1903 : Israelite House of David Settles in Benton Harbor

April 3, 2023 all-day

On April 3, 1903, Benjamin Purnell, an itinerate preacher, along with his wife Mary, created the Israelite House of David, a religious colony, in Benton Harbor, Michigan, with land donated by devout followers. Within a few years, the colony had close to five hundred members living on the colony grounds.

Though small in number, their accomplishments were many. They were strong contributors to the agricultural community around them. It is thought that they developed one of the first cold storage facilities in the country and were the first to preserve jellies in jars. As early as 1908, they established a pre-Disney type amusement park, complete with miniature trains. A zoo and aviary were soon added to the park. They were also credited with inventing the automatic pinsetter used in their bowling alley. One of the tenets of their faith was vegetarianism, and the colony restaurant, serving original-recipe vegetarian meals, was credited with producing the first “sugar cone.” They built a three-story hotel in downtown Benton Harbor and an elaborate motor lodge, “The Grand Vista,” south of town. They built tourist cabins, bottled water from their own natural springs, erected a synagogue for their Jewish friends, and for a brief period of time even had an “on-site” hospital. They constructed a large amphitheater to accommodate their accomplished orchestra and world- renowned jazz band. They had a complete logging operation on High Island in northern Michigan. Another tenet of their faith was that they must neither shave nor cut their hair. When a few of the colony members were refused employment with a local streetcar company because of their appearance, the House of David bought controlling interest in the firm and soon all conductors were seen with long hair and beards!

House of David Baseball Team cover

The feature for which the House of David is perhaps best remembered, however, is the talented teams of bearded barnstorming baseball players that traveled to nearly every state in the Union, Mexico, and most of the Canadian Provinces. Early in the team’s history, when their travels took them primarily to the east, their competition would often consist of the formidable Negro League teams: the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Bacharach Giants, the Newark Eagles, and the Homestead Grays. Later in the 1930s, both the House of David and the City of David would barnstorm across the country with the Kansas City Monarchs. In 1939, the City of David hooked up with Satchel Paige’s All Stars for over two months, playing 60 games between them.

Grover Cleveland Alexander would serve as manager/pitcher for one of the House of David teams from 1931 through 1935. Chief Bender was also a member of the 1933 eastern traveling team, along with Jackie Mitchell, the first woman to ever sign a professional baseball contract. In 1934, Babe Didrikson Zaharais joined the Eastern traveling team. That same year also saw one of the first integrated teams take the field when Satchel Paige and Cy Perkins, his catcher, signed on to play with the Davids in the Denver Post tournament. As late as the mid-1950s, the City of David was still barnstorming with Paige, now with the Harlem Globetrotters.

The House of David is credited with inventing the “Pepper Game.” Doc Tally, John Tucker, and Dutch Faust are thought to have originated it, with George Anderson replacing Faust when he left and helping to raise its level to the point where it was often billed as an attraction that was as entertaining as the game itself. The House of David ballpark was built around 1910 to accommodate the Fitzsimmons Speed Boys, a local semi-pro team. When they were out of town, the Colony used the diamond to play neighboring school teams. In 1914, Doc Tally, with the help of his two brothers and Francis Thorpe, formed what is thought to be the first officially uniformed team. In 1916, they won the Berrien County championship, and news of their prowess began to spread.

An article by the Associated News Service appeared in 1919 about the team, and in 1920 they were featured in a New York Times mid-week pictorial. All was well, with only one House of David traveling team on the road, until an internal struggle tore the Colony in two. In 1930, the Mary’s City of David formed, and with its formation came the “second” House of David traveling baseball team. Both the City of David and the House of David claimed to be the “original” ball club. By 1934, there were as many as four Benton Harbor teams on the road. The City of David, which had no home park, was destined to be forever the “visitors,” while the House of David sent out an Eastern, Western, and Central States traveling team and also utilized the “home” diamond. To add to the confusion, Louis Murphy, a former House of David promoter, formed his own House of David team, complete with whiskers, and played primarily in the Southeast.

Source : Joel Hawkins, The House of David Baseball Team, BaseballLibrary.com

House of David baseball team / Joel Hawkins and Terry Bertolino. Chicago, IL : Arcadia, c2000. available through interlibrary loan

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