The village of Berrien Springs has rolled with the punches of events, times, and eras; with the inhabitants having little or no control of those items. It is our intention to write a short chronicle of those events that shaped the destiny or our village for use of those newcomers who question why we never reached the stature of metropolis. We intend to list the events that had influence on the inhabitants, giving dates of periods, and then enclosing in parenthesis my own interpretation of the effect of those events. Click here to view time table of notable village events.

Early settlers to Berrien County established settlements of villages on the St. Joseph River at Niles, St. Joseph, and Berrien Springs. (The settlement at Niles was close to the fort and mission established by the French.) The village of St. Joseph (originally named Newburyport) was at the mouth of the St. Joseph River & Lake Michigan where furs and produce were lightered out over the sand bars to waiting schooners and steamboats. The village of Berrien was established at the crossing point to the west side of the river of the land route between Niles and St. Joseph.

The first industrial plant in our village was a distillery. It provided winter labor for the men that worked on the riverboats in the summer. Its product was one way of marketing the crops of corn and grain and it was also useful in a horse trade.

The river traffic consisted of pole-propelled keelboats, arks, and steam powered riverboats. One of the first keelboats was 80 feet from stern to stern and 7 feet wide with a capacity of 350 barrels. Twelve-inch boards along the sides provided a walkway for the pole men. Going down stream was a breeze. Going up stream was back breaking labor even with the use of snatch blocks and capstone or yoke of oxen power over the shallow riffles. Arks were also used often, 40 feet long and 16 feet wide; sometimes two would be lashed together. They were a one shot trip downstream and were sold for lumber when they reached the mouth of the river at St. Joseph. A warehouse was built in the village on the riverbank for storage of produce until it could be moved down stream. It was located about where the fishing shacks are at the present time. The area was used in a latter era for the storage of logs to be made into rafts to be floated down to the sawmills at the mouth of the river.

We can recall that as a youngster, we played on the stern deck of the barge or ark that grounded on the upstream side of the upper island at the Shaker Farm. Some items of that barge were still visible in recent years. Seasoned red elm was a favorite wood for use in the building of the smaller boats. It was lightweight with a dense grain that was easily sawed or planed. Heavy traffic on the river was curtailed by the arrival of the Michigan Central railroad at Niles in 1848. It was struck another blow by the arrival of the Michigan Southern railroad at South Bend in 1851. oldest county courthouse in Michigan

The period from 1831 to 1848 was plagued by several events that affected the development of our Village of Berrien Springs.

  1. The majority of the land between the St. Joseph River and Lake Michigan was not opened for settlement until 1829.
  2. The Black Hawk War scare, which delayed immigration. The settlers that arrived earlier were uncertain about what the local Pottawalini tribe would do.
  3. Wildcat Banking
  4. The hassle between the North Berrien and South Berrien forces over where the county seat should be. An agreement was reached in 1837 to establish the county seat in Berrien Springs and the courthouse was built in 1838. It is our opinion that our Village was picked as a compromise because both St. Joseph and Niles wanted the county seat. The central location probably helped since it could be reached by riverboat from north and south and in a daylong trip by horse-drawn vehicles from most any point in the county. This accounted for the three or four hotels that were built in the village to care for the housing of travelers that had business with the county offices. Visit the Berrien Historical Society Site for more information.

Dan I. Porter (1897-1971) Very active in community service in Berrien Springs; one of his favorite causes was his untiring efforts in saving the old courthouse. He also organized both the Memorial Day and Independence Day celebrations for 14 years. Leader of the Fife and Drum Corp. known as the "Spirit of 76".

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