Special Report: The Forgotten Paradise
A small town, tucked away in the woods of Lake County has a much bigger story.
During a time of segregation, Idlewild became a sanctuary of sorts for African Americans looking for a much needed break from relentless racism.
Back in 1912, northern Michigan’s rich sturdy timber made it the place to be for the logging industry.
Co-author of “Black Eden: The Idlewild Community,” Dr. Lewis Walker explained, “a small group of white men started Idlewild in an area that had over cut timberland. The Branch brothers and Mr. Lemon got together, went to the bank, and purchased 2,700 acres.”
Fast forward to the early 1920’s, the Branch brothers and Wilbur Lemon came up with a plan to make that land available to African Americans.
An extremely uncommon opportunity at the time.
Walker’s co-author, Dr. Ben C. Wilson said, “So Branch sees this and he begins to realize that a lot of people migrating from the south and into the north were not share croppers or tenant farmers, but they were also professional African Americans.”
“People came from Canada, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, all over. It really became the popular place to be and it was affordable,” continued Walker.
Idlewild became a place where African Americans could escape the hardships of racism.
“I call it R and R from R, rest and relaxation from racism,” said Wilson.
Walker continued, “It became, in a sense therapeutic to just be there. To ride the horses, to swim in the lake. Idlewild was a place where for a moment, you can go and enjoy a sense of people-hood which enabled us to go out of Idlewild and back into our communities, segregated communities, with a sense of purpose and a sense of dignity.”
In the late 1920’s advertisements for Idlewild would play at “colored” movie theaters.
The ads showed off lush wilderness, sparkling lakes, and smiling faces and Idlewild’s popularity grew.
“Between the 1930’s and 1964, Idlewild was a jumping place,” explained Wilson.
In the height of its popularity, Idlewild visitors would pack into venues like the Flamingo and Paradise Clubs for an evening of lavish entertainment and fun.
Wilson said, “The who’s who of African American musicians performed there.”
Iconic artists like The Four Tops, Aretha Franklin, and Della Reese filled Idlewild clubs.
During a time of start segregation, even white vacationers would come to this notorious black resort to enjoy glamorous showgirls, singers, and other entertainers.
“There were some white folks who would come there and they would leave as soon as the entertainers were done. Then you’d have some other white folks who would come and they’d stay. They would kick it there, they felt comfortable there,” explained Wilson.
Those are the glory days many people like retired judge Marylin Atkins remember very fondly.
Atkins says, “It was wonderful. At age 12 I was able to see a lot of the Motown acts because they would practice at noon at the Paradise Club. We’d sit there with our Coca Cola thinking we were very grown up. This was always a place of gathering, we always had a lot of company.”
Atkins remembers building a cottage from the ground up with her family as a young girl.
The same cottage she owns today.
However, the Idlewild we know now, looks very different.
With the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Idlewild’s appeal faded.
“Segregation was banned and then integration came in and Idlewild began to die because African Americans could go anywhere. We could go anywhere. People would abandon Idlewild and of course the clubs shut down, no more horseback riding, no more skating rink. It just really went to seed,” explained Atkins.
Today, the boarded up clubs and rusty motel signs are lingering ghosts of Idlewild’s meaningful past.
They’re also a glimpse of what many hope could someday, in some capacity return.
Walker says, “To me it is still a precious, precious place historically, and it can be moving forward.”