On the road again: Benton Harbor

Water Street Glassworks.

By Steve Ellis

When I first visited Benton Harbor about 35 years ago, the city had seen better days and there was little left in the downtown area. The classic old buildings were mostly empty and in sad disrepair.

Benton Harbor was founded in 1860. The town was mainly swampland until local developers built a 50-foot-wide canal and by the late 1860’s, it became a shipping and manufacturing center for the area.

In 1903, the religious society known as the House of David was formed by Benjamin and Mary Purnell in Benton Harbor. The House of David colony soon had several hundred members. In 1906, the House owned about 1,000 acres, on which the colony harvested fruit from a dozen orchards and cultivated grain. The commune had its own cannery, carpenter shop, coach factory, tailor shop and steam laundry.

Purnell was a sports enthusiast and encouraged members to play sports, especially baseball, to build physical and spiritual discipline. The House of David began to play competitive baseball and by 1915, the team was barnstorming across America. It became famous and toured rural America from the 1920s through the 1950s. The team members wore long hair and beards as they played.

The House of David Echo’s vintage baseball club has been honoring the legacy of the House of since 2001, playing under 1858 rules while growing their beards and playing at the original 1914 baseball field at Eden Springs Park.

In its heyday, The House of David operated a world-famous zoo and amusement park in Benton Harbor.  It also established “The Springs of Eden Park” which became a popular Michigan vacation spot in the 1930s.

One of the main attractions at The Springs of Eden Park were the coal-powered miniature locomotives, purchased in 1908. Other popular attractions at the park included miniature racing cars and dances and shows at the amphitheater.

Benjamin Purnell was involved in a scandal in the 1920’s and the colony split into the Old House of David and Mary’s City of David with followers having to choose loyalties. Many of the buildings still stand and there are House of David museums in the area worth visiting.

In the last few years, Jackie and I have passed through Benton Harbor a few times and been pleasantly surprised to see its resurgence.

At the forefront of this development is the Harbor Shores Golf Club, designed by famous PGA-legend Jack Nicklaus. With the attached real estate development of condos and cottages and the Inn at Harbor Shores, Benton Harbor is attracting golfers and travelers from across Michigan and the entire Midwest.

The Arts District in Benton Harbor is a year-round destination for great food, inspiring art and family-friendly events.

The Livery Brewery was one of the first businesses to see the potential of this area and has continued to grow as each new business opens around it.

We stopped into the very busy Mason Jar Café, and we were told there is sometimes a half hour wait for lunch. Other great eateries include bread+bar, the Houndstooth Restaurant, Phoenix Rising and Lark’s Bar-B-Que.

One of the most well-known organizations in the Arts District is Water Street Glassworks, a non-profit, studio, gallery and school dedicated to the glass and metal arts. Visitors are invited to overlook the school’s “hot shop” and watch students and artist’s glassblowing and casting.

Just outside of downtown is a great hamburger joint we discovered on our last visit — The North Shore Inn. We noticed a picture on the wall of Jack Nicklaus with the owners and were told that Nicklaus was a regular customer when in town designing the golf course.

If you are looking for something a little off-the-beaten-path, artsy and steeped in history, then you will love Benton Harbor!

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