BERRIEN SPRINGS — Michigan’s oldest active courthouse got an outdoor plaque and some accolades Wednesday from Michigan Bar Association officials.
State bar officials at ceremonies at the Howard Performing Arts Center announced the 1839 Courthouse in Berrien Springs has been chosen as the association’s 38th Michigan Legal Milestone. The association annually chooses events, people or buildings that have legal and historical significance and designates them as “Legal Milestones.”
Michigan became a state in 1837, and its early courthouses were the “bulwark of Michigan jurisprudence,” said state Bar President Bruce Courtade.
“This was a perfect selection,” Courtade said of the 1839 Courthouse. He said the work done in “renovating that courthouse, and bringing it up to where it really is of museum quality, is just a fantastic example” of a milestone.
The award is “a validation of what have in the county as something that is truly of statewide significance,” said Robert Myers, curator of
The History Center at Courthouse Square, which includes the 1839 Courthouse. “It’s a recognition of the historical importance of the building. It’s a ‘Legal Milestone’ in Michigan, and there aren’t that many such buildings recognized.”
The 37th Michigan Legal Milestone was Michigan’s Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act, while the 30th Michigan Legal Milestone was “Freedom Road,” or how white and free black residents of Cass County protected runaway slaves in the 1847 Kentucky Raid. Other examples range from baseball’s Reserve Clause to Sojourner Truth.
Michigan’s early courthouses were important in administering justice, saving important records and bringing communities together, speakers said. The 1839 Courthouse was “as much a community center as a courthouse,” Myers said.
“They’re not just buildings,” said Michigan Assistant Attorney General John Fedynsky, author of “Michigan’s County Courthouses.” “They’re symbols of hope” and showed the progress of frontier communities toward “justice, the American Way and the promise of a better future,” he said.
“In Europe, they built cathedrals,” Fedynsky said. “In America, we built courthouses.”
Berrien County Bar Association member Michael Marrs said many of the trials at the old courthouse featured people fighting the system. .
While it’s being honored now, the 1839 Courthouse came close to being turned into a parking lot, Myers told the audience of some 80 people that included state and Berrien County bar members, current and retired judges, and Berrien County officials.
St. Joseph was actually named the initial county seat after Michigan achieved statehood, but the state legislature designated Berrien Springs instead, Myers said.
“Being the geographical center of Berrien County made it equally inconvenient for everyone to get there,” he said.
But Berrien Springs had no railroad, and that made it vulnerable to a move by St. Joseph to be renamed the county seat, Myers said.
The county seat after a contentious and close election was moved to St. Joseph in 1894, Myers said. He cited a Berrien Springs newspaper story which noted that wagons of court files were moved by horses, but the remainder of the move was “left to jackasses, of which St. Joseph has an abundance.”
The courthouse, sold into private hands, still served many functions – community center, library, armory, Seventh-day Adventist Church, and assembly hall for Emmanuel Missionary College which became Andrews University. The Berrien County Historical Association was formed in 1967 and over the next decade restored the courthouse, saving it from demolition.
In 1968, it was listed on the State Register of Historic Sites and the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1970 became part of the Michigan Mile Marker program. The building is owned by Berrien County and, though no longer used for regular trials, circuit judges or the county board may press it into service and several trials have been held in the building in recent decades.
Michigan Bar Association member Jeff Paulsen, a member of the committee that chooses Legal Milestones, after the ceremony said the committee “typically looks at the legal tie-ins, something historical in nature, and also we look at something that will be educational for people. Part of the program is, of course, to educate the public about the bar, lawyers and the legal process.”
The 1839 Courthouse has been a candidate “for a number of years,” Paulsen said. One of its major advocates for selection has been retired Berrien County Circuit Court Judge Alfred Butzbaugh, he said.
“Sometimes you get an advocate to bring something forward,” Paulsen said.
Kathy Cyr, executive director of The History Center, said the award is important to local and state history and to the museum.
“We’re going to use it to promote what we have, more so than what we have done in the past,” Cyr told The Herald-Palladium. “It’s another feather in our cap to have this here in Berrien County. It’s another promotional tool that we can use. And, in fact, I’ve included it in various grant proposals that I’m in the process of preparing.”
Several speakers said Fedynsky’s book on “Michigan’s County Courthouses,” ,is a valuable book for those interested in such history. Cyr said people may order the book, which sells for $29.95, from The History Center.
Cyr said anyone interested in ordering the book or who wants more information about the 1839 Courthouse may call Kristen Patzer Umphrey at The History Center at 471-1202 or send an email to