Pioneer spirit pulls Coloradan to a new life in North Dakota

July 19, 2021

(AGWEEK) WATFORD CITY, N.D. — Like a modern-day pioneer, Sandy Rieker packed up her family and moved to the country to start a new life.

But unlike the early settlers, Rieker and her family headed north, not west, 10 years ago, leaving her native Colorado and landing near Watford City, N.D., in the heart of oil country in the midst of an oil boom. They saw in the North Dakota community an opportunity for a better life that always seemed just out of reach in Colorado.

They sold off their landscaping and snow removal business in Colorado and lived briefly in a Miles City, Mont., hotel while her husband and son commuted to the oil fields of western North Dakota.

Although the money was good, life was tough. The work was hard, and the family lived in campers for a year and a half after leaving the hotel. Though she loved the adventure, the hardships made Rieker think about how much better she had it than the women who settled the land before her time.

“I thought so much about the pioneer women, and you know, about how hardy, how sturdy they had to have been to endure,” Rieker said.

But they fell in love with the place, and especially the people. Rieker recalls how a family from church “just took us in under their wing,” making them feel welcome and part of the community, serving as her “home away from home.” They even gave them a real home to live in for a time, getting them out of the campers.

“The people that took me in were so warm and welcoming and genuinely just kind, kind-hearted people,” she said.

And, to extend the welcome that they received, Rieker and her family started inviting people they knew who were living in campers to their home for game nights. Rieker and her family eventually found their five-acre piece of paradise in Alexander, N.D., where they now have a hobby farm.

“My whole life I’ve wanted a farm,” she said. Rieker’s pioneering spirit may be why she feels such an affinity for the McKenzie County Heritage Park. She serves as director of operations at the McKenzie County Heritage Association, preserving the history of homesteaders. On her first visit to the park with her granddaughter, they recognized the similarities between the pioneer life and their own life in the camper. At an event at the park later, Rieker made friends with a volunteer who worked on the heritage projects. And not long after, Rieker’s affinity for the pioneer spirit had her volunteering, too.

“Not only have they endured the extreme temperatures, but they’ve also endured World War I, the Depression, the Dust Bowl, all of it,” she said.

Today, she can rattle off the history of the park’s buildings and the significance of them. And though she’s a relative newcomer to North Dakota, she feels North Dakota is
truly her home.

“I love where we live,” Rieker said. “I love our life.”

In the past 10 years, Watford City’s population tripled and the county’s population doubled. And that’s after the oil boom slowed, sending many oil workers back out of state. The growth has allowed opportunities for people to move back to the area or for newcomers to move in. As McKenzie County’s economic development coordinator, it’s Daniel Stenberg’s job to keep building on that growth. A big part of that is making newcomers, like Rieker, feel welcome and creating new opportunities for them.

“There’s just been a lot more opportunity that has come about because of the major growth that we’ve had, and because it happened that quickly, people didn’t really fight it,” he said. “If we can provide that community, where people feel like this is a part of them, then they’re going to stay.”

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