Montgomery, Montgomery Line

Employed by a Cult

Sometimes you uncover family history facts and immediately comprehend their significance; other times you write down the facts and only later realize how important or interesting they are. I had the latter experience recently when I discovered that my great-granduncle, Joseph Theodore Montgomery, was employed by a cult. But let me take a step back.

Joseph was the sixth son born to John and Mary Ann Belinda (Simmons) Montgomery. He was born 16 July 1872 in Olney, Illinois. His oldest brother was my great-grandfather, Charles William Montgomery. Some time ago I had seen a clipping of his 1945 obituary on Ancestry.com, dutifully saved it to my files and updated my records, but didn’t dig any deeper.

Then I got interested in podcasts. I haven’t started listening to genealogy podcasts yet (though I have a lot of them saved and waiting), so this is an example of two worlds colliding, more or less. Mostly I listen to true crime podcasts (any murderinos out there?), but I also listen to podcasts on other semi-morbid topics, like one called Zealot, by Jo Thornely, which digs into the stories of various cults. As with a lot of podcasts, a major colorful-language warning goes along with this one, and sometimes the impact these groups have had on others are pretty grim.

But in episode 19, the podcast discusses the House of David, a religious movement founded in 1903 in Benton Harbor, Michigan. The group, among other beliefs, promoted communal living, prohibited cutting their hair, and operated numerous business enterprises, including an electricity plant, amusement park, musical groups, a cannery, and a barnstorming baseball team. I shared this story with my brother, who even purchased his own replica House of David cap and jersey. Here he is, modeling the hat last October (along with Ben and Dad):

Matt (in House of David cap), Ben, and Ted Montgomery

So what does this have to do with Joseph Montgomery? I’ve been trying to do some major organizing and overhauling of my genealogy files, thanks in large part to the American Records Certificate from the National Institute for Genealogical Studies I am now pursuing. As part of this overhaul I ran across Joseph’s obituary again, and now the part I’d glossed over before jumped out at me: “Mr. Montgomery…was chief of the refrigeration plant of the House of David cold storage plant…”

Of course, I had to delve into this further. I learned that the House of David had the world’s largest open-air fruit and vegetable market (the Benton Harbor Fruit Market), and the cold storage plant, which was completed in 1937, enabled farmers to store their produce rather than having to sell it right away. So it’s no wonder Joseph’s position as chief of the refrigeration plant got prominent notice in his obituary. Unfortunately, the plant was demolished in the 1990s after it was heavily damaged by fire.

Benton Harbor Fruit Market; cold storage building in the background

This was almost up there with discovering my connection to Lizzie Borden! Unfortunately, it does not appear that Joseph Montgomery had a long crazy beard or played baseball (his funeral was officiated by a Methodist minister), but he was definitely cult-adjacent, and now Matt has even more reason to sport his cool hat.

The Herald Press (Saint Joseph, Michigan), December 1, 1945

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