Wystan Stevens, the man who sells books at a long foldout table on State Street, is one of the area’s most prominent historians. An Ann Arbor native, Stevens has been enthralled with the city’s history since he was a young boy. His hobby is not limited to reading, writing and lecturing about days gone by – Stevens spends six to seven Sundays during the fall of each year giving tours of Forest Hill Cemetery. Here’s what he had to say about his hometown, its history and the people who made history.
– When I was still a kid I used to read the Ann Arbor paper. Back in those days they had people who knew something about the place. I absorbed it. There is a committee of historians who have met for several years. We go over texts for the glass display panels you see all over town.
– I remember June 6, 1950 as one of the most exciting days in Ann Arbor. Haven Hall burned down after an instructor set it on fire – he was upset about not getting tenure or something. I was 7 years old and my whole family witnessed the disaster. Every piece of fire station equipment was there and students were throwing manuscripts out of the back windows. There was a huge roar from the crowd when a brick wall from the 1860s collapsed.
– The University is the most unique part of Ann Arbor. It’s the tail that wags the dog. Its institutional presence can sometimes be oppressive, but it really benefits the town’s economy.
– We have had several characters over the years. Shakey Jake just died. In the past there was a man called the “healer of sick shoes,” who migrated to Ann Arbor from England. He was a cobbler before he was a news vendor outside of Nickels Arcade. Another was “Railroad Jack,” who was a traveling hobo and came here a couple times a year. He carried a huge wooden box that contained all his earthly possessions. He was a bit of an idiot savant-he stood on his box in the Diag and could tell you the events that occurred on any given date.
– Forest Hill Cemetery is like a filing cabinet. They’ve got everybody there: leaders of yesteryear, University bigwigs and those who drove the economy of the town.
– Lately people want to see Schembechler’s grave. His stone was just placed on his grave in September. It’s not very impressive-small and made of black marble-and it’s from China. I guess it’s cheaper to buy stone in China.