History of the Park

By Margie Morris

 

Burns Park lends its name to our neighborhood for good reason: it lies at our center both geographically and socially. With a playground, the district elementary school, baseball diamonds, tennis and basketball courts, a shelter, a senior center, open fields, and the hill known as “Magic Mountain,” the park intersects the lives of neighborhood residents of all ages in myriad ways.

 

From fairgrounds…

In 1890, the Washtenaw County Fair Association purchased the land that is now Burns Park from Olivia B. Hall. The Association had previously maintained a fairground on Hill Street between Church and Lincoln streets, but as the city grew, the organization wanted to move its grounds further from the encroaching residential areas.

By 1910, the Association had become inactive, but the fairgrounds contained a half-mile racing track that was heavily used by members of the Ann Arbor Driving Club, together with a grandstand that housed crude restrooms in an enclosed lower section, a judges stand for the track, and a horse barn. There was also an open shelter and a log cabin that had been built in 1898.

Grandstand with Ann Arbor High School Football Team, 1910

Desiring to preserve this open space for the citizens of Ann Arbor, the city’s Park Board negotiated with the Life Members of the Fair Association, and the city council held a special election to raise funds for the purchase.

 

To a park…

The land was purchased by the city as a public park in July 1910. It was named the George P. Burns Park in honor of an inaugural member of the Park Board, who accomplished much for the park system of Ann Arbor. Mr. Burns had also taught in the University of Michigan botany department and had been the director of Nichols Arboretum and the Botanical Gardens.

The Park Commissioners leased a portion of the land inside the race track to the Ann Arbor School Board for athletic use. The city agreed to keep the track and maintain it, committing a minimum of $100 a year to that purpose. The Ann Arbor Driving Club and various city associations were allowed to use the track and the grandstands whenever school was not in session.

The barn was moved to the site of what is now the Ann Arbor Senior Center and renovated for the use of the Driving Club, but it burned to the ground in 1911 after being struck by lightning. A new barn was built that included groom’s quarters. These were later used to house a park caretaker.

 

With a school…

In 1921 the area around the park had become more populated and interest in horse racing had declined. The Ann Arbor Driving Club gifted the city with all the rights the 1910 agreement had given it, allowing the city to remove the race track.

In the same year, the land west of an imaginary line formed by extending the path of Lincoln Avenue (now demarked by a sidewalk) was sold to the Ann Arbor Board of Education for the site of Tappan School, a K-8 building that opened in 1925. The building has been Burns Park Elementary School since 1951, when Tappan Middle School (then Tappan Junior High) took up residence in its current building at the corner of Brockman Avenue and East Stadium Boulevard.

 

And more…

The first tennis courts were built in 1914-15 on the land later sold to the school board. They were moved to their current location at the time of that sale.

In the 1920s, Eli Gallup was first the City Forester and then Superintendent of Parks. Under his direction (although it is unknown in what year of that decade), a double row of American elm trees was planted in an oval that marks the path of the original racetrack. By the 1980s, these trees had been decimated by Dutch elm disease and were replaced in the early 1990s with the trees now there. Although the racetrack hasn’t existed in almost a century, the spirit of the agreement to maintain it is still honored.

During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded a project in the park that is still in evidence. The mound that had been at the center of the racetrack was leveled. This was done manually, with shovels, and took two years. The resulting hill of dirt was to be removed by the city, but whether by design or lack of funds, it was never done. “Magic Mountain” remains today and is used by area children (and the occasional adult) for sledding and biking.

The log cabin that was built in 1898 was dismantled to build the current shelter in 1957. Some of the logs had been carved with the names of early settlers. These logs were salvaged and stored in a locker at the Ann Arbor Airport. The cabin had served not only as shelter, but also as the ward polling place.

The round cement depression by the playground was built as a wading pool by the Kiwanis Club of Ann Arbor in 1944. The fountain at its center was removed and replaced with the current funnel ball pole in the late 1990s.

 

Sources

Christman, Adam, Ann Arbor: The Changing Scene. Ann Arbor Historical Association, 1983.

Ann Arbor News, Celebrating Our History, 160 Years of the Ann Arbor News. Heritage House Publishing, 1995.

Malcomson, Margaret, Burns Park. Prepared for the City of Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation Department, March, 1972