WINONA LAKE — In the early 1900s, long before the invention of such musical categories as “Christian rock” or “contemporary Christian,” Homer Rodeheaver, a charismatic trombone player and musical director for Billy Sunday, combined religious zeal with business acumen to make Winona Lake the Tin Pan Alley of gospel music, and his influence can still be felt today.
At the time of his death in 1955, Rodeheaver’s publishing company was the largest publisher of gospel music in the world, holding some 6,000 copyrights. The most successful, “Old Rugged Cross,” written by George Bennard, sold over a million copies in 1913, and was sung by Virginia Asher, the head of Sunday’s women’s ministry.
As a volunteer at the Winona History Center and author of “Winona at 100: Third Wave Rising,” as well as being a musician and educator, Terry White has studied the life of Rodeheaver, and its influence on Winona Lake.
Although Rodeheaver wrote around 50 songs himself, White believes his “genius” was in music publishing, acquiring copyrights from poets and hiring arrangers to put the words to music, all of whom he met throughout the 20 years on Sunday’s wildly successful evangelical “crusades.”
“One tune could make bundles,” White noted. This was achieved through the sale of numerous arrangements, including solo versions for low, medium and high voices as well as for quartets, orchestras and so on.
Virgil Brock, along with his wife, Blanche Brock, was just one of Rodeheaver’s composers who resided in Winona Lake. He is also the last known candidate to run for office on the Prohibition Party ticket.
Rodeheaver Publishing Company was headquartered in what is now the Winona History Center, 105 9th Street. In fact, said White, pianos were once housed in what are now the men’s and women’s bathrooms, where much of the songwriting and arranging took place. What is now the Gordon Recreation Center was used for shipping and distributing.
And long before Winona Lake’s restoration in the 1990s, Rodeheaver, said White, was a “generous benefactor. He would buy buildings like the Winona Hotel and fix them up.”
“Rodeheaver was known as a ‘sanctified playboy,” White commented. “He drove flashy cars and threw big parties.” Such luminaries as John D. Rockefeller attended these events at Rodeheaver’s house on Rainbow Point on Winona Lake, originally an old farmhouse he purchased in 1912, which often included games of baseball in the front yard.
But it was not all fun and games. Rodeheaver was watching when his brother, Jack, died in an airplane accident on Argonne Golf Course, of which now only the street name exists.
By the time of his death in 1955, Rodeheaver had gone beyond publishing, creating Rainbow Records, a gospel label for which Elvis Presley recorded, and was branching out into radio, T.V. and film, consulting with movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille at one point. He also travelled to the Holy Land and Africa, where he researched the roots of African-American spirituals.
For more information about Homer Rodeheaver, Billy Sunday and more, visit the Winona History Center or consult Terry White’s “Winona at 100: Third Wave Rising.”