It's one of longest running religious colonies in the United States and it's located in southwest Michigan.
At its peak in the early 1900s, the House of David in Benton Harbor had 1,000 members and was a multi-million dollar business empire.
Today, over 100 years later, the colony is still in existence, and its believers are preparing for what they describe as the New Millenium.
“This is my grandfather here. He was the operator of the shop,” says Ron Taylor pointing to a man with long hair in a black and white photo on display at Mary's City of David Museum.
Taylor is proud to have followed in his grandfather’s footsteps, not only in the way he looks, (his beard is more than three feet long. He braids it and pins it up under his chin), but what he believes.
“That Christ is coming to establish his kingdom on Earth,” says Taylor, who at 65 is the youngest and one of the few remaining members of “Mary’s City of David,” an offshoot of the House of David, one of the most fascinating third longest lasting religious communes in America.
“We live collectively. We share out of the same pot. Everybody is given their needs daily, clothing, shelter, food, medical attention. And we’ve done that very responsibly for over 100 years here,” says Taylor.
The Israelite House of David was founded in 1903 in Benton Harbor by Benjamin Purnell and his wife Mary.
Purnell, a traveling preacher from the hills of Kentucky, proclaimed he received a message from God and was the 7th messenger as prophesied in the Book of Revelations.
The House of David followers are Christian millenialists, believing there will be an “Ingathering” of the scattered tribes of Israel and that Christ will return to earth for his 2nd coming and reign for 1,000 years.
As membership grew from 7 to over 700 in 1908, the highly skilled believers constructed massive elaborate buildings named Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Shiloh to live in along Britain Avenue in Benton Harbor.
There are two beliefs about why the Purnells started the colony there. One is the Purnells said they received a "holy vision" that the colony should be built there. The other more practical reason is the fact the Purnells were friends with the promient Baushke family in Benton Harbor and they were able to bankroll the start of the colony there.
Most of the detailed eye-catching structures the followers made were constructed of special cement, which included an ingredient called hematite. Hematite was a spectacular iron that glistened in the sun, making the buildings sparkle like jewels.
Members not only lived communally but are vegetarians. They don’t cut their hair and are celibate.
A look and lifestyle at that time that led outsiders to become very curious.
"They'd walk into the buildings and somebody like me would have run them off. Benjamin opens an ice cream parlor," says Berrien County Historical Association Curator Bob Myers.
Myers says Purnell welcomed the public and their pocketbooks onto colony grounds.
“Benjamin would have been a great corporate CEO,” Myers adds.
Back then, the House of David was the Disneyland of the 20th Century, known around the midwest for its Eden Springs Amusement Park. Thousands of tourists each year, including Chicago Mob Boss Al Capone, visited the colony to enjoy the miniature steam engine train rides, tiny race cars, ice cream in sugar cones made at the colony, the zoo, and the music.
The commune was full of talented musicians, forming numerous bands and two
orchestras who played to packed crowds in their own outdoor amphitheatre.
But it was their major-league caliber, barnstorming baseball teams, known for their “pepper game” antics that took the country by storm and made the colony as much as $10,000 a year.
“Several had offers from the majors. They all turned ‘em down,” says Myers.
Lloyd Dalager joined the colony in 1914 at age 5. He remained a member until he died this August just before his 99th birthday. He played catcher.
“We got along with all of them. And we won more than we lost,” said Dalager in an interview taped in his room in the Shiloh house before his death.
In fact in ‘34, the House of David played and beat the St. Louis Cardinals just after the Cards won the World Series. And the team also made history by touring with the Negro League.
The African-American players enjoyed the rivalry and referred to the House of David team as the "Jesus Boys."
Estimates show the colony amassed at least a $10 million fortune and by 1916 had 1,000 members, running more than 40 businesses.
“The most fascinating thing was its success,” says Myers who wrote a book titled, "Millennial Visions and Earthly Pursuits: The Israelite House of David.
