that was when I truly found out what had happened to Anna.
This is not a spoiler, it’s on the book jacket: what had happened to her is that her husband committed her to the state asylum. And it was there, in her Homestead paperwork, paperwork that he had filed five or six years after she had been committed. The land was in her name. So he had to file all kinds of paperwork that showed that he was her husband, that she was his ward. And it said flat out one of the witnesses who you had to have back then testify on your behalf when you actually proved your claim, said it outright “she is insane.” It was right there. And I actually gasped right there in this hushed archives in Washington DC, that first day working on the project.
Miller: Do you mind reading us a section from the book where you talk about what happened to her?
Bolstad: “At age 29, Anna lost agency of her own body. She, and likely her mother before her, had postpartum depression. Subject to the decisions and whims of men, Anna and her mother had no control over the conditions of their captivity. There was no effective treatment for their severe melancholy either. Anna’s husband committed her to the hospital because he saw in her, what he had seen in her mother Martha back in Fergus Falls, a woman driven mad by childbirth. A doctor and a judge acquiesced with Andrew. An institution obliged. This was how they handled unmanageable women. They abandoned them in buildings on the brow of the bluff.
“Anna lost her son, her land, and the freedom she had sought when she applied for a homestead. She was the cautionary tale told in the boom town newspapers, the woman sent to Jamestown, never to return.
“There, at her grave, I could sense the powerlessness she and other women experienced under such circumstances. I knew that what I imagined of Anna’s imprisonment was a modern projection of my fear as a woman of being trapped in circumstances I didn’t envision, create, or desire, confinement in all its meanings.
“But Anna never had a chance. She was shoved into that asylum 67 days after giving birth, diagnosed as insane, and then forgotten and forced to abandon her baby. She was someone who deserved better. She was worth remembering. Worth loving.”
Miller: Going back to what you said earlier, when you were in the National Archives, this sort of hushed place, you gasped when you saw what had happened to her, what did it mean to you to, pretty early on in the search, find this truth?
Bolstad: One of the things about journalism is that you talk to one person, and it leads you to another three people, and those three people lead you to another three people each, or documents, or information. And what that led me to was the state asylum in North Dakota, and there I was actually able to obtain her file. And I knew as a journalist that just about everyone who encounters a state institution has a file. And I thought that maybe, I wasn’t sure because it was almost 100 years later, I might still be able to find something.
And sure enough, I was able to get her file. It was small, and not especially detailed. But it was enough to know what her life would have been like in the asylum. There was a year by year accounting, an update in her file on how she was doing. And so from there, I had this story of this woman, this ancestor of mine, and what happened to her.
But what I had to do next was tie that to what else was happening in North Dakota, in the world, and to climate change. And that really proved to be kind of the biggest challenge of the book, figuring out that part of it.
Miller: So let’s zoom forward a little bit. Your family eventually moved away from North Dakota, but retained mineral rights. How does that work?
Bolstad: It’s a little bit complicated. The United States is one of the few countries where people actually own mineral rights beneath the surface, not the government or some other entity. And so in most places in the United States, especially in the West, those mineral rights are severable from the surface rights. And I don’t want to bore anyone with the legalities of it, but essentially, you can own a piece of land, but not own the minerals beneath it. That would be oil and gas, or maybe it’s uranium or something like that, there could be other minerals that are involved.
And so my grandfather believed that there was oil there. There had been a boom in the 50s, and that first boom had paid out some lease money. An oil company never actually drilled on my grandfather’s land, which he eventually inherited from Anna. But he believed that there was still oil there, and he held onto the mineral rights even when he sold the land in the 1970s to retire, he kept it because he was certain that he or his family would someday get rich from oil there.
Miller: Listeners may be pretty familiar with the recent Bakken oil boom from this century. But you mentioned the earlier one, when oil was first discovered there in the 40s and 50s. How did that discovery transform the land and the economy of North Dakota?
Bolstad: It was the first time that that place experienced that sort of boom. There had been a land boom there in the early 1900s, and there had been previous land booms in the early days of the Homestead Act. But this was a gold rush kind of boom. They called North Dakota in these national publications and Time magazine the “newest oil state.” It was almost like Texas or California where there had been these big oil booms before.
And so my grandfather saw people get rich. There was this like monthly newsletter that he subscribed to, and he would sit in his recliner in Montana where he lived and read it. I don’t know for sure, I never got to talk to him about this, but I suspect he dreamed of riches. I know that he passed those dreams and those expectations onto my mother.
