BERRIEN SPRINGS — It’s one thing to learn about history in a classroom or at a library, and another to see it up close, to feel the heat and take in the smells, the weight and textures of the past.

“Instead of reading about history in books, we enjoy living history,” said Tony Warner, who, with his wife Bonita, was one of the re-enactors at the History Center at Courthouse Square’s Old-Fashioned Fourth of July celebration in Berrien Springs.

The couple, Benton Harbor residents, donned heavy rustic costumes and demonstrated aspects of colonial life in a log cabin (with no air conditioning, of course, as temperatures reached the high 80s).

Bonita, a Berrien Springs native and professional herbalist, showed visitors how to make switchel, a drink concocted from raw apple cider vinegar, honey and ginger.

“It was the 17th century version of Gatorade,” she explained of the liquid that kept farmers and soldiers hydrated when they couldn’t get clean water. She said it tastes good if you use the right amount of honey.

This and other exhibits – from blacksmithing to patriotic songs to a speech by President Warren Harding – were part of the Berrien Historical Association’s mission “to collect, preserve and communicate the history of Berrien County.”

The association is entering a new chapter in its own history, and will be hiring a new director, and a curator, a position that has been vacant since the departure of Robert Myers in February 2017. Kathy Cyr, who has been executive director since 2013, is retiring this summer.

The organization also recently adopted a five-year plan with the goals of providing “a welcoming and vibrant atmosphere on the grounds of the Courthouse complex that attracts Berrien County residents,” and designing programming “for multi-generational audiences and communicate historical relevance.”

From the range of activities offered, and the crowd of young and old who came out Thursday, it looks like the association was off to a good start.

The Warners said they began as historical re-enactors about eight year ago and volunteer at Courthouse Square, participating in Pioneer Day for students and Christmas events.

This was the first summer event they were sweating out, much as their forebearers would have.

“People think that they had it so easy back then,” said Tony Warner, a glassblower. “It wasn’t so. It was about survival. They had to work to survive.”

Bonita Warner showed herbs that American colonists used as substitute drinks after the Boston Tea Party, such as goldenrod. Corn silk was steeped as a tea for medicinal purposes and as a broth, she said.

The Warners weren’t the only ones working up a sweat. Blacksmiths with Wolf Prairie Historic Arts, based in Berrien Springs, stood over their coal-fired forges demonstrating the lost art.

Henry Davis founded the group to help young people keep on the straight and narrow.

“Years ago a man turned my life around” through unconditional love, Davis said, “and I want to do the same for others.”

When his oldest daughter was having difficulty learning to read, he told her to pick a hobby as a learning tool. She chose blacksmithing. The rest is history.

Davis and his colleagues use blacksmithing as a way to teach life lessons, such as anger management and goal-setting, he said.

When the steel is hot, it can be drawn out and twisted, he tells his young students, but when it is cold it can’t be bent. In the same way, when a person gets angry, they lose control, he says.

So why would a person want to stand over a coal fire that reaches 3,000 degrees on a hot July day?

“It’s fun,” commented Nathan Roe, who was recruited by Davis. “It’s addicting.”

And he enjoys the finished product. “I like having the ability to create something. And I like seeing the light in the kids’ eyes when they realize they can make something.”

Forging ahead

The activities followed the steps the Berrien County Historical Association has set to meet its goals. These include creating experiential events, that use the outside space of the grounds, and hold collaborative events with the village of Berrien Springs and the Berrien County Parks Department, which maintains the grounds and buildings.

The Courthouse Square events were part of the larger Berrien Springs Independence Day celebration, with a parade and games and crafts at the library.

Chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution set up booths, with some in costume. Sylvia Fagal, a member of the Algonquin chapter for 44 years, wore a colonial-era cap and gown. Her ancestor, Abraham Piatt, was a major during the American Revolution, serving in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“This is very patriotic,” she said of the gathering. “It’s highly important that we celebrate our independence.”

Other steps include developing a formal volunteer program and creating re-enactor experiences, such as those on display July 4. The association also plans to promote more school programs and field trips.

The courthouse itself is the Midwest’s oldest surviving county government complex and continues as an officially active courthouse.

“You can get married in there, or divorced,” said volunteer greeter Tom Fanning.

In addition to the courthouse and its permanent exhibits, Courthouse Square includes an 1830 log house and forge and an 1870 sheriff’s residence. Berrien County is spending around $200,000 this year to replace the windows at the courthouse.

Contact:, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak