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Black Eden

These Parts: Idlewild, MI--Before the Civil Rights Act, when racially segregated vacations were the rule, this patch of lake-dotted woods was the north's first and most famous summer resort for blacks.

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In the tattered photo they look like they are on their way to church: the women in long dresses, coats, and hats; the men in suits, coats, and ties. They seem tight-lipped, stiff, almost comically incongruous as they pose in a Michigan wood. Lined up on a sandy dirt road in front of a rented bus that brought them 270 miles from Chicago, they look formal, serious, as if posing for history.

And they were, as it turned out. For these were black Chicagoans, circa 1920, among the first to visit and eventually settle America's first and most famous summer resort for blacks north of the Ohio River. In an era when racially separate vacations were enforced by custom, if not by law, these overdressed Chicagoans were indeed making history.

They were an early chapter in the fascinating and continuing 80-year-old story of Idlewild, Michigan, a scenic but undistinguished section of wooded lake land that became the only resort to be listed in a national guide to black historic landmarks. Seventy miles northwest of Grand Rapids and 30 miles east of Ludington, some 3,500 acres of woods, dirt roads, and lakes became a "Black Eden" for African American vacationers from Chicago, Detroit, and other midwestern cities.

A woodland summer retreat for the black elite in the 20s, it grew into a recreation mecca and year-round community of blacks of all ages and classes in the 30s and 40s. And in the late 50s and early 60s, Idlewild exploded into a showcase of big-name black entertainment and a never-ending party place, a jumpin', thumpin', summer-long Mardi Gras in the woods that lured as many as 25,000 midwestern blacks on one July 4 weekend. Some visitors slept in their cars, others on sofas and in chairs--or not at all--and plunged into weekends of nonstop partying so loud, so joyous that--they say--even the Lake Idlewild fish jumped all night long to the rhythms of organist Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk."

Some of the biggest names in black entertainment begged to come to Idlewild. They performed as many as three shows a night, seven nights a week at the three nightclubs. Veteran Idlewilders recall visits by the Basie and Ellington bands, Josephine Baker and Louis Armstrong--whose wife Lil Hardin retired in Idlewild--Sammy Davis Jr., "Little" Stevie Wonder, Jackie Wilson, Della Reese, and the Four Tops--three of whom met and married Idlewild showgirls. After the shows, the entertainers, the show people, and the Idlewild regulars partied until dawn at after-hours roadhouses. They dressed in furs and sequined gowns; they danced, they partied, they clowned, said Mary Ellen Wilson, an Evanston schoolteacher and Idlewild veteran who still summers there. "Those nights we reached that point of complete loss of inhibition--what we call 'the breakdown.'"

But after 1964 a different kind of breakdown hit Idlewild. Once the Civil Rights Act was passed that year, the wealthier vacationers began drifting away to Las Vegas, Miami Beach, Caribbean cruise ships, and other vacation spots once forbidden to blacks. Similarly, the big-name black stars broke out of the so-called chitlin circuit and into mostly white mainstream clubs. Commercial Idlewild started drifting into decay, disrepair, and disinvestment.

By the 1970s the night clubs had closed, as had dozens of motels, all three hotels, virtually all the stores and businesses, and hundreds of rental cabins--all either abandoned, allowed to collapse, or torn down. And despite occasional campaigns to revive Idlewild that continue to this day, the unincorporated town has now reverted to what it once was: the quiet, rustic community of summer homes, retirement cottages, and shabby shacks that that bus load of land-hungry Chicagoans encountered in the early 1920s.

Looking for historic Idlewild today is like prowling through a ghost town. Among the dilapidated shacks, overgrown lots, and lonely street signs (with names like Harmony and Joy), visitors will find no museums, no historic plaques, not so much as a postcard to commemorate what was.

You have to talk with the locals--white and black--in Idlewild and nearby Baldwin, prowl through the clippings in the libraries there, or get in touch with historian and black studies professor Benjamin Wilson of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Wilson, who wrote a monograph on Idlewild for the Michigan Historical Society in 1982, keeps a small trove of pictures and other memorabilia to help tell the story. The photo of the bus load of visitors is his, and so is another photo, one that shows the four middle-aged white men who founded and named Idlewild. There on the shores of what once was called Crooked Lake, these four--two from Michigan and two from Chicago--pulled off the marketing miracle that became Idlewild.

Using ads and articles in black newspapers, a promotional film and brochures, bus and train tours, and a corps of black salespeople, they managed to sell 19,000 parcels of land to urbane northern blacks.

They did this by appealing to the black elite's lust for land and other symbols of status. The sellers, Adelbert and Erastus Branch from White Cloud, Michigan, and Alvin Wright and Wilbur Lemon of Chicago, assembled the land after it was abandoned by lumberjacks who'd savagely clear-cut the magnificent white pine forests, and by farmers who'd found its sandy soil unable to sustain crops.

Somehow the four men conceived the idea of selling the land as a resort for black professionals. Their booth in the Chicago Coliseum became the talk of visitors, most of them black, to 1913's Golden Jubilee Exposition commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation 50 years before.

In 1915 the Idlewild Company brought the first excursion of Chicago blacks to Idlewild. One of them, Lela Wilson, who was to become the leading black landowner and developer, would recall that the rustic retreat looked so inviting "we all became natural boosters" of the area. Wilson and many other visitors were recruited to sell 125-by-20-foot residential lots for $35 each--$6 down and $1 a month, with no interest. Their black salespeople were paid either in cash ($2 per lot sold) or its equivalent in Idlewild property.

Lela Wilson and her husband Herman moved to Idlewild in 1921 as two of the area's earliest full-time residents and developers. They built a cottage and soon bought 320 acres of property around a nearby lake that they named Paradise Lake. They sold lots and rented cabins in their subdivision, Paradise Gardens, and built a hotel, a store, and the soon-to-be legendary Paradise (night) Club.

By far the most important of Idlewild's early buyers and summer residents was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the socially prominent heart surgeon who founded Provident Hospital for Chicago blacks. Historian Ben Wilson said the beloved "Dr. Dan," then in his 60s, bought several lots, became a full-time resident and Idlewild's most prominent retiree, and persuaded many of his peers to buy land--including "Madam" C.J. Walker, a millionaire cosmetologist and patron of the arts; novelist Charles Chestnutt; Lemuel Foster, a Fisk University administrator; and an assortment of black politicians and club people.

Another early buyer was scholar and social activist W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Although he (like so many other Idlewild lot owners) never developed his property, he praised its beauty and even saluted the white real estate men who sold the land to the blacks, saying "they have made money . . . [but] they have not been hogs. They have not squeezed the lemon dry, and they have apparently been absolutely open, square, and just."

Also buying property were Harris Gaines, an attorney who became a south-side Republican state legislator, and his wife Irene McCoy Gaines, a prominent social worker who in the 1950s became the president of the 100,000-member National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. Mrs. Gaines--whose papers constitute one of the most important collections from a black Chicagoan in the Chicago Historical Society--served as president of the Idlewild Lot Owners Association from 1940 to 1954.

Historian Wilson said that early Idlewild pioneers like the Wilsons, Dr. Dan, and the Gaineses were socially ambitious professionals who saw the Idlewild experiment as a necessary part of their mission to lift their race by adopting the values of white professionals and intellectuals.

Social life at Idlewild centered on a clubhouse overlooking the lake--where hearty meals were served to visitors and meetings were held to discuss the future of black America. Wilson said these spirited debates reflected the prevailing three schools of thought on how the race could best progress: W.E.B. DuBois' activist-integrationist approach, Marcus Garvey's black nationalism, and Booker T. Washington's "separate but equal" accommodation to the prevailing ethic of segregation.

The early promotional film shows a clubhouse meeting led by William Pickens, the principal northern recruiter for the NAACP. But hanging prominently on the fieldstone fireplace was a portrait of Booker T. Washington. Wilson said his philosophy and spirit guided the Idlewild pioneers, who sought to advance the race not by agitating for change but by absorbing mainstream American values.

This mission was apparent in the brochure used by the Idlewild Company to sell lots. It claimed: "The large and growing list of lot owners is composed of the thinking, progressive, active class of people. People who do things . . . the leading spirits of communities [whose] objects are the physical, mental and moral advancement of their members."

