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A Place in the Sun – the African American Resort in Northern Michigan

By Elaine Robinson, Senior Architectural Historian at Commonwealth Heritage Group, Inc.

Idlewild Historic District

In 1915, a small group of men changed recreational history for generations of middle- and upper-class African Americans when they established Idlewild in Lake County, Michigan. Idlewild became a haven for visitors during the Jim Crow era. The location, fewer than 40 miles east of Lake Michigan on the west side of the lower peninsula, made traveling to Idlewild an easy drive or train trip from areas such as Detroit and Chicago; but, as news of the resort spread, individuals and families came from much further afield. Historian Wilbur Lemon, in his account of the early history of Idlewild, wrote that among the first buyers of resort property came those from “Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Massachusetts, New York, Kentucky, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Texas, and Canada.” Within 12 years of the opening of the resort, property was held by people from “not only practically every state in the Union, but also in foreign countries; there were visitors last summer to Idlewild from Hawaii and Liberia.”

Through the sale of small lots, most just 25 feet wide and 100 feet deep, property ownership was possible for hundreds of families. To aid with the development of the community, lots sold for just $29.50 each and had easy terms: $4.80 down and the balance of $1 per week until paid in full. Today the less than $30 fee would not even provide a night in a motel, yet these families were able to secure a piece of land where they could build a summer home that, in some cases, continued on for decades and generations. There were other housing options for those who did not want the responsibility of a cottage, including motels, hotels, and boarding houses. These were needed as the number of visitors continued to grow from 500 or 600 in the 1930s to a record-breaking estimate of 25,000 people the weekend of July 4, 1959!

Idlewild is much more than the sum of its parts. It was a place to get away from the heat of city living and the restrictions that often limited the lives of African Americans, but it was also was a great place for the extended family to gather, and from the 1940s to the 1960s it was an entertainment hotspot holding an important place on the “Chitlin Circuit.” Organizations such as the Idlewild Lot Owners Association and a series of Idlewilders Clubs were established. These groups enabled the resorters to bring summer-time friendships to their home communities. In addition to the National club, Idlewilder chapters were based in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Mid-Michigan, and St. Louis. In the 1960s several major laws were passed that dramatically affected the number of people who vacationed in Idlewild. Together the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act removed barriers and enabled African Americans to live or vacation where they wanted. The huge number of vacationers from the 1950s began to slow, but the spirit of Idlewild is far from gone. In fact, some of the social clubs continue to thrive and families continue to return to northern Michigan annually to seek the beauty described by W. E. B. DuBois in 1921:

For sheer physical beauty—for sheen of water and golden air, for nobleness of tree and flower of shrub, for shining river and song of bird and the low, moving whisper of sun, moon and star, it is the beautifulest stretch I have seen for twenty years; and then to that add fellowship—sweet, strong women and keen-witted men from Canada and Texas, California and New York, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois—all sons and grand-children of Ethiopia, all with the wide leisure of rest and play—can you imagine a more marvelous thing than Idlewild?

Commonwealth prepared an updated National Register of Historic Places nomination and boundary increase for the Idlewild Historic District in 2010. The district is carved out of the Huron-Manistee National Forest and includes eight lakes and a portion of the Pere Marquette River. The Idlewild Historic District includes more than 1,300 cultural resources in an approximately four-square-mile area.

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