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Their ranks are dwindling now and the beards on the old men are ashen and brittle, but the people huddled together in a wooded colony on the outskirts of Benton Harbor, Mich. continue to yearn for the future rather than the past. For them the past is bound up with a stern and shadowy building in their midst known as the Diamond House. The townspeople in Benton Harbor will tell you, though few if any claim to have seen for themselves, that the Diamond House contains the embalmed body of the colony's founder, and they will go on to confide tales about him of the darkest kind. Although these tales once brought the man front-page notoriety, his gentle followers always felt more at home back in the sports section. For they had their own traveling baseball team, and, forget about the skimpy manes of your Ken Harrelsons and the lean muttonchops of your Richie Aliens, they played the game in jungle-dense beards and hair so long that it had to be braided.
This team, like the religious sect it represented, was known far and wide as the House of David. Although it would be nice to tell you that the Diamond House was so called out of lofty honor for the national game, the name was inspired, in fact, by the sparkling composition of the building's stone surface. As for the man whose remains are said to reside inside, his name was Benjamin Franklin Purnell, or is, rather, for he is still very much alive in the memories of surviving House of David members who regard him as God's seventh angelic messenger. They steadfastly believe, in the face of the ignominy and insult of past years, that those faithful to his teachings can hope to wind up among the 144,000 elect who, it is written, one day will inherit the earth. And they continue to wait for the jubilant day when he will rise to accompany them into the millennium.
Considering that he died in 1927, it is fair to regard the late Benjamin Purnell as late in more ways than one. Yet the older the remnants of his flock become, the stronger their spirits, if not their bodies, seem to grow. Moving between the Diamond House and rambling frame structures bearing such Biblical names as Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Shiloh, they pool their worldly possessions and go quietly about their appointed tasks—preparing meals and canning fruit, making picture frames and running printing presses—with a self-sufficiency that would be the envy of the purest of hippie communes. In accordance with the Biblical injunction that "the wages of sin is death," they remain celibate (even in marriage) and they scrupulously refrain from eating meat. To this day the men among them keep their hair and beards unshorn in emulation of Jesus, whom they consider "our pattern and our waymark."
Notwithstanding Purnell's own very mortal fate, the objective of all this is immortality, pure and simple. "We believe that there is nothing impossible with God," says Tom Dewhirst, the colony's full-bearded, pigtailed secretary, who used to be a heavy-hitting outfielder on the baseball team. "The Bible tells us that the righteous shall never be removed, and that the wicked shall not inhabit the earth. Although we don't know which of us will make it, we're all striving for the highest glory."
Glory was something the sect once knew a great deal of, but that was many years ago. Today in the here-and-now, the walk-up House of David Hotel in downtown Benton Harbor demands rents in advance and posts signs warning NO LOAFING. Along the old highway to Chicago, the colony's florid Grande Vista Motor Court has been converted to kitchenettes, and its nightclub, once frequented by such notables as Clarence Darrow and George Raft, houses a flea market. And business at the block-square House of David cold-storage plant near downtown Benton Harbor has fallen off sharply now that the big open-air fruit market that used to be across the street has moved to the outskirts of town.
As its many business interests attest, the House of David was an enterprising sect, one that saw no theological conflict between its material and spiritual pursuits. On the contrary, the colony even had its own amusement park. Best known for miniature steam locomotives that chug around the grounds, the park still exists, but the zoo, aviary and artificial lake are gone. So is Manna Woodworth's bearded orchestra, whose frisky rendition of Down by the Ohio used to keep things bouncing in the colony's wooded beer gardens.
Gone, too, is the House of David's musty 3,500-seat ball park, which in later years was used for everything from circuses and Little League practice to wrestling promotions starring Gorgeous George. A trailer camp now occupies the site, and all that remains of the old baseball park is the outfield fence, standing alone as if excavated by archaeologists.
When Benjamin Purnell finally gets around to returning, it is doubtful that he or anyone else will be of any mind to resuscitate the old House of David baseball team, the colony's most famed possession. Even more than the amusement park, Manna Woodworth's musicians and other offshoots of the sect, the baseball team belonged irredeemably to times past. It was the product of an era, before television and sports expansion encouraged the civic boosters of every hamlet to start thinking of themselves in big-league terms, in which people were still provincial enough to go to the circus to see bearded ladies, or to the ball park to see bearded ballplayers.
But the House of David team went well beyond being a mere curiosity. It played tight defense, circumnavigated the bases with real savvy and usually—not always, but usually—gave the locals a lesson in how the game was meant to be played. The beards were no hindrance, not even to the catcher, whose whiskers looked like Spanish moss protruding through his face mask. Nor could even the hardest slide unravel the players' long braids, which they wore tucked under their caps (although they sometimes let their hair down between innings to amuse the crowd). And in hot weather, or so some of the players wryly insisted, the beards provided shade and functioned as a personal air-conditioning system.
These barnstorming ballplayers were to baseball what the Harlem Globetrotters are to basketball. For four decades, from World War I through the mid-1950s, there was a team—and sometimes two, three or more—out on the road representing the House of David. Playing upwards of 185 games a season, the men of the House of David had their biggest following in towns like Kewanee, Ill. (pop. 16,000), where they once drew 10,000 fans, and Great Falls, Mont., where a local newspaper hailed the visitors as "the one big baseball attraction of the year." Everywhere they went they wowed the fans with exploits that a sportswriter in El Dorado, Ark., engaging in the kind of wordplay that long tresses seem to inspire, called "hair-raising."