BERRIEN SPRINGS — A piece of Berrien County’s history sits along Rockey Weed Road in Oronoko Township, but you wouldn’t know it just by looking at it.
Mel and Elaine Winters have lived in a house for the past 59 years built with bricks from the old Berrien County Jail in St. Joseph, which was torn down in 1952.
“Dad asked the contractor if we could take some bricks out of there,” Mel Winters said. “And he said, ‘Yes,’ so we borrowed a flatbed semi, went in and got 7,000 bricks.”
Mel Winters said it took him and his dad three days to haul 7,000 bricks from the old jail to 20-acres of land his dad owned on Rockey Weed Road.
“We brought them out here and wore out seven pairs of gloves,” said Mel Winters, who at the time was in junior high school.
The contractor charged his dad $35 and told them they had to be out by Monday morning because that’s when the wrecking ball would be back. He said many of the bricks he and his dad didn’t take ended up being dumped under the Napier Avenue bridge to help stop erosion.
The jail was built in 1896 using three layers of bricks on the walls. By the early 1950s the back wall was failing and the county moved quickly to build the new facility. The Winters contacted The Herald-Palladium to tell their story after they saw a Time Capsule photo in the Feb. 18 edition recalling when the old jail was replaced.
Initially, Mel Winters said he and his dad built a drive-through tool shed, which was later turned into two bedrooms. A couple of years after the shed was built, he said his dad got a building permit to build a 15-foot by 20-foot addition to the shed, which became the kitchen and dining room.
At the time, Mel Winters said he lived with his family on Wayne Street in St. Joseph. Why did he and his dad start this project?
“I told my dad I didn’t want to live in town, and dad loved to garden,” he said.
He said he would sometimes stay on the property on the weekends. But not everyone in the family liked country living.
“Mom would never come out here,” he said. “She wanted (dad) to sell it, get rid of it, because the taxes were $100 a year.”
But that didn’t happen. Instead, Mel Winters graduated from St. Joseph High School in 1957 and married his wife in 1960 after spending two years in the U.S. Navy. Their first and only house has been the one on Rockey Weed Road.
Living on the property was rough at first because the house had no electricity or water.
“We carried water from St. Joseph in milk cans,” he said.
Added Elaine Winters: “It was just a shell with no kitchen cabinets. When we decided to get married, that’s when they decided to make it a house.”
Electricity wasn’t much of a problem because they just had to connect to the electrical poles running down the road. But drilling a well for water turned out to be more of a headache than predicted.
“They drilled 14 dry holes out here to try to find water because it’s all rock underneath,” Mel Winters said.
He said the last drilling company that tried finding water also hit rock and was preparing to leave. But he asked them to try one more time and they finally hit water.
“The water came up – ice cold and crystal clear,” he said. “We’ve had that well for 59 years. It has never faltered.”
He said that an aerial survey from a satellite of the farm years later showed that centuries ago, when glacial ice was scouring the countryside, they picked up boulders along the way and dumped some of them on his property.
“You can see the path from the satellite,” he said. “... We pulled two semi loads of rocks out this place before we even built.”
The Winters raised their two girls on the property.
“The kids have enjoyed it.” Elaine Winters said. “They raised animals and were in 4-H. It was a good environment to raise a family.”
Mel Winters added: “We had horses. We had goats. We had chickens.”
In 2005, they added a living room onto the house.
Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege