That changed late in the last decade. Oil companies developed hydraulic fracturing techniques -- fracking -- that made the Bakken oil commercially valuable. Drilling has been booming, and Williston is the nation's fastest-growing small city -- so fast that it doesn't have enough housing for the workers pouring in. Williams County grew 23 percent between 2000 and 2011.
This spring, North Dakota became the No. 2 oil-producing state, with lots of natural gas production, as well. It has the nation's lowest unemployment rate.
Williston is a lot less glamorous place than Fremont and less ethnically diverse. In the 2010 Census, 91 percent of people in Williams County described themselves as white and 4 percent as Native American. Politically it voted 67 to 31 percent for John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008.
This tale of two cities has a moral, which is that no political or governmental leader can forecast the future. Barack Obama and his Nobel-Prize-winning energy secretary thought solar panels were a huge growth industry. They bet billions of tax dollars and lost.
True, many private investors guessed no better. But they were risking their own money, not ours. And, yes, government research provided some early help in developing fracking.
But Fremont and Williston are more evidence, if any is needed, that the collective decisions of participants in economic markets do a better job of allocating resources than the often contributor-driven decisions of a few politicians.
Williston's jam-packed motels and trailers don't look as glamorous as the Solyndra headquarters in Fremont. The weather in North Dakota is seldom as pleasant as the microclimate of the East Bay.
But the Bakken shale is doing much more for America's economy than the shuttered solar panel plant.