The End of an Era: Ann Arbor historian's popular cemetery tours come to a close this fall
Wystan Stevens' fall tours of Forest Hill Cemetery have become a local tradition over the last 30 years.
This fall, he'll give his last before moving to Pittsburgh, leaving the town he's always called home to relocate near his daughter.
But before he leaves, Stevens said he'll bequeath the boxes of research, old photographs and postcards he's amassed over the years to the Bentley Historical Library for posterity's sake.
Another thing Stevens will leave behind is his passion for local history.
"This is home," he said. "I'm not looking to start (my research) all over."
A lifelong Ann Arborite whose father, A.K. Stevens, was an English professor at the University of Michigan, Stevens graduated from U-M in 1970 with a degree in U.S. history.
The same year, he became the live-in curator at the Kempf House Museum on South Division, a post he held until 1983. For a six-month stint in 1980, Stevens was paid as the city's official historian. He's been one of Ann Arbor's unofficial historians ever since.Â
More recently,Â Stevens blogged on local history for the Ann Arbor Public Library's "Making of Ann Arbor" project.
Cemetery tours are born
Stevens' fascination with the cemetery at the corner of Geddes and Observatory blossomed after he exhausted researching local and U-M history.Â
In the summer of 1977, Stevens realized a historical gem was staring him in the face.Â After getting a map of the cemetery from the front office, Stevens began chronicling the final whereabouts of the famous men and women whose names he recognized from previous research.
That led to Stevens' popular fall cemetery tours. Every Sunday at 2 p.m. in October - and the first two Sundays in November - Stevens guides groups ranging from 25 to 50 for a three-hour tour of the cemetery's grounds. He gets the biggest crowds in the week leading up to Halloween. The tours cost $10.
"My tours are respectful of the departed," Stevens said, "but not reverent. We're still going to have some fun out there."
'Where the Spirit of Michigan is Warmest'
Beyond holding the remains of assorted Ann Arbor founding families, early German settlers, politicos, and captains of industry - not to mention hundreds of U-M deans, regents and professors - Forest Hill Cemetery is also the dedicated home of Washtenaw County's Civil War dead.
But since Forest Hill couldn't afford to dedicate a statue and headstone until 1914, veterans from the Spanish-American War were included in the tribute, as well.
Stevens said the statue of the everyman-soldier was Ambrose Pack, an Ann Arbor-area professional photographer in the early 20th century.
Forest Hill Cemetery was founded in 1857 by a group of Ann Arbor businessman dismayed by condition of the cemetery on Huron and Fletcher, where Felch Park and the Power Center now stand.
Remains claimed by family members were reinterred at Forest Hill Cemetery; those left unclaimed were reinterred at Fairview Cemetery on Wright Street on the north side of town.
The first funeral at Forest Hill was held for Benajah Ticknor in February 1859. Ticknor was a former naval surgeon who went on to build the historic Cobblestone Farm house.
James Glenn, an architect from Niles, designed Forest Hill and the Highland Cemetery in Ypsilanti.Â A headstone placed by the Washtenaw County Historic District Commission says Forest Hill Cemetery was built in the "rural tradition." In layman's terms, Forest Hill is a park with history.
"The way it's built encourages the families to come back and pay their respects - not just bury and forget about them," grounds manager Larry SanbornÂ said. "The layout is welcoming and perfect for a nice walk."
Most grave sites at Forest Hill only include the names, birth dates and death dates of the departed. Epitaphs are rare. One of the few that exists belongs to Fielding Harris Yost, the former Michigan football coach and athletic director.
In the 40 years Yost reigned at Michigan as head football coach and athletic director, he oversaw the construction of Michigan Stadium and turned the football program into a perennial winner - not to mention a self-sustaining cash cow. Yost was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame's inaugural class in 1951.
For more than 40 years, Yost made his home in Ann Arbor. His epitaph explains why the "Grand Old Man" of Michigan athletics chose Ann Arbor - rather than his native Fairview, West Virginia - as his final resting place: "I wish to rest where the spirit of Michigan is warmest."
Sanborn said the location of Yost's grave site is probably the most common request from cemetery visitors. In the year after Bo Schembechler's November 2006 death, Sanborn said the cemetery also fielded tons of requests about his final resting place.
Other local dignitaries featured on Stevens' tour include Ann Arbor co-founder Elisha W. Rumsey and his family; George Jewett, U-M's first black football player; John Nowland, whose epitaph features the apocryphal claim that he was the "first white person born in Ann Arbor;" Alpheus Felch, who is believed to be both the only Michigan governor and the only U.S. Senator interred at Forest Hill; and William Asa Fletcher, the first chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.
Stevens' tour ends at the grave site of a relative unknown, Johann Georg Muller, whose headstone is rare in that it graphically depicts the manner in which the 28-year old saw mill owner died.
Muller was killed in June 1868 at the corner of Hill and Packard when a log fell off his horse-drawn cart and crushed him.Â No one knows why Muller's widow thought it appropriate to display her husband's demise on his headstone, Stevens said.
A tradition ends
Stories like that, Stevens said, are a great example of why he shared his passion for local history with the Ann Arbor community for more than 30 years.Â
"I enjoy telling stories and talking about people that would otherwise be lost to history," Stevens said.
Sanborn said Stevens' tours and the associated publicity have driven business to Forest Hill Cemetery over the years. More than a few times in his 17 years there, Sanborn said people have called the front office and referenced Stevens' tours as they asked whether the cemetery is still taking new business. It is.Â
Sanborn said 35,000 to 45,000 plots are still up for sale.
Six weeks from now, Stevens' longtime fall tradition will be a thing of the past.
"If people have been entertained, and maybe learned a thing or two along the way, I'm happy," Stevens said. "It's certainly been a fun ride for me."