It was in these pioneering years of the 1920s that Idlewild became a black Eden. Little different from hundreds of nearby lakes being turned into white resorts and campgrounds, Lake Idlewild was described by promoters as one "renowned for its sparkling streams of crystal waters." Brochures boasted that the lake was "teeming with game fish of the best varieties," and that the "pure, cool sparkling drinking water of Lake Idlewild"--which farmers had used a few years before to bathe and water their cows--possessed restorative properties that actually had cured one visitor's rheumatism.

Buyers wanted to believe these lavish claims so much that by and large they did. Their enthusiasm over having a resort of their own inspired blacks to see the only place where they could buy resort property as the best possible place to buy property. Though the original trees were long gone, with thousands of ugly stumps and second- and third-growth trees in their place, Irene McCoy Gaines as late as the 1940s praised Idlewild's "virgin forest with mighty trees that were older than any other living thing." A slender opportunity had become a destiny; the plot of ground made available to blacks assumed the proportions of a legend. And the legend helped keep blacks in Idlewild--and away from the lake lands developed nearby for whites.

A clever black-oriented marketing plan for some fairly undistinguished real estate was transformed by buyers into their own miraculous piece of "paradise," a word that figured prominently in the resort's development. A dialectical poem from the 1920s anthologized by Paul Laurence Dunbar proclaimed, "If you ebber want to get to hebben quick come to Idlewild."

By the time the original white investors sold the last of the land in the 1930s, the white promotional rhetoric had been eagerly transformed into a black American dream. One early lot buyer said, "When you stand in Idlewild, breathe the fresh air and note the freedom from prejudice, ostracism, and hatred, you can feel yourself truly an American citizen."

By 1930, the new Idlewilders, as they came to call themselves, had built 100 cottages near Lake Idlewild. The number of year-round residents, some of them retirees like Dr. Dan, had grown from 13 in 1920 to 398.

Idlewild attracted more than the black elite. Increasing numbers of what Wilson calls "sporting men--the gamblers, hustlers, and roustabouts" came out and bought lots and invested money. "This money blinded the pioneers and professionals to the character of the sporting men, who also started bringing out the entertainers," Wilson said.

In addition to the pioneers and sporting men, common laborers, factory workers, and black poor also began to settle around Idlewild. Many were Depression victims who'd lost their jobs and came because the land was cheap and the living, they thought, was easier. Others included injured factory workers whose employers paid off compensation claims by buying them cheap lots and giving them just enough money to build a shack for their families. A veteran white photographer in the area, Kurt Kahl, said the Branch brothers dealt directly with factory owners in Gary and other cities to get rid of lots they were having trouble selling.

Another element, called the "urban misfits" by Indiana University geographer John Fraser Hart in a 1960 article, was lured out by a Chicago real estate firm that sought "to capitalize on Idlewild's prestige." They bought and sold large blocks of land near Idlewild, advertising on streetcars, giving land away as door prizes, and, Hart wrote, using "the full gamut of high-pressure techniques." The new people, Hart wrote, were "quite different from the traditional Idlewilders. . . . Their educational, social and economic levels are far lower than those of the old Idlewilders who euphemistically refer to them as 'less progressive.'"

Many lived in unimproved shacks and what one veteran Idlewilder called basement houses--unfinished, cavelike structures they intended to complete when they could raise more money. They became full-time residents, living on public assistance if they could get it and working when and where they could, earning as little as $3 to $4 for 12-hour days picking fruit and vegetables on Michigan farms.

"There were definite class distinctions between the people who lived and spent their summers in Idlewild and the people who lived in the outlying townships," recalls Audrey Bullett, former Yates Township supervisor and a longtime resident of the Idlewild area. "We were all black, but the people in Idlewild always felt they were upper crust. The people out in the townships couldn't even afford to go to the nightclubs; they were out in the fields picking beans, cherries, and peaches so they could eat through the winter."

Idlewild, with its quickly spreading reputation as a rural retreat for blacks, became the site of camps, government programs aimed at blacks, and other institutions for less privileged urban blacks. Mostly black Civil Conservation Corps teams were sent to the area to plant trees in the Manistee National Forest. Once they were credited with helping save downtown Baldwin businesses from a rapidly spreading fire.

