Just over 181 years ago, a Niles man was arrested for stealing boots, gloves and a hat – about ten dollars worth of goods. He was tried and sentenced to one year in the state penitentiary. So what’s the significance of this particular case that took place on April 11, 1839? It was the first case held at the Berrien Springs Courthouse.
Of course, a lot has changed since this event. For one, boots, gloves and a hat together are worth far more than $10. And two, the courthouse that sits at 313 N. Cass Street in Berrien Springs is no longer an active courthouse. When St. Joseph won the county seat back in 1894, the building was used as an armory, a dance hall, classrooms for Andrews University, and a place to worship for the Seventh Day Adventist Church. It eventually became an official historical museum in 1967 through the formation of the Berrien County Historical Association (BCHA), who manages the property today.
For recently appointed Executive Director of the BCHA, Rhiannon Cizon, there’s potentially more “change” to come. The BCHA helps to preserve the history of Berrien County through exhibits, tours, publications, research and educational and community outreach programs. The Courthouse Square consists of the Murdock Log House and Bennett’s Forge, the Records Building, the Sheriff’s Residence and Jail, and of course, the 1839 courthouse.
“Last November the courthouse shut down for 3 weeks for renovations. We did a redo paint job of the majority of the downstairs portion of the building. We gutted and redid our gift shop. And we added new professional interpretation, so now our artifacts are more professional and easier to see,” said Cizon.
The two story Murdock Log House is one of the oldest two story wood structures still left in Berrien County. The BCHA is looking to make the upper level accessible to visitors. They’re also looking to make it more interactive for kids and families, where they can interact with the artifacts and get a better feel for what it was like in pioneer life.
Bennett’s Forge is a working blacksmith shop on the Square, offering demonstrations and workshops of blacksmith’s art throughout the year. The BCHA is looking to strip the forge down to its bare bones to create an artisan center, so it can be the centerpiece for visitors to learn about industries in Berrien County. It would also become a space where they can have workshops that would host artists, and would allow for artisans in the area to pass these skills on to new generations.
The BCHA had 40 programs planned for the year. Many of them were gutted significantly, particularly now due to Covid-19. The BCHA is still planning yoga classes in the summer and a monthly lecture series. They’re also working on several exhibit openings, a musical series, and still hope to host the Fourth of July Fest again this year.
“We still have high expectations for the rest of the year. There’s a lot going on that’s helping us drive the narrative that makes us a place that people want to come to. Our goal is to provide better connection opportunities in the future,” Cizon added.
For hours of operation, ways to donate, or for general information, visit BCHA’s website at http://www.berrienhistory.org/. They’re also very active on Facebook.