Oliver Smith Biography, Iowa Preacher - Along the Mississippi

Along the Mississippi

Standing side by side on the street corner, Oliver and a few of his hired men faced a very curious crowd. These were not the typical rural, working people that they usually encountered. These were city people, professional people, factory workers. Twenty years before them, another man had preached on these same streets. His name was D. L. Moody, and this was Chicago.

Oliver and his men had traveled to Chicago to attend a Bible conference. Between the meetings they had ventured down a busy street and were fearlessly preaching the gospel in the open air. When the meeting concluded, they wove their way back to the hall for another conference gathering. As they entered the building, the hand of an old preacher came down on Oliver's shoulder. Turning around, Oliver looked into the face of Caleb Baker, author of "The Two Roads and Two Destinies" chart. "Young man, he said, "I believe you had a word from God tonight. Keep at it!"

Refreshed and encouraged by the weekend in Chicago, Oliver journeyed homeward with an increasing desire to do something for God. Weighing heavily upon his mind was an invitation from Mrs. John Dehn to come over to Clayton, Iowa and try a few meetings there. Mrs. Dehn had been saved in meetings at Manchester. While visiting the Hermans in Waterloo,

Fred Lakin (left), one of the brethren from Waterloo, and John Dahlgaard (right)

Ed Ostoff

 Oliver decided to reroute his trip and visit the small Mississippi River town. He soon located an old school house and made arrangements for gospel meetings. The series proved to be short lived, however, when after two meetings news reached Oliver that his daughters had contracted scarlet fever. He packed his things and left.

But Oliver did not forget the little river community, and a year later in December he returned. John Dahlgaard helped him the first week, and it proved to be a time of real blessing. Five souls professed, including a railroad worker, a poor fisherman, and a telephone operator named Susie Ricker.

The railroad worker was Ed Ostoff, a section boss on a crew that maintained the tracks. He had been a foul mouthed drinking man in his unsaved days. One day after his conversion something went wrong and without thinking, an oath came from his lips. Immediately he fell to his knees in full view of the others, and asked God to forgive him. "Uncle Ed", as he was later called, went on to become a faithful testimony and witness for God in the area.

Early days in Clayton

The meetings continued into the frigid month of January, 1918. Oliver made repeated trips over the steep, icy hills, often taking his entire family with him. As the interest grew, so did anxiety within the community.

Rumors surfaced that a group from town was planning to tar and feather Oliver. "We kids were just hysterical after the meeting," said his daughter LaVelle. "It didn't bother Dad at all. He wasn't a bit concerned." The threat proved to be idle, and the meetings carried on.

God continued to bless the effort. Seven months later a happy group of young believers gathered together around the Lord's table to break bread. At its height, there were several in fellowship at Clayton but the numbers eventually declined. In 1951 the lamp went out. The few remaining believers then gathered with the Christians at Garnavillo.

Susie Ricker, one of the sisters in the meeting at Clayton, developed a deep concern for Mrs. Fred Kramer, a woman she worked for in Garnavillo. She mentioned this concern to Oliver, who without hesitation, went to visit the Kramers. They showed a keen interest in the gospel, so Oliver arranged for meetings which began in June of 1919. "I didn't know a soul except the Kramers," he said.

Making use of an old church building, Oliver preached to growing numbers every night. Traveling the narrow dirt roads over hilly terrain to get to the meetings proved to be quite a chore. His Model T was often bogged down in mud or grounded by a flat tire. He would hike to neighboring farms in search of help. These experiences were turned into wonderful opportunities, as he spoke with farmers about their souls.

One evening, Susie Ricker handed Oliver the first fellowship he had ever received. He never forgot it. "The poor girl," he said, "had worked hard to support her parents. She handed me a fifty cent piece and asked if I would use it to buy oil for the lights at the meeting. I told her that I would and I was careful to use the full fifty cents in buying oil for that building."

John Dehn's mother was the first person saved in the meetings, followed soon after by Mrs. Kramer. Mrs. Dehn was 82 years old and unable to speak English. Oliver pointed to passages in her German Bible and had her read them. One day the truth of God was revealed to her soul, and she bowed by the rocking chair in her humble home and gave thanks to God for the Lord Jesus.

A year later when Mrs. Dehn passed away, Oliver was called for the funeral. It was his first funeral at Garnavillo. A large number attended, with many simply curious to hear this new preacher who spoke with certainty of everlasting life. About this same time, a joint cattle sale was held on a farm near Garnavillo. Elmer and Louis Brandt had pitched a tent and were auctioning off some of their breeding stock. Greatly interested in this, Oliver and his brother Lloyd attended the sale. Oliver purchased one of the animals and drew out his checkbook to pay for it. Unable to find a suitable surface to write on, he pulled out his Bible and laid the check on that. Louis was somewhat surprised and thought inwardly that this was certainly a strange fellow.

