History right under our noses

Kathy Cyr is leaving after six years at the History Center at Courthouse Square in Berrien Springs.

BERRIEN SPRINGS — Kathy Cyr works all day surrounded by history.

But amid her many duties as the executive director of the Berrien County Historical Society, she doesn’t always get to notice it.

Her responsibilities include maintaining the 1839 Courthouse in Berrien Springs – the oldest working courthouse in Michigan – along with a blacksmith’s shop, log cabin, and re-created sheriff’s office and jail, and permanent and special exhibits.

During a recent visit, Cyr moved quickly up and down a hallway lined with historical documents and photographs, carrying out numerous tasks and answering phones. It was pointed out that one document was a land contract signed by President Andrew Jackson.

It was something she hadn’t paid much attention to during her busy days, she said.

That might not be surprising. Even their break room is a mini Smithsonian, with stacks of books and written records, a print of the Battle of Gettysburg on the wall, a battered life preserver on a shelf, a picture of Berrien Springs from when it was the county seat on another wall.

There’s a lot to pay attention to.

The campus itself is something of a best-kept secret in Berrien County, a place that people pass by without giving it much thought.

But much of the life and history of the county is contained in the walls.

The latest exhibit is on World War I, with artifacts donated by local families.

“We have such a wealth of materials,” including complete uniforms, said Cyr, who was hired by the historical association in 2013 after a varied career in museums and teaching, concentrating on historical clothes and costumes. She assumed her current position in 2017 when longtime director Robert Myers took a job with the state historical society.

The WWI exhibit, and an accompanying booklet, was put together with the assistance of Yarleth Gomez, an Andrews University graduate student and native of Colombia.

It includes such items as shell casings, along with many of the things soldiers wore and carried with them, from knapsacks to shovels to binoculars. One unusual item is an aluminum tube carried by messenger pigeons.

A 1919 telegram from a fortunate doughboy reports that he is heading home.

Panels explain the history of the war. An upcoming presentation is “Service & Sacrifice: The Contributions of Local WWI Nurses,” to be held at 7 p.m. May 8. The speaker is Sandy Sager, whose grandmother was a nurse during the Great War. The WWI exhibit lasts until the end of July in the sheriff’s building.

The museum will host its annual Pioneer Day on May 10, for fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms and homeschooled groups who will learn about cooking, dancing, blacksmithing, log-cutting, and printing during the era.

Herald-Palladium Staff Writer John Matuszak spoke with Cyr, who retires at the end of July, about her work.

What makes history interesting to you?

I’ve always been fascinated by dates and times, and the way they have shaped up and influenced us.

Do you have a favorite historical period?

As a costume historian, my favorite costume period would be the turn of the (20th) Century. Clothes for women had that hourglass shape and silhouette. The clothes during World War I were influenced by the materials shortage, and had a more straight silhouette.

What do the things that people wore tell us about them?

Costumes tell us a lot about society and how we interact. In the 1860s, women were caged in crinoline. There was a Romantic period during the 1830s when you had more of the hourglass shape, when skirts were bigger and fuller. A lot of women died in fires when they got too close to the fireplace.

When have you enjoyed learning about Berrien County history?

We have such a rich history. And people are cognizant of that and have saved the family records and artifacts and clothing (and donated them to the association).

What do you hope the children gain from visiting?

We want to educate the next generation, and have them gain an appreciation for their history and its significance. And when they have children, hopefully they will pass it on to them.

Is there a book of history that you’ve read recently you can recommend?

There’s one we have in our gift shop, “The Concise History of the United States.” It’s small, but it gives you all the facts and dates.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak