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Posted on Sun, Jun 13, 2010 : 11:21 a.m.

Pioneer High School teacher fosters love for local history

By James Dickson


Students in Jennifer Kunec's sixth hour AP U.S. History stand next to their local history project boards at Pioneer High School.

Angela Cesere |

Ann Arbor Pioneer history teacher Jennifer Kunec doesn't just let her students coast after advanced placement exams.

Once the stated purpose of her AP U.S. history course is achieved - to prepare students for an opportunity to earn college credit without paying college prices - Kunec turns her students' attention to local history.

Kunec, a lifelong Ann Arbor resident and University of Michigan graduate, started the annual local history project a decade ago. Working individually or in groups up to four, students pick a historically valuable site in town. Tapping a variety of sources, from interviews to media accounts to deeds and other public records, students put together a poster board and a research binder on their chosen sites.

"I love local history," Kunec said. "I'd sometimes look at a building and want to learn what the story is. This lets me learn more about my hometown, and lets me teach students about hands-on research. I end up learning something new every year."

This year, students chose structures ranging from the iconic - Michigan Theater, Yost Ice Arena, and the Nichols Arboretum - to the obscure - privately owned homes that doubled as speakeasies in the Prohibition Era. Between Kunec's four classes, only two students or groups could tackle any one property.

In addition, the students grade two projects from other class sections. Constructive criticism is an important life skill, Kunec tells students fretting about giving their peers tough grades.

While the poster boards are the big showpiece, the binder is just as important because its depth and organization are indicators of the level of pride students put into their work. The course serves sophomores and juniors, and Kunec said the project doubles as a way to keep students engaged between the end of AP exams in early May and the end of school in mid-June.

While places like the Diag or Zingerman's Deli might have a lot more source material available than private homes, more material means more of a burden to tell the story well. Still, students who choose obscure buildings don't get a pass, Kunec said.

"It doesn't matter which site you choose, if you do enough digging, you'll find some cool stories in there," Kunec said. "What I want to see is that you reached out to the relevant people, that you did the research."

Junior Emma Hamstra did her project on Burns Park and the accompanying elementary school, which she attended as a child. Both the park and the school were named for George P. Burns, who organized the Ann Arbor Parks Commission in 1905.

In a past life, Hamstra said, Burns Park was a half-mile horse track and a trolley barn. As a fairground, it hosted University of Michigan football home games in the 1880s.

Hamstra also learned the origin of the mysterious dirt mound in the park: It is excess dirt from the defunct racetrack.

"That I didn't know," Kunec said.

Mission accomplished.

James David Dickson can be reached at


Wystan Stevens

Wed, Jun 16, 2010 : 1:19 p.m.

Emma, not to worry -- you were just 25 years ahead of the story. Football was indeed played in the Burns Park fairgrounds. Here's a 1908 photo of Ann Arbor High School football boys at a practice, with the fairgrounds' covered bleachers behind them. (Sixth from left is Ernest Allmendinger, an Ann Arbor lad who later became a star player at the U of M. I was acquainted with him before he died in 1973.)


Tue, Jun 15, 2010 : 12:27 p.m.

Wystan Stevens, I apologize that I misread my source.

Wystan Stevens

Tue, Jun 15, 2010 : 9:44 a.m.

Emma, you're not paying attention. In my comment, and on the Bentley Library page, it is clearly stated that the Burns Park fairgrounds did not exist until 1890. In 1883 the acres that became Burns Park were still farmland. The football game of 1883 was played at the fairgrounds on Hill Street, not on the fairgrounds that became Burns Park.


Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 6:18 p.m.

Wystan Stevens, The Football game that is being spoken of was indeed played at the county fairgrounds on May 12, 1883. These county fairgrounds are now present day Burns Park. Here is a website that talks about the first home football game.

Karen Jania

Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 3:09 p.m.

Many of these students did research at the Bentley Historical Library on North Campus. The students were very enthusiastic and a joy to work with.

Karen Jania

Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 3:05 p.m.

Many of these students came to the Bentley Historical Library to do their research. We really enjoyed working with them.


Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 12:15 p.m.

Here's a website outlining the history of one of the more "obscure" parts of Ann Arbor--the West Liberty Heights Subdivision. It's the 15-acres located on the southwest corner of S. Maple Road and West Liberty Street. It was in Scio Township for its early history--annexed into Ann Arbor sometime around the 1970's I believe. Check it out.

Wystan Stevens

Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 11:39 a.m.

The old Washtenaw County Fairgrounds (at Burns Park)could not have hosted football games in the 1880s, because that Fairgrounds did not exist until 1890. Before 1890, the County Fairgrounds lay on the south side of Hill Street, where Forest Avenue now cuts through. The Ann Arbor trolley barns were not located in Burns Park, but across the street, on the NW corner of Wells Street and Lincoln. While indeed Burns Park was named for Professor Burns, technically speaking, the school was named not for him but for the park in which it stood. (This happened when I was a pupil there in the early 1950s, and the name was changed from Tappan School, because a new Tappan had been built on East Stadium. Later I attended that Tappan School also.)

Phil Dokas

Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 9:40 a.m.

The Making of Ann Arbor URL is I'd also recommend two excellent books: 1) Susan Wineberg's "Lost Ann Arbor" 2) And Marjorie Reade's "Ann Arbor Historical Buildings" As well as Jim Rees's "Lost Ann Arbor" photo collection Wystan Stevens's Flickr account is another excellent trove

AADL Staff

Mon, Jun 14, 2010 : 8:39 a.m.

You can also find out more about local history on aadl's Local History Page, which includes The Making of Ann Arbor, as well as the histories of The Ann Arbor Police Department, The Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, and online versions of the awesome Ann Arbor Historical Street Exhibits, in addition to several other local history products. Nice work by these students, we hope it all ends up in Arborwiki!


Sun, Jun 13, 2010 : 6:56 p.m.

This is my project, I got my information from a book called "The History of the Ann Arbor Public Schools", you can find this book at the district library downtown.

Matt Hampel

Sun, Jun 13, 2010 : 4:26 p.m.

Sounds like a great project! I've added those details about Burns Park to the appropriate ArborWiki article.


Sun, Jun 13, 2010 : 3:42 p.m.

I agree with the last post. this is great work that the teacher is doing, and the work product ought to be on the web. I would LOVE, for example, to read the history of Burns Park, and almost any other location in Ann Arbor.


Sun, Jun 13, 2010 : 3:26 p.m.

I'm a relatively new resident of Ann Arbor and I would love to know more about city history, especially the more obscure tidbits. Is the information collected by the students available to the public? It would be great to have this information posted on the web. I realize that student work is usually not for public consumption, but in this case it would be a nice "public service".

Jennifer Shikes Haines

Sun, Jun 13, 2010 : 2:13 p.m.

Jennifer Kunec is a wonderfully talented teacher - several of my exchange students had her over the years and her class was often the favorite of all the classes they took at Pioneer. It's lovely to see her efforts get recognized!


Sun, Jun 13, 2010 : 12:01 p.m.

This is a fantastic idea. Nice job!


Sun, Jun 13, 2010 : 11:36 a.m.

Cool story, and good work, students. I didn't know that about Burns Park either, and I go still go there although I live in another city now.