by Jessie Veeder
In Western North Dakota, these days there’s no such thing as a quiet, sleepy town.
If there is a house, it has a resident. If there is a street, it has traffic.
If there is a business, it is bustling.
And so that’s the case in Keene, North Dakota, a dot on the map along Highway 23, about 30 miles northwest of Watford City, with city limits stretched only a half mile or so, touching the edges of wheat fields and canola fields, smack dab in the middle of the oil fields.
Twenty-five years ago if you stopped in Keene you could mail a letter at the post office, fill up your truck at the small gas station, take your kids to the park, attend a fireman’s social and maybe get your lawnmower repaired at a small shop along one of the few short streets.
And twenty-five years ago you would be happy to learn about local woman Lisa Thompson’s plans to open a small beauty shop within the borders of the little town.
You might have even offered to help her paint a wall or two because her business plan meant that there would be no more driving thirty miles or more to Watford City for a cut and color. You could now stop in for a chat with your neighbor and come out with a new look.
Because Keene might be small, but it wears the badge with pride, standing mighty as a community center and meeting place for farmers, ranchers and rural residents residing in the miles of field and pasture surrounding its borders.
It’s that small town pride, the sense of community support that Lisa grew up with, just twenty-some miles down the road from Keene, a girl raised on a farm, who fell in love with a local neighbor boy.
“I didn’t think of anything else but coming back here,” Lisa says of attending cosmetology school in Bismarck, marrying her High School love, Travis, and moving with him to his family farm eight miles from Keene. “I love that we know one another here. I love that we’re close to family and the sense of community we have.”
In the early years of her marriage and her career, Lisa worked as a beautician both in New Town and in Watford City, at one point both at the same time, while her husband farmed and ran a small oil field repair business. The miles she traveled for her job, approximately thirty miles in both directions, took their toll, and when the couple’s first child, Arial, was born, Lisa decided she wanted to stay closer to home.
“It was a scary time,” said Lisa of her decision to purchase an old house and move it in to a lot in Keene next to the fire hall. “There was a limited population, limited clients.”
But Lisa, with the help of her husband and her father, transformed that little 25 x 14 foot house into Keene Kuts, a welcoming environment and an unexpected beauty oasis for her customers in rural western North Dakota, featuring two salon chairs and a small separate room where she recently started offering manicures and pedicures.
And soon the phone started ringing, friends and family, neighbors and clients she met in Watford City and New Town who were willing to make the drive to Keene to get their hair done by Lisa.
“In this job you see people at their best and at their worst,” said Lisa who explains that connecting with clients, and making them look and feel their best, is her favorite part about the job.
And opening a business only eight miles from her farm home meant that she was able to be there for her two children, Arial, who now works as a police officer in Bismarck and Derek, who helps on the farm and with Travis’ now booming oil field repair business.
“I’ve always enjoyed working independently, and owning this shop meant I could go to the kids’ activities and plan my appointments around their schedule,” said Lisa.
When Lisa opened her business she and her friend and neighbor Gayle Mogen would work separate, three day a week shifts, because there weren’t enough clients to keep both chairs full each day.
If you asked her then if in twenty-some years she would be thinking of expanding Keene Kuts today, she would have laughed and called you crazy.
“Never would I have guessed that in this job, in little Keene, North Dakota, that there would be new people in my door every day,” said Lisa about the buzz the oil activity has brought to live and work in her small town. “My daughter says, ‘Mom, remember when you used to be able to read or cross stitch at the shop between clients?’ Well, there’s no cross-stitching now.”
These days Lisa is booked days in advance with regular and new clients from all over the country, carrying with them their own stories, unique accents and opinions about life in oil country.
Last February, after years of running the shop solo, Lisa hired Ashley Puffe, a beautician just out of school who moved to western North Dakota from Bemidji, Minnesota with her five year old son for a change, called up Lisa at her little shop in Keene and asked her if she was hiring.
Ashley met a local man who works on his family farm near Keene and she has fallen in love with the community and her job at Keene Kuts.
“I’m so glad to get to do what I was trained to do here. I like that I can work independently and this community has been so welcoming,” said Ashley. “I hope to be here forever. My son loves it here.”
In all that has changed along the back roads and highways and inside the small towns of Western North Dakota, it seems it’s unique businesses like Keene Kuts that remain the heartbeat of the community.
And as a woman who grew up along those roads, wheat fields and cow pastures, some days Lisa admits that it’s tough to see the landscape change.
“What were once little trails have turned to big roads and some days I don’t feel like I recognize the place,” Lisa admits.
Perhaps that makes Lisa’s business all the more important to the residents of Keene, old and new.
“Ten years ago there were houses sitting empty here, maybe there were 25 residents?” said Lisa of Keene. “Today, you might still be able to count the people, but the houses are full. And then there’s the little RV park behind the gas station. Maybe we’re at a 100 people now. I don’t know.”
The numbers don’t matter as much to Lisa as the stories and lives of the people coming through her door to sit in her chair, some finally making it well enough out here that they can splurge on a manicure or pedicure.
And in all that we are out here, farmers and oil men, mothers, wives, business owners, accountants, writers and kids running wild and growing as tall and fast as the clover, Lisa’s shop still stands tiny and true, a breath, a woman’s good and scary idea, a unique stop, the same sort of oasis its always been in a time that’s moving as fast as the trucks along Hwy 23.
Jessie Veeder is a singer, writer and photographer who lives and works on her family’s cattle ranch in Western ND with her husband, Chad