The 1837 Historic Berrien County Government Square

Named after U.S. Attorney General John M. Berrien, Berrien County was organized in 1831. Six years later Michigan governor Stevens T. Mason approved an act that moved the Berrien County seat from St. Joseph to the Village of Berrien Springs. Officials chose the village because of its central location in the county, between St. Joseph and the City of Niles, and its access to the St. Joseph River that served as a primary means of transportation in pioneer Michigan. In the spring of 1837, the Berrien County Board of Supervisors acquired four lots in Berrien Springs as a county government square. Construction of the county seat began with a jail, built in 1838, and a courthouse completed in 1839. The county later added a records storage building, a sheriff's residence and replacement for the original jail, and an office building.

Government Squaure 1880 Drawing

Between 1837 and 1894 the Courthouse Square hosted judicial, political and community activities and events. Beginning in the 1870s, however, agitation built to relocate the county seat because of the relative inaccessibility of thinly populated Berrien Springs. The village lacked reliable railroad service, especially after the narrow-gouge line linking it with Buchanan went bankrupt in 1893.

Shortly after the railroad ceased operation, St. Joseph, Niles and other towns launched campaigns to capture the county seat. After a bitterly fought election in August 1894, 11,000 voters approved moving the seat to St. Joseph by a margin of only 242 votes. Opponents contested the election all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court. In November 1894, the Court upheld the election. In December, county government moved to St. Joseph.

Over succeeding years, new owners adapted the buildings on the courthouse square for various uses including a dance hall, church, and low-income apartments. Now restored, the square contains Michigan's oldest courthouse as part of the Midwest's most complete surviving mid-nineteenth century county government complex. Today the square houses a county museum and archives and serves as headquarters for the Berrien County Historical Association. Its original buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.