MISSIONARIES to Sarawak: William Walter Overholt Inspiration for Bukit Lan Farm

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Agriculture and teaching missionary Rev William W.Overholt and his wife Olive came to Bukit Lan, Sarawak after having served more than 30 years in China.

Rev. Overholt was born in Iowa, USA and graduated from the Agriculture Faculty of Iowa State University. His wife, Olive, graduated from the Liberal Arts Faculty of Iowa State University. Later, they went to Northwestern University and Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary to equip themselves for mission work. In 1924, they were sent to teach science in the Anglo-Chinese School, Foochow, China.

On completion of the first stage of five years’ work, Rev. Overholt was posted to Yan Pin Annual Conference (now Nan Pin Town) situated at the upstream of Min River, engaging in rural ministry. Upon finishing the second term of work, he returned to Foochow in 1935 and taught at the Fukien Christian University. He helped the University to set up the Agricultural College.

In 1937, Rev. Overholt went back to America for debriefing. At this time, the Japanese had already over run China and he was forced to stay back in America. He worked for four years doing administrative work for Federal Agriculture Safety and also in community service. Later they returned to China. He taught at the Agriculture College of Christian University while his wife served at the Western Languages Department. When the communist took over in 1949, they continued to stay in Foochow for 16 months until they were forced to return to America with the other missionaries. After taking a year off they were posted to Sibu, Sarawak in 1952.

On 8 July 1952, Rev. & Mrs. Overholt arrived in Sibu as agriculture missionaries. He served in the Bukit Lan Farm while Mrs Overholt taught in Methodist Secondary School, Sibu. The Bukit Lan Farm, with a size of 384 acres, was set aside by the 2nd Rajah of Sarawak for the church to use as experimental farm in 1910.

Agriculture School
In 1912, the church sent Rev Charles E. Davis as agriculture missionary to set up an agriculture school (ref: Methodist Message 23/2/2014 edition 965). James Hoover also planted (in batches of 162 acres and 10 acres) Jelutong trees in the farm.

In 1916 Rev Charles E. Davis returned to America. Ling Kai Cheng was appointed to manage the Bukit Lan property during the first District Conference after the Second World War, held on June 1946. Rev. Overholt was the second full time missionary appointed to take charge of the farm, roughly in the year 1953. The other American black missionary, Rev Thomas Harris, was assigned to the farm of the Iban church in Nanga Mujong, Kapit. From December, 1953 onwards, the farm developed under the management of Rev. and Mrs. Overholt, and youths deprived of education were given training on agriculture skills.

Before Rev. Overholt’s arrival, the farm land with higher elevation was planted with rubber trees. Rubber was the main source of income for the church. During the Japanese Occupation, the farm became a place of refuge for the Chinese from Sibu town.

When Rev. Overholt first arrived, he surveyed the whole place. In the swampy area, the decaying vegetations were bubbling in the wet mass. He reported that when he walked in the swamps, he sank into the peat soil up to his knees.

The Annual Conference started a rural area working committee, planning to set up vocational schools in Sg. Teku and Bukit Lan to provide agriculture training for students who completed primary education but could not continue in secondary schools. However the schools closed five months after opening because of lack of students. Rev. Overholt then bought two hundred copies of books on agriculture to be distributed to different churches for the congregation to borrow.

He also imported leguminous plants from Indonesia and other places. In 1954 he imported cross-breed goats for breeding. The farm also began to plant sweet potatoes, yam, ginger, corn and other crops. When Tom Harris was on leave, he assisted at Nanga Mujong Agriculture Centre for 14 months.

His Successor
In 1957 Rev. Overholt returned to US for debriefing. When he returned to Sibu the following year, he was accompanied by Leighton Wiant, who was assigned by the Mission Board to be his successor. On 11 August 1959, 7 years after Rev. Overholt came to Bukit Lan, they moved into the new parsonage overlooking the Rejang River. When he retired on the 23 September 1961, Leighton Wiant took over his place. When his boat passed by Bukit Lan, friends stood by the river bank to wave goodbye to him.

On 24 September 1961, Leighton Wiant took over the task, and introduced wet paddy planting, opened up plant nursery and set up an agricultural school. He also built a health clinic named “The Medical Evangelistic Centre, Bukit Lan” to serve the local community. The clinic stopped operation in the 80s.

On 10 September 1997, part of the Bukit Lan Farm was developed into “Bukit Lan Outdoor Retreat Centre.”
Compiled by Menglei
Translated by KT Chew & Christina

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