The Nicest Place in North Dakota: Watford City

"North Dakota Nice"

Newcomers discover that a population explosion couldn’t diminish just how friendly this town is, even after tragedy strikes.

When Nick Ybarra moved to Watford City 11 years ago, it was a small town of 2,000 people with good schools, four restaurants, and no traffic lights.

“We were looking forward to slowing down,” he says.

Little did he know he’d planted his family in what was about to become one of America’s hottest boom towns. The game-changer was the opening of the massively productive Bakken oil fields. Roughnecks and their families started pouring in. The population soared to 8,000. Among the newcomers was Shauna Larrabee, who arrived from Maine with her husband.

“People are so nice here,” she recalls. “Within a couple weeks, I found out I was pregnant, and some complete strangers threw a baby shower for me.”

The town has made its new residents welcome in more substantial ways too. It has poured its newfound oil money into schools, roads, and services, paving the way for what it hopes is sustained growth.

Watford City was originally settled by Norwegians, and their Scandinavian values of hard work, tolerance, and compassion remain deeply influential, said Larrabee.

“I would call this the hardest-working town in America—and the nicest,” she says.

When a tornado recently devastated an RV park and took a child’s life, residents quickly raised thousands of dollars for the stricken family.

“I knew it was bad,” says Karen George, a real estate agent who arrived with her family five years ago. “I was like, ‘What are these people going to do? There’s no hotels. There’s no place for them to go!’”

George posted her address online, telling anybody who needed a place to stay to come by. Families showed up, filling every room in the house and the Georges’ camper.

“People say to me, ‘What can I pay you?’” says George. “And I say, ‘Just pay it forward.’”

Town officials stepped up to help protect everyone, upgrading their emergency response team, organizing tornado drills at schools, and even buying a new radar system to track storms.

It’s the kind of thoughtful response that Larrabee says is typical of Watford City: “It’s about taking care of your neighbors and your community.”

—The Editors

The Nomination

Want to learn the meaning of the word community? Come on up to Watford City

watford north dakota nicest place Courtesy Shauna Larrabee

We moved here 5 years ago from Maine and it felt like we moved backwards 30 years in time. Main Street has mom and pop stores, old school pharmacies, a soda fountain where the seniors meeting for coffee in the mornings.

One of my favorite nice things I’ve seen happen is at Larsens Pharmacy on Main Street. Stores are generally closed out here on Sundays, but I’ve watched the Larsen family come into the pharmacy on a Sunday or after hours to help a sick community member get their prescription filled (we don’t have 24/7 pharmacies here so thats huge). Jenna Larsen the pharmacist is one of my favorite locals to talk to on Main Street.

We had a tornado run through town last July. The entire town came together and handled the situation. One woman, a local realtor/property manager (Karen George) opened up her home to complete strangers right after it happened and helped them find housing. She also organized the cleanup efforts at the disaster site. One family lost their one1 week old baby in the disaster and we all rallied around them, getting them set up in a new apartment in filling it with things for them.

Something else I should mention is that this town has been at the center of the North Dakota oil boom. A lot of people pull into town on a wing and a prayer. I’ve watched people buy bus tickets for strangers to help them get home. Help them find a job or hook them up with groceries. You could easily find a 1000 different stories along these lines if you walked around and talked to people.