A social worker sent to Idlewild in 1938 on behalf of a potential funder to examine what her report would call a "camp for colored children" found much to deplore--dilapidated facilities, one outside toilet for 14 campers, a diet of vegetables, rice, and salt pork but little milk or meat, no formal programs, no books or camp equipment, and a two-mile walk to the nearest beach. The worker wrote, "The children seemed to spend their time on the road trying to beg rides to the lake."

Though the social worker concluded that the boys seemed happy and probably were better off than they might be in Chicago, she said much more would have to be done "to make even a start at a real camp."

Ironically, only one year earlier socialite Irene McCoy Gaines had written at great length about the need to start youth camps for the underprivileged in Idlewild. Mrs. Gaines--whose summer house bordered the lake the youths sought to swim in--wrote in the occasional Idlewild Community Herald about the deplorable state of American youth--whom she described as unemployed, hopeless, "boisterous and uncouth," the victims of appalling schools, vulgar entertainment, and "loose living in the home . . . conducive to crime." One of her proposals: a camp where "they can find clean streams--where they can be inspired by the majesty of trees and the songs of birds . . . and listen to the quiet music of the stars."

Not only was there already a camp a few miles from her house, though different from the one she dreamily proposed, there was also a different type of music being heard in Idlewild. "The quiet music of the stars" was getting competition those days from the louder strains of jazz bands in the Paradise Club and a supper club called the Purple Palace.

The lively entertainment and night life and the growing number of commercial tourist attractions--foot-long hot dogs, bars, supper clubs and after-hours dance joints, crude but cheap rented cabins--attracted yet another type of urban black to Idlewild: the young "transient" weekend fun seeker. Factory workers, cab drivers, and porters for the most part, they drove in from Detroit, Flint, Gary, and Chicago in the 30s and postwar 40s to enjoy resort-style entertainment denied them in the white areas of Michigan's "water wonderland." For instance, an all-white resort area only a few miles from Idlewild had attached restrictive covenants to property deeds forbidding owners to bring along even their black maids.

Though the resort areas were racially separate, race relations in Idlewild and neighboring Baldwin were much better than in most other parts of America, according to members of both races. Audrey Bullett said, "There was always definite racial discrimination in Baldwin, but there was none at the grocery store, the hardware store, or the lumber store because they always welcomed Idlewild people's money. Only the Sportsmens Bar and the barbershop would keep black people out."

The Baldwin high school was integrated. And Lake County made newsreels in the late 1940s by becoming one of the first mostly white counties in the U.S. to elect a black county official, the prosecuting attorney. "Of course," said Bullett with more than a touch of skepticism, "there was a reason for it. There were so many black people here at times, whites felt they needed a black prosecutor to help keep them under control."

Contrary to the high school, the elementary schools of the county remained segregated, with what geographer John Fraser Hart said was "the tacit understanding that the white children in the black school district areas would be given free transportation to the white schools of Baldwin."

And yet, Hart wrote, Idlewild became "a flourishing, independent Negro community which earned the respect and acceptance, if not the approval, of the white people of the county." Indeed, the Baldwin-Idlewild-Lake County area to this day teems with white and black people eager to talk about the spirit of interracial acceptance and cooperation. The Lake County seal even shows a black and a white person arm in arm.

After moving to Grand Rapids from Baldwin, Peggy Nichols was proud when her new friends told her she danced like a black girl. Nichols, who now runs a second-hand store on the edge of Baldwin, loves to talk of Idlewild's heyday and of the warm relationships she has enjoyed with black residents and visitors. "There was no racial tension up here," she said. "The people who came from other cities may have brought their own problems with them. But those of us here, white and black, had grown up together. We had no racial problems. We didn't know what racial problems were.

"And then somebody's cousin would come in from Chicago or Detroit and teach us what it was. And we would throw them out. We didn't want that. We were very thick. We stayed together, partied together, and if they didn't like it they could stay out and keep their problems to themselves."

The era that gave Idlewild its reputation for spectacular nightclubs, all-night parties, and big-name entertainers was an intensely bright but relatively short chapter in Idlewild's history. It began in the early 50s and ended in the mid-60s.

