Don’t tear its walls and rafters down
Long had it served this town,
For years the symbol of Civil Law
Please do not break it down.
When Berrien Springs was the County Seat,
It proudly stood for right,
For Truth and Human Dignity
Exemplified its might.
And, so that after they have gone
Who remember those old days,
We’ll have this Landmark of our past
Forever in our gaze.
So, let us do ere we can
To save this Honored Hall,
Make it a shrine which we show
We loved what we recall.
Poem by Dennis Jones; The Journal Era, March 1966
The Berrien County Historical Commission (later the Association) was established in 1967 to save the 1839 Courthouse and for nine years, the group worked to meticulously restore the building back to its original look. The first committee included nine residents from around the county who were chosen for their expertise and passion for the project. Members included:
- Mr. Dan I. Porter (Berrien Springs)
- Mr. John Paul Taylor (St. Joseph), St. Joseph Fort Miami Historical Society
- Mr. Roger Carter (Coloma)
- Mr. John Page (Watervliet), Archaeological Society of Southwestern Michigan
- Mrs. Jack Spelman (St. Joseph), Antiquarian Society
- Mr. Foster Brandon (Niles), Fort St. Joseph Historical Society
- Mr. Lester McGowan (Buchanan), Buchanan Historical Society
- Atty. Donald Dick (Berrien Springs), Berrien Springs Historical Society
- State rep. Lionel Stacey (Fairplain)
While not part of the original commission, members like John Gillette became important voices through the early years as they worked to secure funds, grants, and appealed to the county and community governments to fund the project. As the group continued to work over the several years, the forward momentum was possible as many people supported the restoration project, ranging from area school children to long-time groups like the American Legion Auxiliary.
By 1974, the BCHC realized they couldn’t do this alone and hired David Mohrhardt as the project manager. He would eventually become the museums’s first director/curator. Under his guidance, area experts volunteered their time to recreate lost elements such as balconies, banisters, and more. Mohrhardt also designed the first permanent exhibits on the lower level of the courthouse. Through it all, the group opened the doors for tours and educational opportunities with the on-going restoration as a unique backdrop. As the project neared its completion in 1976, the BCHA began to accept artifact and archival donations, establishing the current collection.
The importance of the courthouse wasn’t lost on those outside of the county, and between 1968 and 1970, the Courthouse was included in the Michigan Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places. In 1983, the BCHA resubmitted the application to include the rest of the complex at the time, which was accepted by the NRHP committee. In 1974, the State of Michigan introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 367 that recognized the courthouse as the oldest of its kind in the state.
In 1976, the Courthouse opened for the first time to the public as a fully realized museum, fulfilling the dreams of the original Commission members. Over time, the BCHA’s responsibilities grew to include the addition of the Murdock Log Cabin (1976), Bennett’s Forge (1978), the Sheriff’s Residence and Jail Plaza (1985), and the Records Building (2002). Today the 1.6 acres of land and its buildings are owned by Berrien County and became part of the Parks Department in 2014. The BCHA remains the stewards of the buildings and committed to preserving their history and ours.