House of David train engine

The scale model Hanson Express train engine, created and used by the House of David at its amusement park in Benton Harbor during the mid-1900s, along with the rest of its train cars, will soon by on display at the Michigan Flywheelers Museum in Geneva Township. The train was donated by Merlin Hanson of St. Joseph, a Southwest Michigan entrepreneur and community leader.

An unexpected phone call has put an historic piece of Southwest Michigan history on track to a new home.

The call came in July when Russ Hanson contacted the Michigan Flywheelers Museum.

“We were caught totally by surprise,” said Patrick Ingalls, museum president regarding the call. “When Russ said the Hanson family would like to give us the House of David train, we almost couldn’t believe it.”

Russ’ brother Merlin Hanson, a Southwest Michigan entrepreneur and community leader, purchased a scale model steam train a number of years ago after learning that the House of David had sold a similar one.

The idea of purchasing the train brought up memories for the brothers.

“Our parents were deaf mutes,” Russ said. “When we were young, we would go to gatherings at the House of David.  As their fingers were flying, Merlin and I would ride the trains over to the amusement park.”

It was those fond memories that prompted Merlin to purchase two of the three trains that the House of David built – No. 902 and No. 903. 

Known as a communal religious society that was co-founded in 1903 by Benjamin and Mary Purnell in Benton Harbor, the Israelite House of David, according to www.israelitehouseofdavid.com, drew hundreds of followers from all over the world. The growing society needed a way to support its members, and a way to foster good relations with the community. So, they built  Eden Springs Amusement Park where visitors could ride miniature trains, see lions and tigers, race around in miniature cars and enjoy the penny arcade.

The colony of House of David followers built pretty much everything in the park including the small trains.

By World War II, the little fleet of locomotives were worn out after carrying thousands of visitors around the park. Talented and self-sufficient, society members drew up plans to build a more modern, larger and powerful system of trains.

“The way I understand it,” Russ said, “was that they were going to build six but only three were made.”

Hearing rumors that the House of David, which closed Eden Springs in the 1970s, was having financial difficulties and had sold  engine No. 901 to a group in Finley, Ohio, the Hansons made a decision.

“He (Merlin) didn’t want the trains to leave Berrien County,”  Russ said.

Engine No. 902 and No. 903 ended up in the hands of Merle Hanson who gathered a group of volunteers and began the 15-year-long process of rebuilding the engines, tenders and passenger cars. Every Wednesday, train enthusiasts, a Michigan Flywheelers volunteer, met in the Hanson building on Pipestone Road.

“All I did was buy them pizza,” smiles Russ who had retired from the tool and die industry when the trains were purchased.

After rebuilding No. 903, the model train was placed in the lobby of LMC’s Hanson Technology Center in Benton Harbor.  The future of No. 902, however, changed over the years.

Nearly a decade ago, in their late 80s and early 90s, the brothers made another tough decision. Realizing that getting No. 902 up and running on their property was not going to happen, they decided to call the Flywheelers.

“About seven years ago, we went up to the Flywheelers to talk about the train then,” Russ said. The two brothers, however, were reluctant to let the locomotive go just then. That changed this year, however.

The papers were officially signed on July 30, and No. 902 will soon be blowing its whistle again - only this time in South Haven at the Flywheelers museum grounds in Geneva Township.

“To say we are thrilled is an understatement,” said Ingalls who heads up the museum which is dedicated to the preservation of antique engines and tractors.

“This is such a great gift to the museum that I can’t even express how grateful we are. The addition of this train will take our museum to a whole different level of expansion, and will be phenomenal asset to the South Haven area.”

Plans are already in the works to lay a temporary track for the train so that Merlin, who now is 94, can enjoy once again riding the rails.

“Merlin would love to take a train ride, so we are doing our best to make that happen,” Ingalls said. “We plan to install a temporary train track loop of 600 feet at the museum.”

Once the loop is in place, plans for an inaugural celebration will be announced at a later date.