“Mary Purnell prophesied that the ingathering would occur when people drove by the House of David and said, ‘Look, that’s where it used to be.’ With its rubble-strewn grounds and dilapidated buildings, that time would appear to be now. The hard work in which the Israelites have engaged since the beginning of this century is nearing its final goal.” —Adam Langer in “The Last Days of the House of David,” Chicago Reader, June 30, 1994
Here’s the thing about apocalyptic religious sects, particularly those that preach total abstinence from sex and eventually stop accepting new members altogether: their lifespan is limited. All the better for the celibate, conscientious-objecting, vegetarian, long-haired Israelites of the House of David—and, later, the City of David—in Benton Harbor, Michigan, who were awaiting a time when their commune would be the site of a restoration of the Garden of Eden, the so-called “ingathering.” Benjamin Purnell, who founded the House of David with his wife, Mary, in 1903, prophesied that this would take place around the dawn of the new millennium; Mary foretold that their following would be small enough to fit inside her closet when the time came. Their following is definitely small—roughly five members currently inhabit the two communities where there used to be hundreds—but the millennium came and went in bleak fashion, with nary a sign of a return of the idylls of Eden (or even those of Benton Harbor in its heyday).
Then, in 2011, something happened.
To say the Israelites of the House of David were productive would be a understatement. They owned a gas station, a motor lodge, and a cold-storage facility for produce. They were among the first to market veggie burgers and to bottle mineral water, which they got from the springs that still bubble on the property. Word has it they revolutionized automated pin setting for bowling alleys and a portable lighting system for their minor-league baseball team, which became a sensation because of the players’ long hair and full beards. (To modern eyes, they look less like a baseball team than a really big metal band.) And in 1908, the House of David opened Eden Springs, an amusement park that over the years would be home to a zoo, amphitheater, beer garden (they didn’t drink but they also didn’t mind profiting off people who did), hotel, restaurant, bowling alley, and a mile-long miniature railroad that wound its way around the park, through a corridor of trees, and across two train trestles that span the valley where the amphitheater once stood. Judging from old pictures and postcards, it was really, really beautiful.
It might not be the ingathering the Purnells had in mind, but Eden Springs is being restored. Slowly. When I visited in mid-April, dozens of people were on-site getting ready for the annual opening of the trains in May (the railroad operates on weekends from Memorial Day through Labor Day). The House of David no longer owns the land on which the park stands, and everyone on hand is a volunteer who wants to see the park thrive again for one reason or another: they live in the area and remember what the park used to be, they live in the area and heard from family members what the park used to be, or they’re railroad enthusiasts. It helps to see Eden Springs through their eyes.
Just a few years ago the park was a jungle dotted with crumbling buildings, which is what it was left to become when it closed down in the 70s, a decade that saw the demise of lots of small amusement parks and roadside attractions. There’s not much more to see now, but a lot of progress has been made since the train started running again in 2011. The land was cleared of brush, one of the depots was renovated and given a nice paint job, and of course the remaining mini steam engines—several were sold off—have been fixed up to run on about a quarter mile of restored track. The historic baseball grounds have been turned into an RV park, so there’s a better chance tourists will, in fact, come around and board the trains.
Two of the volunteers, middle-aged brothers named Mark and Victor Smith, agreed to give me a tour of the grounds. Victor carries around a binder of photos to help me reconcile what is and what was—a slab of concrete that used to be the beer garden, the approximate spot where a hand-built stone dollhouse used to stand, a wall of steps that lead down to the valley that used to drip with flowers (a questionably functional fountain is now its centerpiece). The Smith brothers don’t have familial ties to the House of David, but they grew up in rural Benton Harbor with the train whistle as a sort of siren song they could hear from miles away, which is impressive because the engines are only tiny things—maybe three feet tall and seven feet long. The brothers also grew up amid rumors about the weird old inhabitants of the two colonies on Britain Avenue. Says Mark, a history teacher: “If you talk to local people, a lot of them will tell you some pretty fantastic stories—I would say 90 percent of it is nonsense. The more you research you’ll see it’s blown out of proportion.”
Probably the most recited of the stories is an oldie about Benjamin Purnell coercing young female members of his sect into having sex in secret tunnels inside Shiloh, a sprawling Victorian mansion that used to be the heart of the commune (and is currently being renovated). Purnell was convicted of fraud, but he died before the charges of sex abuse could go anywhere. In her husband’s absence, Mary split off from the House of David and started her own colony, City of David, directly across the street.
Currently, Mary’s City of David has three members. The Smith brothers and I find one of them, a slightly stooped and bearded man named Ron Taylor, sitting on a bench looking out at the baseball field he personally cleared a decade and a half ago for a local team, the Berrien County Cranberry Boggers. Besides being the colony’s unofficial secretary and trustee, Taylor serves as its historian, giving guided walking tours of the old mansions on the property and operating the museum. He also plays first base on the City of David vintage baseball team, which is populated by “friends, family, historic people, people from the area,” Taylor says. They play gloveless—it’s 1858 rules, so there’s no protective gear whatsoever—and his broken fingers are badges of honor, as are the baseballs that were made by hand by a House of David member until he passed away last year.
This year they’ll play seven home games on their home field and 14 away games, including one in Lincoln Park on May 18. Taylor jokes about playing so close to Wrigley, “The problem with playing Chicago when the Cubs are in town is that everyone comes to see us instead of them and then we have to apologize.” Since he’s sort of the colony’s ambassador—and since everyone says the rest of the members are very into keeping to themselves—I ask him what he thinks about Eden Springs being revitalized. He nods his approval. “Everything’s up.”