Miller: That one day, the oil men will come here, and they’ll dig, and there will be a gusher, and we’ll be rich.
Bolstad: Yeah, exactly. And they never got rich from that boom, but the lease money did pay for my mother to go to college. So there was a history, by the time that check showed up in 2009 in my mother’s mailbox, of that land providing a windfall. Even if it wasn’t great riches, it was a windfall that maybe made life a little bit better, or a lot better if it’s able to pay for you to go to college.
Miller: Could she have gone to college without that money? Was it transformational money, even just those leases, which is, if I understand correctly, kind of a bet on the part of oil companies that, if we ever want to drill here, we’ve bought the rights. Was that money transformational for your family?
Bolstad: That’s a great explanation of mineral rights, I might steal that.
Yes, I think it was. I don’t know if she would have gone to college or not if they hadn’t had that money. I suspect maybe yes, but it may not have come as easily. It may have been more challenging, she might have had to work harder, picked up jobs, taken longer, that kind of thing. So I don’t know for sure. But I do know that it was seen as really and truly a windfall, as something that could eventually really pay off in a big way.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for the movies and other propaganda that fed into that hope?
Bolstad: So I love this period of history, for the films that were made right around that time, and the propaganda, because it’s so fascinating. I went down a real research rabbit hole in this part of the book.
In the 50s, and the 40s too, there were all these films about oil booms and busts, and booms and busts. And they were fictional, and some of them were actually like documentary films, what we may not call a documentary today, but there were nonfiction films that were made about this time that were used to promote oil and the oil boom, and the petroleum industry itself.
It’s fascinating, because at this time of history, this is before television, when everyone went to the movies. And so you would see these tall tales on screen about people getting rich, about gushers. There’s a couple of very well known documentaries about this time too, which I found in my research, in part because I’m also working on a short film in connection with the book. And I was looking for visual examples of these booms. And when I found them, I was thrilled, because they sort of helped me confirm those whispers that I think my mother and grandfather heard, but also this understanding that I had, that there was my grandfather in his easy chair in Montana dreaming about riches, and I could see the source of it. I could actually for the first time understand why all these oil tycoons were on the cover of Time and Life magazine, because they were, they were really built up as larger than life characters, and something almost aspirational in the American psyche too.
Miller: We were talking about the first oil boom in the 1950s. Let’s turn to the second one, at the early decade and a half or so of this century. This was made possible because of basically new drilling technology, fracking, that gave oil companies much better access to oil that had been there for millions of years. Can you give us a sense for the scale of the boom at its height?
Bolstad: So I got there in 2013, that was my first real visit to North Dakota. And at that point, that was the height of the boom, that was the absolute peak, that was when oil prices were at their highest. And at that point, North Dakota was still trying to catch up from everything that had happened. And even then, the roads were not built for this big equipment that was traveling down the roads, they were built for farm equipment, for wheat farmers, for soybean farmers. Just my first visit there, you had trucks zooming around you, there were full hotels, it was very difficult to find a place to stay, it was very expensive, there was no housing for the people who were there for the boom. People were commanding really large salaries, not just if you were in the oil fields, but in all of the industries that are associated with them, or in support of the people who were there for the boom. It was wild. Towns doubled in size. It was an amazing transformation, in a place that had been very sleepy for 50 years.
Miller: Flaring natural gas, meaning burning the methane that was coming out of some of these wells, it became for you, one of the most defining and I think demoralizing images of this particular boom. What is it? And why was it such a problem?
Bolstad: Flaring continues to be a problem, not just in North Dakota, but in many parts of the United States. Some of it is deliberate, it’s natural gas burned off as waste because the oil is more valuable, in places like North Dakota especially. And especially in the early part of the boom, where there wasn’t the capacity to capture the natural gas and use it for energy, so it was just burned off as waste.
Miller: Even though it’s also a global commodity that could be used productively, it was just being burned because it was just the cheapest way to get the oil out of the ground.
Bolstad: It’s astonishing. One of the first times that I went to a well site, there was a new housing development right near this place. And I just thought, all of this could be like just piped to the people who live in that housing development. There you go, low cost energy for the people who have to live right next door to this facility. It is astonishingly wasteful, and not just from this could be used to heat people’s homes, but it is climate change happening right in front of you.
