Aid Down-and-Outers 50 Years

It Took Armed Men and Ready Fists, but Mission Beat Satan

Fifty years ago, come April 13, a contact was signed that precipitated a legal battle unique in the city’s history.. It almost became a pitched battle. Guns were provided one group of disputants, "just in case." Later some fisticuffing ensued, as an aftermath.

It was a battle, the victors have claimed this half-century, between the forces of good and the forces of evil, with God’s warriors triumphing over the emissaries of Satan.

On the side of virtue and righteousness were arranged a brave little group who, four years before -- in1900 -- had launched a crusade against the vice and drunkenness that were unrestrained in the downtown area. That condition was a hangover from the days when lumberjacks came from the woods to let off pent-up steam. They found in Grand Rapids plenty of opportunity to indulge in their orgies. Liquor was cheap and plentiful; ladies of the evening were available in numbers.

The little group which sought to clean up this area and start erring souls on the way to salvation was composed of men and women -- many of them prominent in the city’s business and civic life -- who had founded the City Rescue Mission Here.

From the start they had met with surprising success. Their first location, 95 Canal Street (lower Monroe Avenue), soon proved inadequate to handle the crowds which came to their religious meetings. Then five of their leaders subscribed $500 apiece and with the balance of the purchase price raised by selling bricks, a vacant lot on Market Avenue, on the site of the present Savoy Theater, was bought and a new mission building erected in 44 days.

A modern miracle and Step No. 2 in their war on sin.

But even location No. 2 proved too small to accommodate the throngs who were eager to hear the Bible messages that were delivered and to profess Christ.

Just south of the mission’s Market Avenue location, on the corner of Louis St., stood a building which housed a place of amusement the like of which never was seen before nor since in Grand Rapids. It was known as Smith’s Opera House -- named after its owner. The "opera" presented therein was of the most ribald type of burlesque. The "hootchie-koochie" dances on its stage would make Jane Russell’s seductive contortions appear as innocent as a rural folk dance. The comedy would have shocked patrons of Chicago’s honky-tonks.

At the Market-Louis entrance was a bar which dispensed liquor to those who leaned over it. This also was the source of supply to patrons seated in the auditorium. A crew of waiters dashed up and down the aisles "slinging beer." The place boasted the first singing waiters seen and heard here.

In those days no lady who cared much for her reputation would be seen in a place where liquor was sold, although Grand Rapids had its share of "Ladies’ Entrance" back-room saloons and there were a number of road houses around the suburbs which catered to both sexes. (Penclub Mag. For October-November 1952.)

Thus it was that the lumberjack, just paid off for his work in the woods, and seeking a big time, would head for this garish palace of brawling high jinks. He knew he’d find what he wanted there. The location was in the center of the city’s tenderloin. Fourteen brothels surrounded the place.

One day, it is related by the Rev. Fred C. Zarfas, a former superintendent of the Mission, in his biography of Mel Trotter, the institution’s first head: "Mr. Trotter looked to the corner of the street opposite the mission. There stood Smith’s Opera House. As he looked at it, God seemed to say to him, ‘There’s your future building.’ What a challenge was this! Smith’s Opera House seated 2,100 persons. But the directions from above seemed very definite. So in a noonday prayer meeting Smith’s Opera House was claimed for God!"

Through the real estate firm of Decker & Jean, a 60-day option was obtained on the property for $5,000, the purchase price to be $45,000.

Smith never dreamed that the balance could be paid in so short a time. Figuring he was just $5,000 to the good, he proceeded to contract personally with the Empire Burlesque Circuit for the next four years. But to his surprise consternation and dismay, before the expiration of the option the balance of the agreed purchase price was tendered for payment. Smith tried to back out of the deal.

Then commenced a big struggle for possession, a mission follower relates. First the burlesque circuit asked the City Council for a new license to conduct theatricals in the old place. This was promptly turned down through the intervention of Mayor George E. (Deacon) Ellis. Then the show people tried to take forcible possession but two friends of the mission, armed with guns, were there ahead of them and when "Cherry Blossoms," the first production under the new contract came to town, it failed to show.

Supt. Trotter was then at Winona Lake, Indiana. When he was notified that the burlesque circuit was attempting to take possession, it was Saturday night and all trains had left but the Limited, which did not stop at Winona Lake.

