On the second weekend in February 2021, my wife and I embarked on a photography excursion to Idlewild, Michigan. Our plan was to stay at a hotel in nearby Big Rapids and commute to and from our destination as needed. The drive up to Big Rapids was no joke! The main route was completely covered in a snowstorm, but thanks to my wife’s brilliant navigation she managed to find a route around the storm that was much safer. Although we did get hit with some white out conditions here and there, but it dissipated rather quickly.
After we checked into our hotel we suited up for the snow and headed out to Idlewild.
(Weibel) It was known as the Black Eden, and at its height in the 1950s and ‘60s, more than 25,000 African Americans would travel from Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Indianapolis each summer to visit its 2,700 acres of lakes and western Michigan wilderness for intellectual stimulation, partying, and a sense of community. This was Idlewild.
“If you were a doctor, a lawyer, an entrepreneur, an educator, and you had the income to travel either by train or auto, [Idlewild] was a place that you wanted to be,” says Dr. Ronald Stephens, a professor of 20th-century African American history and culture at Ohio University and author of Idlewild: The Rise, Decline and Rebirth of a Unique African-American Resort Town. “The idea of having that sense of community, independence, and ownership was a really big deal in black America.”
Founded in 1912 by four white couples who saw the need for resorts for the growing African American middle and upper middle class, Idlewild became a place for intellectual and political interaction among prominent members of the 1920s African American community, including William Pickens and W.E.B. Du Bois.
But the increasingly rapid growth of the working black middle class after World War II, particularly with the rise of the auto industry in the Midwest, created a shift in the culture of Idlewild.
“By the 1950s and '60s, the crowd that was coming up to Idlewild, though they were educated, had a different idea of vacation,” says Stephens. “They were going up there to have fun and party.”
And party they did. Several nightclubs hosted the best African American entertainers of the day, including Jackie Wilson, T-Bone Walker, and Motown stars like the Four Tops. But more than entertainment, these shows were an opportunity for people to interact with the stars. “There was no way they could have done that in the city of Detroit,” Stephens says.
But by the mid-1960s Idlewild began to experience what would be 30 years of social and economic decline. The desegregation of previously all-white resorts by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, coupled with the sense by many middle-class African Americans that they had “arrived,” led to large scale abandonment of the once-thriving resort, according to Stephens. That decline in popularity eventually opened the door for the growing presence of prostitutes, especially during deer-hunting season—an embarrassing truth exposed to the nation on the Johnny Carson Show on Thanksgiving Day, 1977.
Over the last twenty years, Idlewild has made small steps toward revitalizing itself, including identifying 35 historic structures along with recognizing the homes of Joe Louis and Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, America’s first open-heart surgeon.
Weible, D. (2018, February 28). What's next for Idlewild, MICHIGAN'S Black EDEN?: National trust for Historic Preservation. Retrieved April 15, 2021, from https://savingplaces.org/stories/whats-next-for-idlewild-michigans-black-eden
Stephens, R. J., Dr. (2013). Idlewild: The rise, decline, and rebirth of a unique African American resort town. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press/Regional.