Brother Van was quite the man

By Adam Jerome, I-O Reporter
Brother Van was quite the man
NEW DISPLAY — Transportation and Historical Museum Curator Ruth Cook points out a segment of the new display at the museum which is all about ‘Brother Van.’ I-O Photo by Buck Traxler
   Recently the Conrad Transportation and Historical museum received quite the gift.  
   A man living out of Washington was digging around in some old boxes and came across some interesting artifacts.  He pulled out some old Christmas Cards from the early 1900’s.  
   These cards were addressed to his grandmother from the famous Methodist Minister William Wesley Van Orsdel aka Brother Van.
   Brother Van was a very important historical figure in early twentieth century Montana, especially in the Milk River area.
   Brother Van first arrived in Montana in 1872 at the young age of 24.  His goal was to convert as many people to Methodists as he possible could.
   He would later recall that he was given a message from God to go to a place with little if any infrastructure and preach the word of God.
   So at age 22 he retired the family plow in Pennsylvania and headed west to find this place.  Two years later he would find the place God had told him about, it was Montana.  He would eventually go on to become the Superintendent of the Methodists North Montana Mission.  He held that title from 1892-1918, one year before his death.
   During his 47 years in Montana, Brother Van would go on to found 100 churches, 50 parsonages, six hospitals, and numerous schools.
   Bother Van was responsible for the creation of the First Methodist Church in Valier and the Brady Methodist Church, which are still functioning today.
   He also founded the Deaconess Hospital in Great Falls, where he would later be cared for at the time of his death.
   One story that will give you an idea of just how famous he was in the early 1900s was one trip he made to Collins.
   Brother Van was on his Methodist Circuit and made a stop in the small town of Collins.  When the townspeople were informed of his arrival the excitement spread.
   He would be the first man to ever give a religious speech in the town, and all 25 people that lived in the town showed up to listen to him. What is even more impressive than the number of people that came to listen to him is the fact that he was able to raise over $35 in offerings.  In that day that was an absurd amount of money for that few of people.
   Another thing that Orsdel was famous for were his Christmas Cards.  Every year he would send out cards for the holidays with a Christmas and New Year’s message to all the Methodists he had converted.  Every year the cards would have a new picture and a message on the back.  
   One very special card would be the one right before the time of his death in 1919.  He had become deathly ill and could see the end in sight.  
Before his death he explained that the Christmas Cards were to go out as usual even if he had died at the time the cards were to be mailed out.  He instructed that if he had passed he wanted the cards to read, “First Christmas in Heaven,” and that is exactly what happened.
The Conrad Museum has three Christmas Cards and actually has his last card with those words in it.
   If you would like to learn more about the story of Brother Van and his times in Montana then head to the museum.  Curator Ruth Cook has assembled an exhibit dedicated to Brother Van and has studied his history extensively, which she will be happy to share with anyone.
   So go on down there and learn that Brother Van was quite the man.