House of David film to premiere

Documentary aims to bring more understanding.

South Bend Tribune, Michigan/August 28, 2010

Jim Sawatzki, a Colorado documentary filmmaker grew up in Benton Harbor, visiting his grandparents' shoe store, Frick's, on Territorial Road.

It was there he encountered the bearded members of the House of David. And it was there he saw the miniature gas-powered automobiles at the religious sect's amusement park, Eden Springs.

And so when he was asked by Chris Siriano, developer of the House of David Museum, to consider making a film about the religious/cultural group, his answer was a resounding "Yes."

The film is called "A Compelling Curiosity."

It will be shown in various places throughout southwest Michigan.

Siriano said that he is especially excited about the Dowagiac showings since he is planning to move the House of David Museum to downtown Dowagiac this fall.

The museum will be closing its current location at 2251 Riverside Road in Benton Harbor on Oct. 1 and plans to re-open in the new location on Front Street on Nov. 15. Currently, the museum is open Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. With a greater emphasis on the baseball history, the museum will be renamed The House of David Baseball and History Museum.

The famous barnstorming "Jesus Boys of Baseball" in the roaring 1920s were a force to reckon with, explained Sawatzki.

"They took on every major and minor league team that would play against them. There was a saying at the time: 'If you want to see the world, join the Navy; if you want to see America, join House of David baseball.'æ"

The players, with their lengthy beards, would bring their own generators mounted on the backs of trucks and had some of the first night games.

The film, according to Sawatzki, is a factual history of the Israelite House of David, a Christian Millennialist sect founded by the charismatic Benjamin Purcell and his wife, Mary, in 1903, near the southeastern shores of Lake Michigan.

Besides launching the pre-Disneyland amusement park, Eden Springs, that the filmmaker remembers from his childhood, the sect revolutionized art, architecture, musical entertainment and sports, Sawatzki said.

Building a bowling alley, members developed a pin-setting device that was later sold to Brunswick. They developed cold storage for fruit crops and they canned grape juice for Welch's.

"They were an economic force," said Sawatzki, a graduate of Michigan State. "If not for them, the Depression era would have been a lot harder in southwest Michigan. They hired a lot of local people, especially after the schism when half their work force left."

After Benjamin Purnell died, Mary Purnell in 1930 founded the Israelite House of David as Reorganized by Mary Purnell, usually known as Mary's City of David. The House of David continued under the leadership of Judge H. T. Dewhirst.

The City of David has its own museum, which is open in the summer, and also offers colony tours and vintage baseball games. Sawatzki said he asked members of the City of David if they would participate in the film, but the offer was declined.

" 'A Compelling Curiosity' - that is what it is to me and to most people who are not of the faith," the filmmaker said.

"I hope the film will offer a better understanding. The group with three members left is on the edge of oblivion. Now we have a movie that will hopefully lead people to read more of the fascinating books and local history that is available."

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