The colony owned hotels, a bakery, ships, a bus line, large farms and dairy operations, oil wells, diamond and gold mines, a car dealership, even a 500 acre lumber operation in northern Michigan known as High Island, and the list goes on and on and on.
But in the early 20’s, the House of David’s successes were clouded amid sexual scandals and money swindling accusations.
At least three women from the Girls Band later accused Purnell of rape.
WSBT Reporter Denise Bohn read through a stack of court documents dating back to 1923. The cases are housed in the Berrien County Archive Office in Benton Harbor. The ladies claim as teenagers Purnell fondled them and had sex with them as part of a religious rite known as "deflowering of virgins," or "blood cleansing."
Several former followers also sued the Purnells saying they’d been duped.
Benjamin Purnell was charged but disappeared, avoiding arrest four years. Police raided the Shiloh house on colony grounds several times but never found him. They believe he was always tipped off ahead of time and hid underground in secret tunnels.
In his interview, Dalager said as a teenager, he was often entrusted to guard the gate of the entrance to the colony, to keep an eye out for police because quote, "We all knew Benjamin was there, inside (the Diamond House)."
Finally in 1926, officers raided “the Diamond House," a building located on the southside of colony grounds.
They found Purnell in his 2nd floor bedroom sick and frail and arrested him.
The 66-year-old Purnell was put on trial. He was carried into the courtroom on a cot and could barely speak. He was found guilty of "religious fraud" but died of tuberculosis in December 1927 before being sentenced. However, his conviction was later overturned by the Michigan Supreme Court. The higher court ruling the judge was not eligible to preside over the court proceedings.
Purnell's body was placed in a hermetically sealed glass top casket, preserved and kept in the Diamond House. However in the late 1980's, teenagers robbed the house and broke the sealed casket, stealing expensive jewelry Purnell was
wearing. His body is now cared for by church members.
Infighting split the colony in 1930, with half of the members, about 350 people, joining Purnell’s widow Mary, as she created Mary’s City of David, an identical religious colony located only 100 yards down the road from the original House of David.
“It was bitter. It divided families,” says Myers.
The colonies have been the focus of dozens of books and documentaries.
“These are all the films I had done over the last 20 years with interviews with House of David members," Chris Siriano says as he points to a desk full of DVD's and CDs.
Chris Siriano helped produce a documentary, "A Compelling Curiosity: The Israelite House of David," and has a museum with over 20,000 pieces of House of David history.
“When I interviewed them, a lot of them had changed their faith, but a lot of them felt like it was a fairy tale place to live.”
A place that Siriano believes transformed local history.
“Southwest Michigan’s really lucky Benjamin chose to plant roots here," adds Siriano. "They built a Roman Empire in Michigan."
Today, only a handful of members remain. Three are left in the original House of David where a major renovation is underway. Thousands of dollars are being spent to refurbish the Shiloh building, which is listed on the Register of National Historic Places. The project is in anticipation of the 2nd coming of Christ. The once very public friendly colony is now very private. "No Trespassing" signs are up, and gawkers are often shood away.
At Mary’s City of David, Ron Taylor is one of only two members remaining. He runs the day-to-day operations, which include maintaining rental properties and some farming businesses. He also oversees the colony’s museum and offers tours and presentations.
Taylor, who received a degree in fine arts before joining the colony 38 years ago, says he’s never regretted his decision to join.
“I found it very comfortable.”
And he too awaits the "Ingathering" and return of Christ.
“The 2nd coming is a pretty big thing." "And you think it’s going to be soon?" Bohn asks. "I think we’re real close.”
Taylor says signs indicate the 2nd coming could occur within the next ten years.
But if it doesn't and there are no members left, it is likely and expected the state of Michigan would get the properties.
The colonies are also credited with creating some interesting things.
They patented a bowling pin setter machine (They had a bowling alley on colony grounds), made a steering mechanism for ships, discovered a way to preserve the purple color in grape juice when it was frozen, (it normally would lose it's color during the freezing process) and were the first to make the waffle cone.