BERRIEN SPRINGS, Mich. (WOOD) — Take a step back in time to the 1800s at the Berrien County Courthouse Square.
Established in 1968, the Berrien County Historical Association took it upon itself to preserve the 1839 county courthouse, which is the oldest of its kind in Michigan.
“By the 1970s, additional buildings were procured here on the courthouse square and they decided to expand their mission to include the entirety of Berrien County history,” Rhiannon Cizon, executive director of the Berrien County Historical Association, said.
All of the buildings on the 1.6-acre property were purchased by the 1990s, Cizon said. In the 2000s, the historical association restored the courthouse square to look the way it did in 1873.
“We are a place where history, heritage and culture kind of collide, allowing us to be able to tell the story of our community in its entirety,” Cizon said.
The square consists of the 1839 courthouse, the 1830s Murdock Log Cabin, the 1870s sheriff’s residence and jail, the 1860/1873 records building and Bennett’s Forge.
“Our goal is to remind residents and visitors to Berrien County and this region that all stories are valid, all histories are exciting and everything about humanity is engaging. Whether those stories are good, bad, happy, sad, pretty or ugly, being able to explore those spaces and places will allow us to continue those conversations well into the future,” Cizon said.
When entering the courthouse, guests are welcomed by staff members and a permanent exhibit that showcases the history of Berrien County.
“(There’s) lots of interactives for kids and adults alike. There’s history on the actual building on the second floor along with the courtroom itself,” Cizon said.
The courtroom features 20- to 25-foot ceilings with 18-foot windows.
“There’s a beauty in the simplicity of our property,” she said.
The courthouses that succeeded the original courthouse are also highlighted: the 1896 courthouse and the 1967 courthouse, both in St. Joseph.
“(The Murdock Log Cabin) is the oldest two-story log cabin in the state of Michigan and one of the top five oldest residences still in existence,” Cizon said.
The cabin was built in the 1830s and has since undergone a lot of changes.
“(The 1850s was) the last decade before the house began undergoing the excessive amount of changes that would eventually hide the cabin and obscure it from view,” Cizon said. “It would eventually be covered in clapboard. There would be additions added to the building, plaster would be added to the walls.”
In the 1960s, the association realized that the cabin had never left the area; it just looked different.
The cabin has since been restored and gives a sense of what life looked like in the 1850s. Visitors can explore the first floor. Cizon explained that the second level is closed due to safety and accessibility concerns.
The association also uses the cabin for programming like the Fireside Tales which are ghost stories told around a fire every October.
The sheriff’s residence was completed in 1870. The two-story building was the living space for the sheriff as well as his office.
“You walk in there and you really feel like it’s someone’s office,” Cizon said.
On the first level of the sheriff’s residence, visitors can explore the home. The second level is the staff workspace.
“We do have our recently, as in last December (2021), renovated sheriff’s office. We will have a second permanent exhibit put in some time we’re hoping in 2023,” Cizon said.
The new exhibit will explore the history of the sheriff that lived in the home and the office of the sheriff.
Cizon said that the rest of the lower level is home to three to four temporary exhibits each year.
In the jail plaza, visitors can explore the site of the 1970 jail.
“The original jail for Berrien County had been built in 1838 and was wooden, two-story and quite rickety by the 1870s. So in addition to building the sheriff’s residence, the county built a jail,” Cizon said.
The two buildings were joined by a door and the jail remained in use until the county seat moved in 1894. After the county seat moved, Cizon explained, the building sat empty until parcels of land were sold and the jail was torn down. In the 1990s, the historical association raised money to create the plaza which includes two examples of jail cells and the layout for the circular pattern of the jail cells.
The building served the county from 1860 until the county seat moved in 1896, according to the association’s website. Since then, it has been home to a number of tenants. When the historical association acquired the building in the 1990s, it needed a lot of work.
“At this time, the records building isn’t open to the public. There’s an extensive level of work that needs to be done to repair the building after a fire in 2008 and a secondary, smaller fire in 2011,” Cizon said.
The building currently serves as a storage location for oversized collection pieces, the website said.
Bennett’s Forge was built by the Seventh-day Adventist Church when it bought the majority of the available land around the courthouse. The county purchased the building and the land around it in the 1970s, according to the historical association’s website.
“Over the years, the building has been the site of blacksmithing demonstrations for various events and programs, including a festival dedicated to the art in 2016. The buggy shop eventually became storage for the BCHA’s oversized collections, including a wagon and a large boat discovered in the St. Joseph River in the 1970s by Donald Dick,” the website said.
The historical association said it hopes to turn this site into an artisan center to explore the traditional crafts and trades beyond blacksmithing.
The courthouse square is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit the historical association’s website.
*Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series exploring small community museums around West Michigan. More articles will be published on woodtv.com in the coming weeks.