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Posted on Thu, Oct 1, 2009 : 7:15 a.m.

The End of an Era: Ann Arbor historian's popular cemetery tours come to a close this fall

By James Dickson


Forest Hill Cemetery tour guide Wystan Stevens of Ann Arbor poses behind the tombstone of Johann Mueller, one of many graves in the cemetery Stevens talks about during his tours, which start Sunday.

Lon Horwedel |

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. 

More recently, 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. 

In the summer of 1977, Stevens realized a historical gem was staring him in the face. 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.

Yost Epitaph-thumb-537x402-10171.jpg

Fielding Yost's epitaph is one of the few in Forest Hill Cemetery.

James Dickson |

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. 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 Sanborn 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. 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. 

"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. 

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."

James David Dickson reports on human interest stories for He can be reached at, or on Twitter at


Let's Live Intelligently

Sat, Nov 14, 2009 : 11:16 a.m.

Wendy, that sounds like a good idea -- a project for next spring. (I will not be leaving Ann Arbor as soon as the story above implies.) Meanwhile, if anyone should check here for info on the last tour of the fall, let me just say that it will be on Sunday, November 15, starting at two p.m. ----Wystan Stevens


Wed, Oct 28, 2009 : 7:27 p.m.

Could Wystan make a walking tour audio/podcast whatever of the cemetary tour. So folk could still walk thru and learn about a2 history. like a museum tour.


Sun, Oct 4, 2009 : 8:58 p.m.

Reservations are not necessary to join the cemetery tours. Simply show up at the cemetery on any of the scheduled Sunday afternoons, at a about a quarter to two. This will afford my wife time to get everyone checked in. We meet inside, near the parking area. Parking is available inside the grounds, but we ask that cars not be parked on the main entrance driveway, where they may obstruct the passageway. Further information may be had by calling me or my wife, at 734-662-5438.


Thu, Oct 1, 2009 : 5:14 p.m.

Except for the upcoming tours, I am currently unemployed and lacking a steady income. Thus, while I have enjoyed many years in Ann Arbor [where I get my kicks at age 66], I can no longer afford to live here.

James T

Thu, Oct 1, 2009 : 3:45 p.m.

Mr. Stevens also did a "walk through" Bethlehem cemetery. Interested persons can see this occasionally on CTN 17, but can also view this at the internet site Even though we seem to have no confirmation of Mr. Stevens departure to Pennsylvania, he's a great voice for Ann Arbor history.

John Galt

Thu, Oct 1, 2009 : 12:05 p.m.

There is a video of a tour that appeared on the local public access station. It was quite interesting and I'm sure that it would be available in the Access station archive. Stevens' approach to history, using the cemetary to tell stories of the lives of people from local history, is excellent.


Thu, Oct 1, 2009 : 9:35 a.m.

Someone should video tape these last tours. I am assuming that he may not cover exactly the same sites in each tour. Perhaps the city, Kemph House, Bentley Historical Library, the U of M, the Ann Arbor District Library, or some history major at the University.We need to preserve this as part of our oral history.

Go Blue

Thu, Oct 1, 2009 : 9:21 a.m.

What a sad loss - his wealth of knowledge will be so missed. Is there an option return to town for an extended visit each fall just to continue giving the tours? Too much of a treasure to simply go away. Couldn't find a number to sign up for a it shown somewhere?

Laura Bien

Thu, Oct 1, 2009 : 9:12 a.m.

Pittsburgh? Oh, no! I so look up to Mr. Stevens, as an inspiration for my own attempts at history-writing, and he adds so much to the local culture. Of course I wish the best for him in his new home...but an Ann Arbor without Wystan Stevens is... (sigh).


Thu, Oct 1, 2009 : 8:22 a.m.

It would be so fantastic if Stevens would allow someone to do a video of his last tour -- something that can be permanently part of the history of the city and of Washtenaw county. Does anyone know him? Does anyone know a videographer that would be willing to do this?