Everyone who remembers those days recalls a certain entertainer, a particular party, a moment uniquely glamorous. "In the so-called heyday, people streamed into here to party hardy all day and all night," said Audrey Bullett, who made as much as $150 a night in tips as a waitress at the Flamingo Club, one of the two major nightclubs in Idlewild. "That's when people were really drinking whiskey, really enjoying it and kicking up their heels."

Traffic on weekends was so thick constables had to be hired in Baldwin to ease the bumper-to-bumper congestion. Motorists drove back and forth in quest of a decent parking spot.

At the height of this era, Idlewild had 4 hotels, 14 sets of cottages, 25 motels, and 8 establishments that rented rooms. Small-time operators and entrepreneurs from Chicago came in and slapped up tiny motels to meet the demand.

"Bedrooms were so small," said Bullett, "you had to back into them. Bathrooms were so small if you sat on the toilet you'd have to put your feet in the bathtub. Rooms would be so scarce at times that people would rent out sofas and even chairs for visitors to sleep on."

Trixie Aldrich--then an exotic dancer who later managed the Flamingo Club, now retired and a full-time resident of Idlewild--said the clubs were as glamorous as any in Chicago or Detroit. "This was Ziegfeld in the woods, with touches of Las Vegas, Miami Beach, you name it." Valet parkers greeted the guests, she said, and the clientele dressed up as much as the entertainers. "People were dragging their furs and wearing their sequins and sporting their best jewelry," said Aldrich. "They didn't seem to realize or care that in a summer resort area you really don't have to dress like that." Aldrich confesses that she still wears some of her gowns to dinners at the Tabernacle A.M.E. Church in Idlewild. "Some people seem shocked when they see me like that and ask me if I'm getting married wearing a gown like that, but I do like to dress."

The nightclubs also brightened the lives of the white residents and businesspeople in Baldwin. In fact, white patrons from as far away as Grand Rapids and Traverse City came in for the shows. "Everyone in Idlewild was black but they catered to white people," said Wanda Misteli, a white woman who ran a dry cleaners in Baldwin that served the visiting stars. She said the shows were spontaneous and unpredictable and felt like a family reunion. "A lot of entertainers were in the audience and came right out of the audience to entertain. . . . They were on vacation, too. It was wild, all the booze, the food, and the clothes were fantastic. The wife of the Paradise Club's owner, Bea Giles, had this gorgeous black velvet mink-trimmed dress and shoes to match.

"I remember Lottie the Body Fantastique; a contortionist shake dancer; Peg-leg Pete, a tap dancer. The Four Tops were just getting started, and my husband and I used to finance them until Saturday night when they got paid. Della Reese got her start here--long before she made it big on Ed Sullivan."

Trixie Aldrich said Idlewild offered so many diversions it was hard to find waitresses and dancers who would take their work seriously. "Everyone wanted to play all day and party all night," she recalled. "Dinah Washington once wore herself down to the point where when the show started she couldn't sing. Entertainers liked it here. They would call each spring and early summer begging to play here. For them it was a vacation, a place to let their guard down a bit, not at all like the worries, the security problems of the cities. Jackie Wilson would gather up all the kids on the beach in the parking lot and sing with them during the day.

"And after the shows--sometimes three shows a night--we'd go to an after-hours joint and the shows would start again. We'd end up entertaining at the parties afterward."

The nonstop partying created some tensions between Idlewild's pioneers and its hordes of party people. "Some stuck to their card parties, fashion shows, and tea parties," said Professor Wilson, "while the others stuck to their whiskey and wild nightlife. The two groups had little use for each other, and if you talked about Idlewild they made it clear where they stood. 'Don't confuse me with the others,' they might say."

But schoolteacher Mary Ellen Wilson, a veteran Idlewilder, plays down the split, saying the nightclubs brought excitement and vitality to the area. "People who lived out there looked forward to all that partying," she said. "I didn't notice a lot of tension or conflict between the regulars, the lot owners, and the weekend party set. It was one big party. You'd find your set and do what you wanted. You could avoid the big parties or dive right in."