In desperation, Supt. Trotter wired his friend, the secretary to the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad at Pittsburgh. The Limited made a special stop at Winona Lake that night and by 5 o’clock the following morning all the doors of the Opera House were barred, and armed men were inside.

Next, it is related, an attempt was made to fire the house, but without success.
Trotter’s life was threatened, but he declared he was sure God had given him orders to buy, so he "just stuck to it and God brought them out on top."
"The conversion of Smith’s Opera House from a cheap burlesque show into a house of prayer captured the interest and enthusiasm of the entire city," Rev. Mr. Zarfas states.
"Throngs filled the place night after night. Souls were being saved."
"Mr. Trotter was disturbed, however, by the presence of a saloon next door to the mission. It had flourished in connection with the burlesque shows formerly held in the mission building. The brawls and noise going on there every night were a nuisance to the whole community."
Supt. Trotter, telling the story of his mission, described the district in this language:

"I used to leave my song leader in charge and go out and patrol the street myself to make it safe for women to come to the mission; and remember one night when I knocked five men down. I was a triumph when we got the saloons on the street to close from 7 to 9 Sunday night when our meeting was in progress."
"An even greater triumph was achieved when the O’Donnell property housing the saloon next to the mission had to give up business through lack of customers.  One by one the ‘clients’ were saved in the mission. Finally, Mr. Trotter bought the property, saloon and contents. It was a great day when they poured the liquor down the sewers and dedicated the new section to the glory of God. Mel kept the original bar with brass foot-rail and the large mirror and cupboards and incorporated them into the office."

"Until this day visitors never cease to marvel at the old bar, now used as a reception counter completely surrounding the office desks and cabinets. Business for the Lord has been transacted over this bar-counter for forty years, where once the liquor poured and the drunks rested."


This climaxed the efforts of the little group to clean up a cesspool of corruption and to show the way to salvation to many un-churched person -- persons who would not feel at home in any of the city’s churches, and who could not be induced to go into one.

It was this type of individual that the mission originally catered to -- the inhabitant of Bucktown as the area was known.

The group which founded the mission knew little about institutions of this type and were somewhat undecided at first as to what should be done. However, after one or two meetings and some discussions about the matter, they had decided to rent a room and start some Gospel meetings. A few women, mostly the wives or relatives of business men, formed themselves into a committee and appointed a visitor to go down into the segregated district to see what could be done, Miss Jenny V. Smith was selected to do the calling.

In the meantime the group of business men, among whom were R.B. Loomis, Thomas Peck and W. D. Patton, rented a room down on Ellsworth Avenue which at that time ran into Bucktown. They started this little mission in the early part of 1899. The results were so encouraging that they called a special meeting to discuss ways and means of enlarging the work, getting a more suitable meeting place and engaging a full-time missionary to support the work.

At a meeting held December 21, 1899, it was voted to write to Harry Monroe, Superintendent of the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, inviting him to visit Grand Rapids, tell the committee of the work being done in Chicago and to conduct a series of revival meetings to arouse public interest in the City Rescue Mission "and perhaps bring over some singers with him."

The committee was headed by Myron H. Walker, who later became United States District Attorney here under the Woodrow Wilson administration, serving during World War I. Rev. J. H. Randall, of Fountain Street Baptist church and Rev. F.P. Arthur were on the committee and the Chicagoans were invited to conduct the meetings in Park Congregational church, by Dr. Bradley, the pastor, and in First Methodist church, by Dr. Lewis. Meetings also were held in Lockerby Hall.

"At last the day arrived, " Rev. Mr. Zaefas wrote, "and on Friday, February 2, 1900, Harry Monroe, accompanied by four ex-drunkards, ex-bums, and ex-gamblers arrived in Grand Rapids. The names of these four ‘trophies of Grace’ were Charles Palmer, Tom Sullivan, Frank Williams and Mel Trotter. They stayed at the Eagle Hotel on Market Street, a hotel that was owned and operated by old Deacon Johnson, a man with a flowing white beard and a face like a patriarch. He later became president of the mission’s board of directors. A great opening service was held that night in Park Congregational church.

Mr. Trotter, handsome, personable and a forceful, if unpolished platform speaker, made such an impression upon the Grand Rapids committee that they offered him the position of superintendent of the local mission, a position he accepted after conferring further with Mr. Monroe in Chicago and with Mrs. Trotter.