My very first trip to North Dakota, this is what I saw. When it gets dark, you see all these flares on the prairie. It’s like this in Texas and Colorado and New Mexico as well, you see these flares.
And we don’t get a lot of visual confirmation of climate change. We are starting to see its effects almost every day, in some parts of the world, whether it’s rising seas or more intense storms, but we don’t actually often see it happening right in front of us. And when I got there and I saw the flares burning, I understood for the first time perhaps in my career as a journalist, that I actually had a personal connection to something climate change related. I had a connection through this land that my great grandmother homesteaded, that was passed on down the years to my grandfather, and then in the form of mineral rights to my mother and her siblings, and then eventually to me and my sister. So I suddenly had this personal connection to those gasses that were burning off as waste right there in front of my eyes. I understood right then that that was actually personal, not just something general that I would write about or talk about as a journalist.
Miller: At one point you visited a geologist at the University of North Dakota who basically presides over this huge library of drilling samples, and you watched her as she found the sample closest to your family’s old land. What did you learn from her?
Bolstad: That was one of my favorite moments in working on this book, because I actually got to see and touch and smell those core samples. I had this almost physical compulsion to like actually taste it as well, it was very strange. You actually could see what was thousands of feet below you beneath the earth. It’s very hard rock, it’s really harder than you would think, it doesn’t look like a gushing oil well, it has to be fracked and pulverized into something that’s consumable.
It was just astonishing to see this is what it looked like beneath the earth. And this is the thing that everyone is after. This is the thing that eventually turns into these emissions that are warming the earth. It was both humbling and utterly fascinating to see this library of miles and miles of all these core samples. It really brought home the physicality of what was happening all around me in North Dakota at the time.
Miller: And what she told you, if I can summarize it, is that there was oil there. But based on where your family’s old land was, it was on the outskirts of what was going to be most profitable for the oil companies, and it was just not likely that they were going to want to drill there anytime soon based on the current economics.
I wonder if you could read us one more passage, which takes place after you learned this.
Bolstad: [Reading] “Nearly everyone had connections to oil or gas, even if their families didn’t receive regular royalty checks. Beyond the people with high paying jobs in the oil fields, there existed a secondary economy to service the workers, whether they were in retail, restaurants, construction, or a daycare center or car dealership. All those people and businesses paid taxes, which helped support towns and municipal services. The vicious codependent circle had no end in an economy dominated by oil and gas.
“The entire state benefited from the boom, even in more liberal enclaves like Fargo, where people were more likely to worry about the consequences of climate change. The state built better roads with production tax money collected from oil companies. The universities improved their campuses with multimillion dollar core sample libraries and other investments. The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation built new tribal government offices and an interpretive and history center, and issued regular disbursements to enrolled members from oil revenue. Towns like Williston built palatial recreation centers with sales taxes from all the new arrivals buying goods and services. Federal money helped too. Williston built a brand new $273 million airport subsidized with the Federal Aviation Fund. Minot also spent $84 million dollars expanding its airport, including a new terminal building.
“But it was a volatile prosperity for North Dakota, the second largest oil producing state in the country. Unlike Texas, which has a diversified economy better able to weather busts, North Dakota was overly dependent on a single industry. Nothing illustrated the turbulence of an extractive economy like the Minot airport. In the three years since I first arrived at the tiny airport in search of Anna’s story, oil prices dropped from $97.18 a barrel to $22.72 a barrel. In 2013, there were 13 flights per day in and out of Minot. Three years later, the shiny new terminal was mostly empty when I flew out of it. There were just three flights per day now, all because of the declining price of oil.
“I didn’t live in North Dakota or depend on oil for a living. At the end of my trip, I could fly home to Washington DC, leaving the cognitive dissonance half a continent away. Yet I too was a product of capitalism. Although I couldn’t be certain, I suspected that if the mineral rights were more valuable, if my family were sitting on one of the gushers that Julie Lefever told me about, the money would have swayed me too. It’s possible I would have turned a blind eye to climate change and been even more aggressive about pursuing the windfall my grandfather dreamed of when he signed that first lease in 1951.”
Miller: I was impressed by the honesty of that last paragraph there, that as somebody who really has focused on climate change as a journalist for for more than a decade now, here you are saying that that you weren’t actually given the tough choice of saying yes or no to really taking part in the fossil fuel economy because the geology was such that that you didn’t have the option to say no. But you’re saying here that if they had come to you and said “wow, there are thousands of barrels here that we can get,” you think that you probably would have said yes?
