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Fulfilling a North Dakota dream: Longtime Texas history teacher moves ‘home’ to Dickinson

Brian Belden, shown Thursday at the Dickinson Museum Center, moved to Dickinson, or “God’s Country,” as he calls it, after a 40-year career teaching history in Austin, Texas. He now spends four hours a day of that retire. (Press Photo by Virginia Grantier)

Dickinson may not smell as great as it once did. In years past, Brian Belden said, before intense urban and oil-industry growth, there was a strong country air that smelled like freshly mowed hay and grain.

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Belden laments that many historic buildings have been razed, but said he still wanted to move here after retiring from 40 years of teaching history in Austin, Texas.

So he did, on Jan. 1, 2013. It was a day when the Austin’s temperature was about in the 60s, and Dickinson’s wasn’t — freezing temps and snow, he recalls. And that’s OK with him.

“This is where I want to be. … I wanted to move here while I was still in good health,” said Belden, who brought with him his history-teaching and volunteering skills.

Belden said he thinks the state is beautiful, from the terrain, rolling hills to its scenic byways and so on. He is “museum crazy,” he said, and so started exploring those immediately. He also started reading reading history books, volunteering at the Dickinson Museum Center and in Medora at Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s interpretive center.

Also, Belden loves attending auctions, and has bought and donated items to the Dickinson Museum Center, at 188 W. Museum Drive. He is now working at the museum four hours a day, giving tours, relieving the museum director, and scanning in historic photos from Dickinson and other towns for the museum’s ever-growing online photo archives.

Belden didn’t pick this state for retirement by chance. He lived in Dickinson when he was very young, and then in Bismarck until about age 12. His family then had to move to a different climate, ending up in Texas, for the health of his sister, who had a respiratory disorder.

They left behind extended family and a family farm south of Dunn Center that was operated by his two uncles. However, Belden’s career goal was always to come back and take over the farm.

Belden said every other weekend, until they moved to Texas, was spent at the farm. Then, on the way home, there would be a memorable Sunday-dinner food fest in Dickinson at his grandmother’s. Pauline Belden, who had started several restaurants in Dickinson, was known for her great cooking, he said.

Belden said that “probably the best 90 days of my life” were the three months spent on the farm after his college graduation. He fully participated in the work of branding calves and harvesting and hauling gravel to improve a farm road. He also remembers the cold 10-cent Coca-Colas bought after delivering grain to the Dunn Center elevator on hot, dusty days.

All of his life, drinking a Coke still brings those moments back, he said.

On one occasion at the farm he was in the right spot, driving an old pickup, to head off a cattle stampede, maneuvering the herd using a method he had happened to read about in a book.

“I knew what to do based on what I had read,” he said. And the self-described “city slicker” earned respect that day.

He always planned to be the next generation on that farm, but life took other turns. He was inspired by a geography teacher, and ended up majoring in education and social studies, and also spent a year in Vietnam. He remembers spending the 14-hour flight to Vietnam memorizing an ode-type North Dakota poem by the state’s former poet laureate James W. Foley.

When, as an adult, he tried to come up with money to buy the farm, he couldn’t get a large enough loan. His uncles, after decades of hard work were weary, wanted to retire and had to sell to someone else, he said.

The dream to live in North Dakota never died, but for years his passion became teaching history at three Austin high schools. His favorite focus was U.S. history, particularly early 20th Century — from Theodore Roosevelt through the World Wars.

Between teaching and coaching soccer, he was married to his job, often working from about 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., he said. So, he had no wife or kids to take into consideration when he decided to make the big move north.

Belden bought a house south of the Heart River and lives with his brother, Dwight Belden, 61, who works in the oil industry.

Belden, who got some additional agricultural experience in Texas, raising goats on his acreage outside of Austin, doesn’t expect to fulfill his farming dreams here. Land is out-of-the-park expensive, now. The family farm price would be way beyond his teacher’s retirement pay.

But he’s here. To stay.

“To me this is God’s country, heaven on earth,” he said.