"From the beginning God’s hand was upon this young convert from Chicago," the biography continues. "God prospered him and raised him up to be one of the great evangelists of his day and one of the best-known and most-loved-mission men of the world."

"King of the Mission Men," he later was called.

Mr. Trotter’s return here marked the launching of a career that was to continue for 40 years. During those four decades he not only continued and expanded the work of the mission here, but he helped establish similar missions in many other cities. The Grand Rapids mission is credited with begetting 67 others and Mr. Trotter is said personally to have aided 100 more.

He traveled extensively as an evangelist. He became associated with Billy Sunday, Paul Rader, Bob Jones, Sr., Gypsy Smith and other widely known gospel preachers. He worked among the soldiers in Army camps during World War I.

A vigorous, forthright man, Mr. Trotter never once attempted to disguise the fact that he had been a "drunken bum" before conversion. He actually capitalized upon this fact as it enabled him to talk to the "down and outers" in their own language. If he could be saved, so could they.

Mr. Trotter told and re-told the tragic story of his early life and the events leading to his conversion. He often made his "spiritual birthday" the occasion for repeating his story. While disclaiming any showmanship ability he could make an emotional appeal which would bring tears to the eyes of his listeners and cause many sinners to "come forward and be saved."

One of several sons of an alcoholic bartender in a small Illinois town, Trotter and his brothers soon developed what seemed to be an unconquerable craving for liquor. They were of the type of whom alcohol was a poisonous allergy. They couldn’t "take it or leave it alone." One drink and they were off on a spree.

Mel’s marriage to a fine young woman failed to cure him. Repeatedly he would break all his well-intentioned promises to forsake liquor. Moving to a rural once to escape the temptations of the town, he remained sober for three months, only to weaken. He drove eleven miles in his carriage to the nearest saloon. There he not only spent all the money he had with him, but he literally "drank up" the horse and buggy, and then staggered back home.

Death of his infant son brought on remorse which led to Trotter’s complete degradation. No longer able to work at his trade as a barber, he rode a freight train to Chicago where he soon became a "Skid Row bum," eating in soup lines and sleeping in flop houses.

On the night of January 19, 1897, Trotter, his brain befogged by rot gut and haunted by memory of the death of his son -- he called himself his own child’s murderer -- he decided to end it all by leaping into the icy waters of Lake Michigan.

As he staggered down Van Buren Street that night in a blizzard, he was observed by a Tom Mackey, a former jockey and faro dealer who had been converted and had joined the Pacific Garden Mission forces. Mackey took Trotter by the arm, induces the shabby, shivering figure to step inside where it was warm. There a meeting was in progress, led by Supt. Monroe. The latter, incidentally, was a former Detroiter who had made good after being arrested for consorting with a gang of counterfeiters.

At Supt. Monroe’s urging (and thanks to his mother’s prayers, Trotter always declared), he renounced the error of his ways. As the Rev. Mr. Zarfas described the scene: "One of heavenly great hearts stood there that night, one of America’s leading evangelist, one of the most useful and successful mission men of all time. That man was Mel Trotter."

A powerful man, physically, as he demonstrated when he felled five hoodlums in one night, Supt. Trotter once was called upon to assert himself in order to maintain decorum at the mission. Young folks, it is related, would talk and laugh and sometimes make fun and all the coaxing and pleading Mr. Trotter did only seemed to make things worse. One night the superintendent exploded:

"This is the House of God," he shouted, "and you must treat it as such or I’ll show you I can do something besides pray. I’m called to be superintendent here and if I can’t super-intendent, I’ll resign, but not until I’m sure I can’t. I’ll show you the fastest finishing you’ve seen around these parts since Corbett got his’n in the solar plexus."

Superintendent Mel never had any trouble after that. The disturbers knew that the man with the soft heart had hard fists and knew how to use them.

Lacking formal schooling and theological training, Supt. Trotter upon coming here was not an ordained minister, but five years later he was specially honored by being ordained a minister of the Presbyterian church. He gave the account of his ordination in his own words.

"In 1905 the Presbytery of Grand Rapids ordained me and it came about in this fashion. I was constantly calling on ministers to baptize, marry and do things that I could not do, being a layman. One night I called Dr. Davis of the First Church about 2 o’clock in the morning to baptize a young woman who had taken carbolic acid, and was on the verge of death. After that ceremony, Dr. Davis said to me, ’Why don’t you become ordained?’ I had never thought of such a thing. He said, ’We can ordain you as an evangelist, and it will carry all these privileges.’

