Postcards Chronicle Fascinating History of the House of David
House of David founders Benjamin and Mary Purnell pose near their motorcar in front of the Israelite Colony. The Children’s Band sits to the right, with the Ladies Band behind them. This Pre-20 postcard is valued at $10-$15.
House of David postcards have always been highly collectible. Most of its subjects are “multiples” (fitting into more than one postcard topic), and eras range from pre-1920s through the linen era. Common views of the residences in the commune and scenes at Eden Park & Zoo can be found in the $4-$5 range, while real photos of the House of David baseball teams, bands and miniature railway command $35-$60.
Knowing more about this amazing colony, which became an integral part of its southwest Michigan home, makes collecting these postcards much more fun. The Israelite House of David was a Christian religious community founded in 1902 by Benjamin Purnell, a roving preacher, and his wife Mary.
In 1895, Benjamin had a revelation that he was the “seventh messenger” described in the Book of Revelation. The previous six “angels” were Joanna Southcott, Richard Brothers, George Turner, William Shaw, John Wroe and James Jezreel, all of England. As outlined in biblical scripture, the function of the seventh angel was to gather together the tribes of Israel prior to the second coming of Christ.
This “sleeper” could be found in a dealer’s dollar box, since the fact that it’s a House of David card might be easily overlooked. This aerial view of Mary’s City of David in St. Joseph dates from the early 1930s and nicely shows the entire complex. Valued at $7-$10.
After seven years of writing, his manuscript “The Star of Bethlehem” was published in 1902. That led to the Israelite House of David officially being founded in Fostoria, Ohio. After an inspiration by Mary, the colony moved to Benton Harbor, Mich. on St. Patrick’s Day of 1903 and grew quickly, attracting worldwide members from the former 5th and 6th Israelite churches in America, England and Australia.
Based in and around Benton Harbor and High Island, Mich., the commune required its members to abstain from sex, haircuts, shaving and eating meat. They were conscientious objectors to war, and gave equal rights to women. They generated their own electricity, grew their own food for their vegetarian lifestyle and built their own exquisite mansions and furniture, much of which still exist to this day.
The House of David was a true commune and all possessions of its members were surrendered to Benjamin. In turn, he provided for the support of all colony members from a central fund that he administered. Most of the original members came from Indiana and Ohio, but membership increased dramatically after Benjamin Purnell visited Australia in 1904-05 and appeared before the followers of the previous messenger, James Jezreel.
During its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, the Benton Harbor colony numbered more than 1,000 members. Having worked the Chicago World’s Fair for two full years during 1933 and 1934, the colony was able to tap into an endless tourist trade on the western side of Lake Michigan.
House of David Baseball Teams
The long-haired players on the House of David baseball teams attracted lots of attention. Players included men and women—the women are the ones without the beards. Real photo postcard, EKC stamp box circa mid-1940s, valued at $45-$60.
Benjamin, a sports enthusiast, encouraged his Israelites to play. The House of David started playing baseball around 1913 as a weekend endeavor, and by 1915 the team was playing a more grueling schedule. By 1920, the team was barnstorming around the country, earning money for the colony and using the team as a way to preach to potential members.
While the team was on the road, the colony established a home team, a girl’s team, and a junior boy’s team. The players were led by manager Francis Thorpe and the teams were originally comprised exclusively of colony members. The Home Team was always an attraction because of the players’ long hair and beards, and the team drew substantial crowds wherever it played. This was a team of white men who traveled across America with the Negro teams, breaking the color barrier wherever they stopped.
In the early 1920s the team needed better players—and there was a lack of participation by colony members. So Thorpe began hiring players outside of the faith. These “players for hire” were required to grow a beard. Many played for the team for several years.
The House of David continued to sponsor barnstorming teams until the late 1930s, then sponsored teams in weekend semi-pro leagues well into the late 1940s. At one time, they had three teams barnstorming around the country. All told, the House of David sent teams out barnstorming from 1930 to 1940, then again from 1946 to 1955.
House of David Bands
Men, women and children participated in bands and musical groups that traveled the vaudeville circuit. This real photo postcard of the Israelite Ladies Band was made in 1918, and is valued at only $10-$15 due to a repaired tear, creases and corner wear. In better condition, it would fetch $40-$50.
The organization also fielded nationally known musical bands between 1906 and 1927. During that period these bands toured the country almost non-stop, primarily on the three top vaudeville circuits: the Pantages, the Keith and the Orpheum.
Music was important in the everyday life of House of David Israelites. It was part of their personal lives and integral to their worship. It was used for social functions and commercial enterprises. Their music reflected their heritage and expressed their religious values. It enabled personal growth and the achievement of communal goals.
