Great Falls’ House Museum
Open This Summer
By Suzanne Waring
A Great Falls museum that you have likely missed is the Brother Van House Museum. Dedicated to one of Montana’s early pioneers, this museum examines an important aspect of Montana history.
Brother Van, officially known as William Wesley Van Orsdel, was a key figure in the settlement of Montana. He came to the territory in 1872 as a healthy, energetic twenty-four-year old and remained until his death in 1919 at the age of seventy-one. He told the captain of the “Far West,” the steamboat that took him to Fort Benton, that he was going to Montana to “sing, preach, and encourage people to be good.” He did that and more.
He was key in opening seven hospitals throughout the state, inspired the building of a hundred churches and fifty parsonages, and was instrumental in the creation of a children’s home and the first college in Montana—both of which remain today under new names but with the same general purpose. When others asked, “How can we possibly do such a thing?” Brother Van said, “How could we possibly not do such a thing?….We must not let this opportunity for service to pass us by.”
Brother Van never married. He was engaged to a young woman who died of tuberculosis. After that he went on his way alone, which is likely the reason he was able to complete so many positive projects and to help so many people during those settlement years. Major portions of his work were done in the Beaverhead area and Northern Montana, where he made Great Falls his home base. In 1908 he encouraged the congregation of the Methodist Church to build a new parsonage on church property. The building was finished January 1910. When the pastor’s family moved in, they invited Brother Van to live with them. For nine years, an upstairs bedroom became the only permanent home he ever had in Montana.
Because he was always on the move crisscrossing the countryside, Brother Van made an impact on the entire state. He dedicated the capitol and many of the state’s courthouses. He was entranced with Montana and once told a naysayer that he was going to stay in Montana “until he went straight up.” Brother Van became the most loved man in the state.
“Through the house museum, we want to show what Brother Van did for Montana and for our church,” said Maryellen Bindel, a member of the Brother Van Experience Committee. “He is an example of how one person can make a difference.”
“In addition to hearing the Brother Van story, those visiting the museum will see a home built around the time as many of the large private homes located in the Northside Neighborhood District that is on the National Registry,” said Bindel. “Without a full-time staff, we work on restoring the museum in the winter, and we open it to visitors in the summer.”
You are invited to tour the Brother Van House Museum at 113 Sixth Street North. A docent will give you a guided tour during museum hours from 1- 4 p.m. on the following Tuesdays: June 19 and 26 and July 10, 17, and 24. Admission is free. At other times, private guided tours can be arranged. Call 406-453-3114 for more information.