"I went before the Presbytery, and there found out that being ordained as an evangelist did not carry the privilege of baptizing marrying, etc., but one of the ministers suggested they ordain me as a minister. It seemed to appeal to the other men, and at once three or four were on their feet, saying ’let’s do it now.’

"My examination started with ’Christian Evidences.’ I said ’What’s that?’ They said, ’Are you saved?’ and I said, ’You bet.’ They said ‘How do you know?’ and I said ‘I said ‘ I was there when it happened. In the Pacific Garden Mission, January 19th, 1897, ten minutes past nine, Central time, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.’

"They all laughed, but that was the truth. They then asked me what I knew about church history. I said ‘You know more about that than I do.’ They said ‘Are you a Calvinist or Armenian?’ I said, ‘You can search me; my father was Irish.’ And in just seven minutes I had finished my theology course. It takes some ministers seven years, but there is a good advantage in being a ‘Trotter.’ It’s faster."

Thirty years later -- in 1935 Supt. Trotter received the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity from Bob Jones University, Cleveland, Tennessee.

"I appreciate it all so very much, yet to the gang downtown I am still just plain Mel Trotter by the grace of God," he commented later.

When Supt. Trotter passed away, the Grand Rapids Herald printed the following "lead" to its story: "Melvin E. Trotter, a soul-winner who fought the world, the flesh and the devil up and down the United States and the foreign lands for decades, founder of the City Rescue Mission here and its successful superintendent for more than forty years died Wednesday, morning, September 11th, 1940, at his summer home at Macatawa Park."

Like eulogies were heard on all sides. He was called "God’s soldier and the apostle to the slums -- a brand plucked from the burning; lifted from the gutter to the pulpit."

Rev. Art Blackmore, Superintendent of the City Rescue Mission at Erie, Pa., and long associated with Mr. Trotter, related this incident to describe the latter:

"One night we were a little late for the meeting. The singing had begun. We hurried in, and when we were back of the platform, he said, "You take the meeting for about fifteen minutes while I go and pray.’ "I replied, ‘What do you wish me to do, sing or speak?’ He said, ‘O, go in there and rave about Jesus for about fifteen minutes.’ This, I think, well describes his preaching -- he was the man who ‘raved about Jesus,’"

Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg said, in tribute to Supt. Trotter:

"Mel Trotter was my precious friend. He put spiritual stimulation into every life he touched. He marched for God and in His name he richly served his fellow men. Countless souls have good reason to bless his memory."

Supt. Trotter was an excellent business admistrator and so well established did he leave his mission -- it has been renamed the Mel Trotter Mission in his honor -- that it continues its services today, still stressing its efforts to aid the poor, the down-and-outers and the un-churched, Rev. George Bontekoe, a graduate of Grand Rapids Christian High School and Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, is the Superintendent.

A branch is maintained at 346 Monroe Ave., N.W. Donald Price, assistant superintendent in charge there, "was saved while serving time in an Indiana prison," mission literature states.

The mission’s program is a broad one. It includes nightly meetings at the Monroe avenue branch. There, homeless men are fed and given lodging in a well-kept dormitory.

On Sundays worker from the main mission conduct services in the "bull pen" of the Kent County Jail; they keep in contact with many inmates after they have been taken to prison. There is a Sunday school and Woman’s Fellowship in addition to Gospel services. The mission has a Ladies’ Auxiliary. Used clothing and bedding are mended and distributed to the needy free of charge.

An inspirations radio program is broadcast over Station WOOD every morning except Sunday at 7:15 o’clock.

All of this costs money, of course. Supt. Bontekoe says it’s a matter of about $40,000 a year. Many churches contribute to the mission and so do many business men, including Penclubbers. Food is contributed by various firms and stores for the Monroe avenue branch and to help fill the many Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets that are given to the poor.

The work goes on and today on the mission’s board of directors are: Peter W. Decker, long a friend of the mission and now an honorary member; Leonard H. Verschoor, Fred DeVries, Jacob Van Oss, William R. Smith, Joseph Zoet, Clarence Lundberg, Henry VerHage and Leon C. Bradford.

Transcriber: Barb Jones
Created: 10 Jan 2010