Almost every Israelite was involved in some form of musical expression. Adults played in men’s bands and ladies’ bands; children played in children’s bands. Israelites sang in ones, twos, threes, fours and fives, and in larger choral groups. They formed comedy musical acts, string bands, marching bands, jazz bands and dance orchestras.
Colonists hand-crafted musical instruments for sale as well as for their own use, and taught generations of non-members how to play. Members played and sang for their own entertainment and performed on public stages in Benton Harbor and across America. For more than a half century the music of the House of David provided entertainment to the public and made the Israelites famous in the process.
The colony’s music industry was a major component of its economic success, which in turn had a significant impact on the development of southwestern Michigan. During the first half on the 20th century the fame of the House of David was based as much on its musical talents as on any other facet of its organization.
Eden Springs Park and Zoo
This great linen view of the Midget Auto Speedway at House of David Park in Benton Harbor shows adults driving the cars in autumn—though children often tried their hands in these self-powered vehicles. An unusual view, ranging from $8-$12.
The House of David also operated the world-famous Eden Springs Park and Zoo, one of America’s earliest amusement parks, which opened in 1908. It grew into a very popular Michigan vacation spot by the 1930s. The park was the home of the Israelite-built largest miniature railroad in the world, consisting of more than a mile of track and eleven miniature steam engine trains built by House of David craftsmen.
Exotic peacocks walked around the park’s aviary and visitors experienced the thrill of driving miniature cars and rollercoaster excitement crossing over the 40-foot train trestles.
Israelite bands were often seen and heard around the colony’s buildings, and soon the colonists found a crowd of non-members hanging around on weekends to hear the bands play. So a bandstand and a large birdhouse were built in the park to entertain their “Gentile visitors.”
The south depot was the arrival point for most tourists. It was ringed by cottages, a baseball park, zoo, restaurant and hotel. Inside the depot were souvenir stands and an ice cream parlor. On the east side of the depot was a hopper and water tank for the replenishment of coal and water for the miniature engines. Once refueled, the trains would depart on their return trip through the zoo, over the east trestle, past more tourist cabins and the Diamond House, to the north depot on Britain Ave.
As visitors entered the zoo, they found a row of bird cages on the left, on the South side near the ravine. These contained parrots, small birds, eagles, cockatoos, peacocks and emus. Three people were in charge of the zoo—a Mr. Tapping, Billy Harrison and Chic Bell. The zoo also included alligator ponds, kangaroos, a monkey house and a sea lion. Lion and tiger cages opened in 1908 and closed in 1945 when the animals were sold to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.
Commercial Activities and Inventions
A Pre-1915 Interior view of the Tailor Shop, showing men and women working, is quite rare and sells for about $35… if you can find one. The woman at the front sewing machine is producing House of David banners; the colonist behind her is measuring a man for clothing.
In 1903, one of the colony’s first Benton Harbor commercial ventures was the Ice Cream Building, which served homemade ice cream created by an early Austrian colonist. The ice cream became very popular, and the waffle cone was invented as a novel way to hold the ice cream. In no time, customers flocked in to try this new invention. It was such a big hit that the House of David took its waffle cones to the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, and kicked off what is still today one of the most popular ways to eat ice cream.
House of David activities included a farm, schools, an open-air tabernacle, a vegetarian restaurant, hotel, bands, crafts for sale in their own gift shop, and a printing press. It owned and operated its own cruise ships, trolley cars, bus lines and jam and jelly factory.
The colony built and operated the world’s largest cold storage building, the area’s largest lumber yard and America’s largest tourist court complex. It owned and operated its own coal, diamond and gold mines as well, which made them among the wealthiest entrepreneurs of the time.
House of David colonists invented and patented the first cross-propeller system for cruise ships, to keep a ship’s pressure against a large incoming wave and not tip over. The cruise ship industry embraced this newly designed system and used it until the end of the 20th century.
Eden Park also had small bowling alleys, but it was a lot of work for someone to set the bowling pins back up every time someone bowled a ball. So a House of David team invented and patented the very first “Pinnsetter” in 1909, which, with the pull of a tall arm, would go in and pick up the standing pins and prepare for the next shot. Luckily, one of these original pin setters was donated and preserved, and is now on display at the Bowling Hall of Fame in St. Louis, Mo.
A lovely woman poses on the front of this Grand Prize-winning House of David float at the springtime 1939 Blossom Parade in Saint Joseph, Michigan. Unusual real photo postcard, valued at $20-$35.