Bolstad: I don’t know… I mean yeah, I think so. I think I would have, reluctantly. I hope that I would, if that big huge payoff came, I would have really thought about the source of the money and perhaps used it in some way that was part of my values. But I don’t know. And I was not in that position. My windfall, not to be corny about it, was very different from this book. This project gave me something far more valuable than something that’s indexed to the price of a barrel of oil.
I think that we have to be honest about that, that for many people, there is no choice. This is part of the economy of North Dakota and many other parts of the United States, when this money comes, when it shows up in your mailbox, it’s really hard to turn it down. It’s very difficult to say no to what is, in many people’s view, just free money.
Miller: Even after oil prices plummeted, and despite the fact that your family’s old land was on the outskirts of the most profitable oil land, oil companies kept sending you new checks for leases, not hundreds of thousands of dollars, but they added up to the tens overall. Why is that? Why did they keep sending you this money for these leases?
Bolstad: We now know that a lot of the fracking boom was really a financial house of cards in a lot of ways. I think the best equivalent to describe how it worked was a lot of companies in the past decade or so have put a ton of money into attracting new customers or building an audience, but they don’t necessarily have the money to continue the services, like maybe some car sharing services for example, at the same level without raising prices.
And so for oil companies in this period, interest rates were really low, this was the recession, people with capital needed a place to put their money. And these oil companies were able to borrow at very low interest rates, and put that into production investment. And their investors saw that as the promise of future wealth. Didn’t matter that they weren’t making money at the time, that it was very expensive to do this production, But that was how this house of cards worked.
Miller: You visited North Dakota many times, including after the pandemic started, which was in many ways the final, the bustiest part of the bust. That was at a time when a lot of these wells, the oil companies were not taking oil out of them, and this turned into even more orphan wells. Can you describe the economics of orphan wells?
Bolstad: Throughout the United States, there are maybe hundreds of thousands of abandoned oil wells. And some of them date back to the first oil boom in Pennsylvania in the 1800s. But many of them are modern. These are oil wells that companies abandoned, or that they leave behind, or maybe ownership changes, and a company takes one on and doesn’t want to maintain it anymore. And so they’re just left there.
They’re supposed to pay bonds that would pay for the cleanup, but almost always in all cases, the money that is put up front as collateral does not pay for the cost of cleanup. And so there are thousands of these wells all over the United States. There’s also a lot of money right now to reclaim them, some environmental money that has become part of the federal budget. And so I was able to go with a crew that was plugging one of these old abandoned wells and see how they did it. And it was really eye opening to be able to be there and actually see kind of the reverse of what I had seen in the early days of working on this project, when I saw fracking happening in front of me. It was fascinating to see what could happen with this cleanup, how that might be a part of our future green economy, and also maybe could foreshadow an energy system that is not dependent on fossil fuels.
Miller: Can you describe now what you hope to do with your family’s mineral rights?
Bolstad: I would love to get rid of them. I don’t want to completely spoil the end of the book for anyone, but I think that over the course of working on this project, it became very clear to me that, not just from the first day when I saw those flares, but that I was a part of this system, the system that was so damaging to the people who will live here after me.
And so I would like to get rid of them. I would like them not to be ever drilled on. I would like other people to follow my lead on this. I’m not entirely comfortable in the position of being an advocate or an activist on this front. I’m first and foremost a journalist. And so I’m trying to figure that out, that next step, how to get rid of them. I have a couple of ideas, and I’m working with some other people, including the artist Eliza Evans. I’m working on what that future might be, how you could possibly transform mineral rights.
It’s not easy. It’s 300 years or so of American property law. You can’t get rid of them immediately. But I would like us to rethink the system of checks showing up in people’s mailboxes. I mean, I’m all for checks showing up in people’s mailboxes. But maybe if we weren’t so arm’s length from it, if people understood a little bit more the actual toll of those checks that are showing up in their mailboxes, maybe they might be interested in joining me in trying to give these away too.
Miller: Erika Bolstad, thanks very much for joining us today.
Bolstad: It was great to be here.
Miller: Erika Bolstad is a freelance journalist and the author of the new book, “Windfall: The Prairie Women Who Lost Her Way and the Great-Granddaughter Who Found Her.”
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