New Ann Arbor-area nature preserve honors legacy of ‘Grampa Don’ – MLive.com


'Grampa Don' Botsford, his nature preserve and his Gymkhana
WASHTENAW COUNTY, MI — Just beyond Ann Arbor’s western border is a wooded area off Miller Road by M-14 where the songs of birds echo through the forest and where deer prance and wildflowers cover the ground each spring.
It’s been a place of refuge and recreation for many visitors over the decades, purchased in 1975 by the late Don Botsford, affectionately known to many as “Grampa Don.”
After years of questions about what would come of the property following his death and multiple legal battles, Botsford’s legacy now will live on as the land he loved is permanently becoming a public-access nature preserve named in his honor.
The legal dust has settled and the quest by local officials to protect Botsford’s 20 acres — along with another 20 acres to the west extending to Wagner Road — is now complete.
“I have been working on the preservation of this property since I started doing land preservation in 2005 — it’s one of those deals,” said Ginny Leikam, Washtenaw County’s superintendent of park planning and natural area preservation, who first got involved with the property while working for Ann Arbor’s greenbelt program, which protects land outside the city.
“This was a longstanding vision of Don Botsford,” she said. “He wanted to see this piece of property preserved but also available for recreation.”
A story about 'Grampa Don' Botsford's dream for his nature preserve off Miller Road in Scio Township in 1997.Ann Arbor News archives courtesy of OldNews.AADL.org
Botsford, an athlete and fitness enthusiast who started Ann Arbor’s first commercial gym known as the Gymkhana on Maple Road in 1956, died in 2011 at the age of 82.
He lived a life filled with ups and downs, earning respect for coaching weightlifters and trampolinists to state and national titles, eventually closing his Maple Road gym in 1986 after losing business to newer competitors. But even when he fell on hard times, he never let go of the woods he called the Botsford Recreational Preserve, where he carved trails, gave tours, built treehouses and attempted to reestablish a recreation center with mixed success, living there while struggling financially.
Botsford’s preserve and adjacent land has been protected piece by piece over the last 14 years, starting with Scio Township and Ann Arbor paying Botsford $312,000 in 2008 to buy the development rights to his back 10 acres, putting a permanent conservation easement in place on half his land. Nearly a decade later, the county purchased the adjacent Pringle property.
The late Mary Hathaway also worked with the Legacy Land Conservancy in 2009 to protect 4.7 acres she owned next to Botsford’s land.
A map of the Botsford Preserve at 3015 Miller Road in Scio Township, just outside Ann Arbor between M-14 and Wagner Road.Washtenaw County
Even with those pieces protected, the fate of Botsford’s front 10 acres was still in question after his death. The land had been placed in a family trust with former Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie serving as trustee, per Botsford’s wishes.
But when Mackie allowed a logging company to come through and cut down dozens of trees in recent years, Scio Township sued, claiming damage was done to the protected land. The township was awarded $75,000 in a recent legal settlement.
Mackie maintains the tree-removal work was permitted and necessary to pay taxes on the property and only a small fraction of the thousands of trees in the woods were cut down. The trust was paid $20,000 by the logging company.
“We acted in good faith,” Mackie said.
Mackie and the trust also listed the 20 acres for sale, marketed as ideal for development of several high-end homes. There were various prospective buyers, including a couple that wanted to build a single home, but when the city was notified in 2020 of a pending sale for $350,000, City Council voted to exercise a right of first refusal to purchase the property to transfer it to the county.
The prospective buyer filed a lawsuit, but the city prevailed in court and finally closed on the purchase this spring. The county then purchased it from the city for $276,500 in May.
“We now own 40 acres there, which is referred to as the Botsford Preserve,” Leikam said.
While remnants of Botsford’s old trails still can be found among the woods, along with the various shed, cabin and treehouse structures he built, the county is holding off on inviting the public to hike through just yet, Leikam said.
“While we intend for the site to have public use, we will hold off until we get a parking lot constructed, trails better maintained, trail map with kiosk and preserve sign so there are amenities for the public,” she said. “We’ll have an opening when it is ready.”
It could take up to 18 months, she said.
Some of the site’s natural features include an oak-hickory forest covering most of the hilly upland area and two small perennial streams, part of the Honey Creek watershed. Birds such as wood thrush and scarlet tanager, which need forested areas for nesting, have been spotted in the woods.
“It’s a feel-good story,” said Dan Ezekiel, a retired Ann Arbor science teacher and county parks commissioner. “It’s just a beautiful piece of property.”
Ezekiel said he knew “Grampa Don” and remembers going to his Gymkhana as a kid.
“That was a fun place. I loved it,” he said. “I loved playing spaceball there, which was just a crazy game they had on trampolines with volleyballs.”
Don Botsford, owner of the Ann Arbor Gymkhana at 415 S. Maple Road, in a spaceball game with his son Bob in 1984.Robert Chase | Ann Arbor News archives courtesy of OldNews.AADL.org
Ezekiel said he became friends with Botsford a decade before his death, after they successfully protested against the school district cutting its environmental education program.
Even when Botsford was poor and living out in the woods, he still wouldn’t sell his land to developers, said Ezekiel, whose daughter Elaine made a short documentary film about Botsford, interviewing him on camera not long before he died.
“I feel I am so lucky to have found these woods and was able to purchase these woods, even though I struggled,” Botsford said in the video, recalling resorting to selling walnut trees from his land to pay back taxes and save the property.
“And that sometimes broke my heart,” he said.
Botsford also recalled various gimmicks he tried to make money at the Gymkhana in hard times.
“I even emptied out the downstairs of all the exercise equipment and put in pinball machines,” he said. “Also, I had a teen disco idea and we called it Close Pincounters of the Third Kind …. People said, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea.’ Nobody came.”
The hilly, sloping terrain of the Botsford Preserve makes it so the adjacent highway noise is barely noticeable, Ezekiel said.
“It’s so quiet there,” he said. “You would think that you were in some far-off Up North nature preserve.”
Scio Township Supervisor Will Hathaway said he lives in the house his mother used to own next to Botsford’s land, and the new county preserve is a fitting tribute to Botsford and achieves a dream his late parents also shared. They used to have “trillium parties” in the spring to admire the wildflowers.
“Don really should be remembered and admired for having the vision to save those woods,” Hathaway said.
The Botsford nature preserve at 3015 Miller Road in Scio Township, just outside Ann Arbor, on Sept. 1, 2022.Ryan Stanton | The Ann Arbor News
Hathaway is still disappointed about the damage done by the logging operation, but the township will be partnering with the county to restore the site, he said.
“It’s still a beautiful woods,” he said.
Mackie said he started working out at the Gymkhana and worked for Botsford as a teenager and always kept in touch over the years, which is why Botsford turned to him to manage his trust. Mackie said he walked the woods with various prospective buyers and the last couple that wanted to buy the property was interested in putting in a ropes challenge course, which he thought could have worked.
He’s pleasantly surprised the county is now dedicating the land as the Botsford Preserve.
“Don deserves it,” he said.
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