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The Many Lives of Burns Park

Grace Shackman

Olivia Hall's savvy land swap created a park, a school, and a neighborhood.

Today, Burns Park and its namesake school are surrounded by family neighborhoods. But 150 years ago, they were the back pasture of J.D. Baldwin's fruit farm.

In 1876, Baldwin sold his house on Hill St. (still standing at the corner of Washtenaw) and seventy-eight acres to Israel and Olivia Hall. The west side of the property bordered the county fairgrounds, then at the corner of Hill and Forest.

The county fair drew large crowds each fall. The crowds drew criminals (see "Sophie Lyons Goes to the Fair," March), and high-stakes horse races drew gamblers.

Those were tolerable nuisances when the fairgrounds was built sometime before 1864, because at the time it was way out in the country. But by 1890, homes were going up nearby.

Olivia Hall believed that gambling on the track's harness races was a bad influence on children. She offered to swap some of their land for a new fairgrounds and take over the land being used by the existing fairgrounds.

Hall's concern wasn't entirely selfless: after the swap was approved, she subdivided the old fairgrounds, naming Olivia and Israel streets after herself and her husband (Israel was renamed Cambridge in 1914). The generous sixty-foot-wide lots felt even more spacious because vehicle access was via shared alleys instead of individual driveways.

Fair organizers, meanwhile, built a half-mile oval racetrack on their new site, with a twenty-stall horse barn and a grandstand that backed onto Wells St. In 1898, the county historical society built a log cabin in the fairgrounds' southwest comer. Seventy-four people paid $5 each to have the names of pioneer ancestors etched in five of the logs. Traveling carnivals and circuses also used the grounds. In Adam Christman's book Ann Arbor: The Changing Scene, a woman who grew up on Wells remembered carnival girls filling pails with rainwater from her family's cistern to wash their hair. Milo Ryan, in his wonderful View of a Universe, recalled getting up at 5:30 a.m. to see the circus train unload, then watching the performers parade through town on their way to the fairgrounds.

The new fairgrounds themselves were soon surrounded by homes. In 1910, voters approved a special tax to purchase them. The site was named Burns Park in honor of the park system's founder, U-M botany prof George Burns.

The deal required the city to contribute $100 a year to maintain the track and horse barn, and racing continued under the auspices of the Ann Arbor Driving Club. When the barn was destroyed by lightning, the city built a new one, slightly smaller, with a twelve-stall stable and a tack room, hayloft, and groom's quarters. But when Eli Gallup was hired as the city's first superintendent of parks in 1919, one of his first projects was to move the racing out of Burns Park.

The school system, which was planning to build a school on the grounds, was also keen on having the racetrack gone. In 1922 it paid the Driving Club $20,000 to relocate to today's Veterans Park. The county fair continued there until 1942.

The new school replaced the 1885 Tappan Elementary on East University, which had been sold to the U-M. To make room, the log cabin was moved to the park's southwest corner.

The new building opened in 1925 as Tappan Junior High. Younger children were supposed to go to Eberbach School a few blocks away on Forest, but it proved too small, so some of the lower grades also moved into the new building.

In 1951, when the present Tappan opened E. Stadium, the middle grades moved there, making room for all the neighborhood's younger students in the renamed Burns Park Elementary. Eberbach served as the school's administration building until it burned down in 1971.

In 1926, Claude Wyman was hired as the park's first caretaker. He lived int he former groom's quarters in the 1911 barn with his wife and a  succession of collie dogs. Al Gallup, Eli's son, remembers Wyman as "friendly and helpful, good with the kids. He tried to help them enjoy the park."

After Wyman died in 1950, Gallup was caretaker for a few years. He and his first wife, Janet, moved into the former barn. He remembers that the rooms were laid out in a row, like railroad cars, and the only heat was from a stove in the kitchen. "The kitchen was warmest, the living room was medium, but did have a big window looking out at a pond," Gallup says. "The bedroom was cold, and the closet freezing."

There was no hot water, so the couple went to the senior Gallups' house nearby to take baths. When their first child was born, they heated water on the stove to wash the diapers. When they had a second child, they found a new place to live.

Each winter, parks staff flooded the former racetrack to create an ice rink. Gallup remembers that they tried to have it ready by Christmas, "so kids could try the new skates they received as presents." Youngsters still sled on an artificial hill, made from soil dug up to create tennis courts.

In 1948 the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre was given permission to use the log cabin to build scenery, hold meetings, and rehearse plays. "If the Washtenaw County pioneers whose names are etched on the rugged beams of the Burns Park log cabin could come alive, they'd see and hear some mighty strange going-ons in the monument built to their memory," wrote an Ann Arbor News reporter that year. But termites got into it, and in 1955 it was torn down and a modern shelter built in its place. Today the shelter serves as a maintenance building.

In the 1960s, donors and volunteers helped renovate the former barn as a permanent home for the Ann Arbor Senior Center. It's still there, with a full schedule of activities.

An ongoing mystery among local history buffs was "Whatever happened to the inscribed logs in the log cabin?" Eli Gallup saved them when the cabin was dismantled, but no one seemed to know where they were.

Two years ago, a question from a descendant of one of the pioneers spurred local historian Susan Wineberg to try to locate them. A committee helped by AI Gallup, now ninety-two, found them in a barn near the airport.

Asked what comes next, Wineberg says the committee met with the city's chief financial officer, Tom Crawford, "and he's enthusiastic about the project. We discussed temporary display in the main hall of city hall until a permanent structure can be built." Stay tuned. 


[Photo caption from original print edition]


Photo Caption 1: (Above) 1891 card advertising the county fair; racing drew crowds, but moral concerns about gambling kept the fairgrounds moving.

Photo Caption 2: (Below) The Ann Arbor High football team at the Hill and Forest fairgrounds in 1908.

Photo Caption 3: (Top) Ice skating on the former Burns Park racetrack, 1947.

Photo Caption 4: (Right) The park's log cabin was built as a pioneer memorial. By 1948, it was the Civic Theatre's workshop.

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Grace Shackman