In the meantime, Lloyd had gathered a number of women together in the house and was speaking to them of God's salvation. Louis' wife, Amanda, was among the ladies. Having been a devout person for many years, she was irritated to hear this man speak of good works as nothing more than "filthy rags". His words sank into the very depths of her soul and, in due time, gave rise to great anxiety. In August of 1918, she was saved. Elmer and his wife were saved the following February. Louis was saved a few years later.

Mr. & Mrs. Louis Brandt

Following their conversion, Elmer and Louis had another cattle auction at a sale barn in Elkader. Printed on the first page of the sales catalog was a gospel tract. At the auction itself, they arranged for Oliver to preach the gospel. This inflamed the auctioneer who threatened to leave. After some lengthy urging, however, he was persuaded to stay.

Sometime later, a local radio station aired a program which elicited response from citizens on a wide variety of subjects. A reporter was sent out to interview people on the street and bring taped comments back to the studio for broadcast. On his inquisitive rounds one day he crossed the path of an auctioneer. "What was the most unusual thing that ever occured at one of your auctions?" he asked. Without flinching, the auctioneer told of a time when a man stood up and "preached" before the sale could begin.

Six Garnavillo Christians gathered in the brick home of Elmer Brandt on July 24, 1921, to remember the Lord for the first time. Oliver joined with them on this happy occasion. They continued to meet in several homes until the spring of 1922 when they gathered in an unused country school house. About eight years later, they moved into the newly constructed Gospel Hall in Garnavillo.

Some of these Christians attended their first Bible conference on July 1, 1923, at Waterloo. On September 4, 1927, others crossed the Mississippi River and attended a conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin. These gatherings were a real help and encouragement to the saints, especially those who lived in isolated places. At La Crosse, for example, they were able to sit under the ministry of men like John Ferguson, John Conaway, and John Knox McEwen.

The Lord continued to bless in these early days as Oliver preached the gospel in various places around Garnavillo. Louis Brandt helped in many of these meetings. He later left the farm and went full time into the Lord's work.

Local brethren began open air meetings on Saturday nights. Often the streets were overflowing with people who gathered to listen. One particular evening they went to the nearby town of Osterdock and a good interest developed. Encouraged, they announced for another meeting there the following week. When they returned the streets were completely empty. Oliver, who happened to be along, urged the brethren to leave and go to the adjacent town of Colesburg. Louis Brandt disagreed, insisting that they stay in Osterdock and fulfill their promise. So, Oliver climbed onto the wooden platform which Louis had mounted on the bumper of his 1924 Studebaker and began preaching with great enthusiasm. His voice echoed through the lonely streets. At one point he stomped his foot down hard, and with a crash it went completely through the platform. Undaunted, he continued his message.The gathering appeared to have limited effect that night, but behind the scene God was working. Not far down the street, a family was sitting in their parked car listening intently. They were awakened to their need of the Saviour, and a few months later were saved. Later, the head of that family, Mr. Dale Hyde, spent a considerable amount of time preaching the gospel.

On another occasion in Osterdock, Oliver was offered a ride by a Russian man named Demetrius Bockinock. He asked Oliver where he was going. "To heaven," said Oliver.

"You're going to the hell," responded Mr. Bockinock, in his broken English.

Taking advantage of the opportunity, Oliver told the man of a heaven to gain and a hell to shun. Mr. Bockinock became very interested and invited Oliver to sleep for the night on a straw tick in his little hut. One day soon after, as Mr. Bockinock was walking down a ravine to cut wood, "the way became hard and the load of sin heavy." While sitting on an old tree stump, the Lord Jesus was revealed to him as the Saviour. "I got up," he said, and went up that hill light-footed. The burden was gone.

Later, Mr. Bockinock went to work for Louis Brandt on the farm. He confessed to having a wife and son in Russia whom he had abandoned. After an intensive search they were located and eventually brought to the United States. They lived in Chicago for many years.

One time when Oliver's tent was pitched south of Garnavillo, he passed by a large barn on his way to the meeting. The barn, famous for its dances, was filled to capacity. Oliver believed this would be an excellent opportunity to announce his meetings. He turned into the busy lot and wound his way through the dancing throng. He waited as the orchestra concluded a certain selection, then, as they prepared to play another, he walked onto the stage. With his strong voice, he called for the crowd's attention, and then invited everyone to the gospel tent down the road. "Why should I ever be ashamed of the Lord Jesus?" he once asked. "He gives me the very air that I breathe."