Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Idlewild, Michigan - Paradise Revisited

Our cabin in northern Michigan sits in the middle of a big oak forest. On a summer night the only sounds are the burbling of the cold, fast-moving trout stream that flows in front of the house, the rustling of unseen night animals and the persistent clear and haunting call of the whip-poor-will.

For two nights in July, however, if the wind is right, the night woods fill with the hot and sultry sounds of blues and jazz from the nearby town of Idlewild. It's a small echo of America's segregated past, a time when the town was one of the most popular African American summer resorts in the country.

Idlewild was a sanctuary from the racist Jim Crow practices and laws that African Americans faced in their everyday lives. On a summer day, as many as 25,000 people jammed into Idlewild on roads such as Justice Avenue, Celestial Boulevard, Righteous Road and Wisdom Way. Music could be heard all night long, every night, in the Paradise Club, the Flamingo Club, the Purple Palace and the El Morocco, an after-hours club that closed at 8 a.m.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Idlewild was the place to perform not only for up-and-coming black artists, but for established ones as well. After a day of swimming, canoeing, hiking or horseback riding, vacationers went from club to club to see such legendary performers as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, James Brown, Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, Sammy Davis, Jr., Della Reese, Bill Cosby and Aretha Franklin.

Founded in 1912, Idlewild gave African Americans the opportunity to buy land in a beautiful setting. Small lots, 25 x 100 feet, were sold for 35 dollars with six dollars down and payments of a dollar a week. The community also acted as a touchstone of black identity and culture. Early land owners included W.E.B DuBois, Charles Chesnutt, and Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the world's first successful open heart surgery in 1893.

The example of these progressive-minded citizens coupled with an alluring advertising campaign convinced many black professionals to buy large pieces of land in Idlewild. In their book, Black Eden authors Lewis Walker and Ben C. Wilson state: "To be able to relax and have a holiday and also be a part of discussions and developments on race was an exciting and exhilarating experience for many."

Today Idlewild is a shadow of its former self. Its famous clubs and most of its motels, shops and restaurants are gone. When segregation legally ended in 1964, African Americans began to frequent places previously denied to them. Idlewild businesses found it difficult to compete in this changed environment and the slow decline of the town began.

The natural beauty remains and the lakes are still lined with neat vacation cottages, many owned by people with memories of forty, fifty and even sixty Idlewild summers. The town is much smaller and poorer than it was in its heyday, but there are signs of revival. One of them is the annual Idlewild Music Fest, a celebration of Idlewild's musical heritage.

This year's festival, the sixth annual, will be held on July 9 and 10 on Williams Island on Lake Idlewild. As a publicity flyer says: "Back in the day, everybody who was anybody made an appearance by the lake and people in the know had front row seats." We've already bought our tickets.


To see my photos of present-day Idlewild, click here.

For historical photos of Idlewild from the Archives of Michigan Digital Collection, click here

To read about Idlewild's fascinating history, I recommend the following book:

Black Eden, The Idlewild Community
by Lewis Walker and Ben C. Wilson
Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, 2002.

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor


  1. What a brilliant story! I'd never heard of Idlewild (the name in itself is wonderful!). I hope they manage to revive the Music Fest and turn it to a mixed culture festival with a strong African American presence. I'm glad you bought your tickets by the lake...

  2. I actually have heard of Idlewild, and since I travel all over the country for Duke in my job, I knew about that area from things I'd read, but I really enjoyed your history of the area. It still looks like an idyllic spot from your current photos, and what bright, lovely faces of the "locals" you posted. Thanks for the introduction to Idlewild! I thoroughly enjoyed this.

  3. Sounds like the perfect place for creative Muses.

  4. pining after the cabin in the woods. Idlewild sounds like an amazing place to visit. hope you enjoy yours. popped over from authorblog...congrats on the POTD mention.

  5. That sounds like a heavenly place to be. Jazz on a summer night, wonderful. Here from authorblog and David's Post of the Day...congratulations.

  6. Great story and post. Very interesting information.

    Congrats on POTD from David's.


  7. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful history.

    Glad I found you over at David's.

  8. WOW! Great post! Congrats on the Post of the Day mention from David at authorblog!

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  10. Hi!
    This is such a paradise!
    I'd love to have the chance to be there someday.
    Thanks folks for sharing!


Thanks for your comments.