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Idlewild: Heaven on earth

Small town is the vacation home to the Midwest Black middle class


By Harry Colbert, Jr., Managing Editor

When I first heard about a place called Idlewild it was because a movie bared its name. I enjoyed the movie, but the movie – as entertaining as it is – does this magical place no justice.

Now there are a few Idlewilds throughout the U.S. but thee Idlewild I’m talking about is the one in Michigan. And though it has fallen on hard times, there’s something so wonderful … so serine … so liberating about the place, that it’s comeback is inevitable. In fact, it’s already begun.

Idlewild’s cultural significance is detailed in this marker, designating the town a historical site. Photos by Devonda Scott

Idlewild’s cultural significance is detailed in this marker, designating the town a historical site. Photos by Devonda Scott

But to tell you where Idlewild is today, I need to tell you a bit about where it was. Some of it you can get from Wikipedia. But I was blessed enough to get it from those who know it best … the “Idlewilders.” And you can’t talk Idlewild without talking about the town’s unofficial ambassador and historian, John Meeks. Meeks is 95 years old and when it comes to Idlewild, he’s seen it all. The ups and the downs. To hear the stories from Meek makes you wish you were there to experience Idlewild in its heyday.

In its heyday Idlewild, situated in mid-Michigan about three hours north of Detroit, four hours north of Chicago, five hours north of Cleveland, eight hours north of St. Louis and a between nine and 10 hours east of Minneapolis/St. Paul depending on if you drive the whole way or take the ferry across Lake Michigan, was the desired resort destination for middle-class to upper-middle-class and affluent African-Americans living in the Midwest. What the Inkwell of Martha’s Vineyard is to well-to-do Blacks on the east coast, Idlewild is to Midwesterners.

Those that had property in Idlewild included Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the first person to perform open heart surgery, intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois, famed businesswoman, Madam CJ Walker and more. Situated on Idlewild Lake, according to Meeks, the town played host to premiere entertainers such as Della Reese (he said she put on a show), Jackie Wilson, The Four Tops, Dinah Washington and B.B. King. Others said to have performed there include Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin. According the Idlewilders, many of these performers couldn’t get gigs at a lot of other places such as Las Vegas because of ethnicity. Too, due to racism, most Idlewilders wouldn’t be able to see the performers at other venues because of their skin color. If they could, they would be relegated to the back or the balcony. By no means does affiance equal equality.

Skin color didn’t matter in Idlewild. Well, actually, it did. It was celebrated. It still is.

The placid and tranquil, Lake Idlewild.

The placid and tranquil, Lake Idlewild.

I was introduced to Idlewild in 2015. A wonderful friend of mine, Dana Joubert Hayes, along with her mother, Saundra McClinton Joubert, own a home that sits on the lake. Joubert Hayes invited me up in August of that year. I had just experienced a very rough patch and she suggested the trip as a much-needed getaway. Truthfully, I was more excited about going to Detroit as we were planning on trying to see Erykah Badu that weekend. We never got to see Ms. Badu. But I got something of far more value. I got to experience Idlewild.

There’s no glitz or glamour to Idlewild; it’s about a rural as it gets. You’ve got to know where you’re going to get there and as they say, “blink and you’ll miss it.” There are a couple of event centers – one a small skating rink that doubles as a concert and party hall, another that just opened, a shotgun style event center owned and operated by one of the many Idlewild clubs; this one the Mid-Michigan Idlewilders – there’s one nightclub, the Red Rooster, and the closest shopping is the next town over in Baldwin, Mich. There are no stoplights in Idlewild.

But what is in Idlewild is the spirit of triumph in the face of adversity. The people of Idlewild – both the “weekenders” and those who have relocated – are living that often talked about “American Dream.” In their hometowns they are doctors, lawyers, teachers, social workers, business owners, etc. But in that small town in Michigan they are simply Idlewilders.

The sign at the edge of town welcoming visitors to Idlewild, Mich.

The sign at the edge of town welcoming visitors to Idlewild, Mich.

Idlewild in indeed a magical place. Sitting by the lake at night with the sounds of nature, the crackle of a fire and the echoes of laughter from a home across the lake it’s easy to see how this rural oasis draws in so many. Yes, the town is Idlewild, but it could easily be called Nirvana.

July 28, 2017
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