All those summer visitors did strain the infrastructure. The roads and water and sewage systems were overtaxed, and Idlewild became an unplanned hodgepodge of stores, elegant summer homes, and shacklike motel cabins. "A stand purveying the original foot-long hot dog may dispense its wares within 50 feet of the most attractive home in the community," wrote John Fraser Hart. Some houses were decrepit sheds, he said, and others nearby were "as modern and attractive as money can buy."

Hart was alarmed by the inadequate water supply and sanitation system. "It's a little short of miraculous," Hart wrote in 1960, "that Idlewild has not been swept by epidemics."

Audrey Bullett is tired of people who romanticize the nightclub era. "When I was town supervisor, people would come up to me and ask, 'Well, when are you going to bring the nightclubs back?' And I say to them, 'How much did you spend in a nightclub last year?'"

A nightclub today would be prohibitively expensive, as the season is so short and modern health and building-code requirements are so exacting. In the old days there were no restrictions, Bullett said. Sewers emptied into Lake Idlewild. "That's why the backside of the lake has grown so much vegetation. They put the places together with cement blocks and ran Romex [wiring] through there. You can't do that anymore."

The sharp decline in Idlewild's summer tourist business still dismays many of the people who enjoyed the resort's heyday. Some think it ironic that the formal end of segregated public accommodations would deal such a body blow to so many black businesses. But not all Idlewilders were surprised by the area's rapid decline after 1964.

"To say that Idlewild died because of integration is only part of the story," said Bullett. "That played a role, but if the black entrepreneurs who were making money off the crowds would have plowed their money back into Idlewild the black tourists might not have been so eager to head for other places and the Holiday Inn. People up here were so busy making fast dollars that they didn't see how bad conditions were. If you were paying $40 for a cottage here and people were sleeping in chairs for $5 a night, why wouldn't they want to head for the Holiday Inn for the same $40 and try someplace new?"

Since the 1970s, when most of Idlewild's businesses were shut or torn down, town leaders have made occasional attempts to revive the economy for the full-time residents. But except for an ongoing attempt to build a modern motel, the planning grants and feasibility studies have led nowhere. A proposed stove factory was not built. Neither was a proposed museum and cultural center, which was to have been built in the remains of the old Flamingo Club--one of the few commercial buildings still standing.

But the town lives on as a quiet retirement village and summer-home enclave around Lake Idlewild. Except for a few sturdy houses occupied by Trixie Aldrich and other retirees, the Paradise Gardens subdivision is a ghost town that mocks the celestial street names gracing the sagging signs. A weedy lot, collapsed house, and inelegant pile of refuse greet visitors to the corner of Harmony and Happiness.

But Idlewild is still a functioning community of a few hundred full-time residents, some retired, a few employed, and others hanging onto the edges of poverty. Like so many other summer towns, it's a difficult place to make a living at; and it's a rare youth who doesn't leave. Every July and August, Idlewild and some of its memories come alive again, as hundreds of aging summer-home people pull in from Chicago, Detroit, Lansing, Saint Louis, and Indianapolis to attend a round of reunion picnics sponsored by Idlewilder clubs from the various cities.

Despite Idlewild's problems and lack of commercial vitality, black people continue to own most of the land. They may not use it but they pay the taxes, and anyone who wants to sell quickly finds a black buyer through the Idlewilder clubs.

Not many Idlewilders talk these days of restoring the town to its former glory. Some have a plan to put up a hotel on 31 acres they've bought in a nearby woods. But plans to revive the business district seem to have fallen by the wayside.

"It will never be what it was," said Trixie Aldrich, "but it is a pleasant and quiet retirement village. And in August when the old Idlewilders come back to entertain each other at all-day parties the town is really quite lively--as lively as any other summer resort."

But it's a different, quieter Idlewild now, a rural equivalent of the faded historic black sections of Chicago and too many other cities, a sagging ghost of its former self. Its largely forgotten glory is ironic in an era in which African American youth are still segregating themselves at major colleges and universities, forming black cultural centers and stressing the importance of forging strong black institutions.

Despite all this talk, Idlewild--still black owned and operated, its grounds once stirred by spirited debates on the future of the "new black"--lies idle and wild. Its real history lies scattered in cardboard boxes and photo albums and in the memories of aging midwestern blacks, waiting to be written down, analyzed, and passed along to future generations.

For information on the Idlewild area, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.

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