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May 07, 2012 10:03 PM

Boom: On The Edge

Lemmon, SD

It's been buried under the rolling hills of western South Dakota for hundreds of years but now there is nationwide interest in the oil below the Dakotas. There are several South Dakota connections, including Lemmon, South Dakota, which is a community on the edge.

Roots run deep in Lemmon, South Dakota. Farm and ranch families have lived off the western prairie soils for generations. But Lemmon's solid foundation is shifting. The North Dakota border town is also on the edge of a change, fueled by oil nearly two miles deep.

"A little bit. It's happening, yeah," barbershop owner Carol Kling said.

The talk at Kling's Main Street barbershop these days is usually about oil. Kling's customers, like Bill Hourigan, have equal parts anxiety and enthusiasm about a boom slowly seeping south.

"Yeah, I wouldn't mind a mineral lease, but as far as the development, I really don't want to see that," Hourigan said.

If you think it's too soon to start talking about oil in Lemmon, you're wrong. North Dakota is just a few feet from downtown. Once you cross the train tracks, you're in that state. You can't see the oil, but people know it's there.

"We're going to be the first thing a lot of the folks from the North Dakota oil boom see when they head south," City Attorney Shane Penfield said.

For five years now, town officials like Penfield have watched their northern neighbors profit from explosive oil exploration. And it may soon be their time. People here have seen the oil's successes and the problems. So now Lemmon is making a plan.

"People in leadership in this community are not going to stick our heads in the sand, but look to the future and try to figure out how to make this a positive impact to this community," Penfield said.

Penfield wears many hats: economic developer, real estate agent, city attorney and Perkins County prosecutor.

"And the punch line is, I'm not a barber, but I own the barbershop next door," Penfield said.

Old photos in his office prove oil has been struck in Lemmon in the past. But it also went away.

Perkins County's population isn't big even by South Dakota standards. It has around 2,900 people; about one person per square mile. Since the 1950s, Lemmon has lost nearly half of its population, shrinking by 200 each decade to slightly more than 1,200 today. But ask anyone here, and they'll tell you exciting things are happening in town. And since oil exploration started heading south, progress is ramping up even more.

"One down; 110 to go," Meshell Hausman said as she unpacked kitchen boxes.

Hausman has been in her new house less than a month. A street view shows what a far cry it one is from the 2,500 square-foot Utah home the family moved out of just three years ago.

"I just never dreamed that I would be living in remote South Dakota," Hausman said.

But it's a house, and Hausman is already making it home.

"We're thankful to have a roof over our head. This three-year journey has been hard, but we've been blessed with places to stay. It could be worse," Hausman said.

Hausman's husband, Dave, works in North Dakota's oil patch. It's a four-hour drive north, but after years of moving around trying to find a home, the family settled on Lemmon. Homes here are already scarce, but when you do find them, they are inexpensive, especially by oil boom standards. The Hausman's bought two houses. They paid just $5,000 for one they are renovating while living in another.

"Our kids were the ones who said, 'Let's do it.' That surprised me because our daughter is a senior this year and that's a tough move for a senior," Hausman said.

The Hausmans are not alone. Seventeen families have rolled into Lemmon over the the last six months. All of them have ties to the oil patch: husbands in North Dakota, wives and children at home.

"The majority of the people up here are honestly good-working people that didn't have jobs in their community and went to where the jobs were," Hausman said.

"The roads are deteriorating, the crime rate going up. Things that come with fast growth," Kling said.

Those are effects of North Dakota's oil basin boom. They are concerns Kling hears almost every day. But if the past five years have taught this town anything, it's to shore up growth plans to keep Lemmon's lifestyle solid.

"Regardless of whether oil starts knocking on our door or not, we're preparing for the future," Penfield said.

And all roads point to a future filled with oil.

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