In 1923 the House of David Art Department—because of the massive amount of demand for its fabulous artwork—was forced to find a way to keep its statuary from breaking. Craftsmen soon invented what was to be called “Hydrostone,” a manmade stone used today by many dentists when creating false teeth. The material is extremely strong and can withstand moving without breaking.
When playing baseball, one thing the House of David teams didn’t like was having to end the game when it got dark. There were no lights anywhere in the country that lit up stadiums. So House of David colonists figured out a way to make a telescoping portable lighting system and mount it on the back of several large trucks. The teams began to travel the country with their newly invented lighting system in the spring of 1931.
For the very first time all across the United States, all of the teams that played the House of David for an evening game were given the pleasure of playing what was soon to be called Night Baseball. The House of David Museum displays an article listing all the cities across the country that played night games under the newly invented House of David Lighting System. Soon, stadiums around the country began to construct their own lighting systems. During interviews with former players, they said they loved the lights, and remembered the loud humming sound from the massive generators mounted on the backs of the House of David trucks.
In 1944 the House of David was approached by the Welch’s Grape Juice Company and asked if it could help create a way to put grape juice in a can. Welch’s had been unsuccessful, and had resorted to selling their product in bottles. With the use of their cold storage facility, colonists invented the first process that successfully canned grape juice. The inventors found that, after being cooled to a certain temperature, the grape juice was no longer acidic, and thus was no longer was a threat to the lining of the tin can. At this temperature, the juice could be placed in a can, the can sealed, and once back to room temperature, the juice wouldn’t deteriorate the inside lining. To this day, the Welch Grape Juice Company still incorporates the same techniques that the House of David invented so many years ago.
The House of David’s Decline
Miniature railway and locomotive, posed on the trestle at Eden Park. This printed card, circa 1930s, shows the Eden Springs/House of David invitation to send for literature on the back in black printing. The printed postcards are the most common. Scenic views of the Park can be found under $4; better views of amusement park attractions like this sell in the $5-$8 range.
Difficulties began in the 1920s, when the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers began running articles attacking Benjamin Purnell, who was accused of violating the commune’s oath of celibacy. Benjamin was tried in Berrien County for public immorality, and 13 young women, under oath, confessed to having had sex with the patriarch. The trial led to Benjamin being expelled from the commune in 1927.
Great wealth, fame and success had inflated some Israelites’ egos and eclipsed the reason and purpose in the faith of many that came to the colony. Those things brought legal troubles as well. Several families who were expelled from the colony for “uncontrollable behavior” later brought suits against the commune and its leaders.
This litigation continued through several Michigan courtrooms until, finally, it was resolved in appeal at the State Supreme Court in June of 1929. The lower court trials severely damaged the House of David and the Purnells, though the final word handed down in Lansing was a victory for the House of David, affirming the right to religious freedom and expression.
In the midst of this legal struggle, and before the State Supreme Court appeal was heard, Benjamin Purnell died, in December of 1927. His body was mummified and kept in a glass coffin in the commune.
Following Purnell’s death, the colony divided into two separate factions. One was the Israelite House of David (known as “The House of David”), whose members believed that Benjamin was the one and only leader. This group was then led by colony pillar Judge H. T. Dewhirst. The second faction, whose members believed that Benjamin’s wife Mary shared the leadership with him, was led by Mary Purnell herself. This colony was located across the street from the original development, and was called “The Israelite House of David, as Re-Organized by Mary Purnell” (known as “The City of David”).
Mary Purnell preached her Sunday sermons from a new auditorium, built in 1932 (and is now a museum). She bought farms, strengthened the House of David baseball team, established a thriving Jewish resort inside the City of David colony, and contributed greatly to the livelihood of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. The City of David remained very successful until Mary’s death in 1953, at the age of 91.
In 1966, membership in the House of David had dipped to less than 100, although some operations continued, such as the miniature train locomotive. In 1970 the House of David was approached by NASA to help develop a way to allow astronauts to take entire meals into space, using a very small storage area. With the help of Tom Dewhirst and the House of David Cold Storage, the two entities were able to devise a method of reducing an entire meal to powder, and then seal the Space Meals air tight.
The once strong, always creative Israelite House of David has declined, but still has a small number of living members in their 80s and 90s. Today, the House of David Museum & Tours, along with the revived baseball team, keeps its legacy in the public’s memory.
Bonnie Wilpon, the author of “Postcard History of Sarasota and Bradenton, FL,” and “Postcard History of Hollywood, FL.” (published by Arcadia Books), is a Worthologist who specializes in postcards.
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