After decades of decline, Black residents and entrepreneurs leading Idlewild’s “rebirth”

Oct 1, 2020

The small town of Idlewild in Lake County was once called the “Black eden” of Michigan. For decades it attracted thousands of Black musicians, entrepreneurs and families every weekend.

But it didn’t last as many left Idlewild behind.

Some who stayed like Dilla Scott, whose family briefly lived there in the 90s and whose story was featured on IPR, didn’t feel safe.

“Idlewild means the men are idle and the women are wild," she said. "You could go right around the corner and there are those people who are disruptive to their own community and to others.”

But a lot has changed in Idlewild in the past few years.

Now Black residents and entrepreneurs are leading the community’s rebirth.

In many ways Idlewild is like a lot of towns in northern Michigan. It’s beautiful, with long winding roads curving around lakes on each side of town. In the summer there’s constant traffic of trucks dragging boats and RVs to and from.

Then there are the differences. Idlewild, which is about 90 minutes south of Traverse City, has historical markers celebrating Black artists and entrepreneurs. There are streets named after iconic Black leaders like W.E.B. DuBois.

Ron Stephens, a professor of African American Studies at Purdue University, is building a home in Idlewild and says the rural town wasn't always this quiet.

"There was a clubhouse here, there was a hotel over there, there was a nightclub," Stephens says gesturing around a mostly empty dirt road in Idlewild. "It was totally different."

Stephens says in the 1950s, 25,000 people would come to Idlewild any given weekend.

“It was a space where you didn’t have to worry about any forms of discrimination. You came to celebrate, you came to relax, you came to have fun,” he said.

But that didn’t last. Stephens says the passage of civil rights legislation and more economic opportunities for Black people meant they could vacation elsewhere.

Over decades much of Idlewild’s population left, dwindling to just a few hundred people at the turn of the century.

A "new" Idlewild

But around 2012, a number of hotels and businesses were designated as historical sites by the state, like the Wilson House. The nearby Paradise Club had lots of history too, once holding concerts featuring performers like Jackie Wilson, the Four Tops and Etta James.

Joe Lindsay’s family owns the lot where the Paradise Club stood, now called Paradise Gardens. He moved to Idlewild in 1965.

 

Eric Lindsay (white shirt) runs Paradise Gardens with his father Joe (second from left).
Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio

“If a person wanted to have nice time, clean fun, this was the place to be," he said. "People were coming from all over the state of Michigan to Idlewild just to enjoy night shows.”

The club is gone and the lot is now run by Joe’s son, Eric, who was raised in Idlewild. His family turned it into a campsite for tents and RVs where they hold events.

For example, the Idlewild International Film Festival was scheduled for August.

And Eric Lindsay says, until the Covid-19 pandemic shut everything down, there was huge demand.

“Every weekend from the beginning of June through after Labor Day was booked with events," Eric said. "We definitely saw our calendars grow with events here, and hopefully next year we can get back on track.”

"I am able to breathe here"

Eric says the comfort Idlewild offers Black people is more important than ever in the wake of national protests over racial injustice.

“[Idlewild is] the place I can come and breathe. Breathe good, clean, fresh air, and using that word "breathe" right now is so political," he said. "And another thing is I feel safe, it’s a place where I feel safe.”

Blair Evans, local business owner, resident and planning commissioner, says that comfort is important to Black entrepreneurs who see opportunity in Idlewild.

“There's a different feel," Evans said. "Even though you know how to navigate that terrain, you know how to code-switch ... it feels a lot different if you’re on home ground in a culture that envelops you, as opposed to tiptoeing around egg shells."

The comeback

Evans also co-owns the now historic Morton’s Motel, which was in Victor Hugo Green’s Green Book — a guide for Black drivers to find safe lodging in racist communities.

 

Morton's Motel
Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio

Evans bought the motel just to preserve it but says pre-pandemic he was getting enough visitors to make it a viable business.

“Idlewild was a lot of empty space it seemed like 10 years ago. Now it seems like we don’t have enough space to do some of the stuff people are angling for,” he said.

A study done by MSU Extension in 2013 showed Idlewild’s housing prices and population had steadily ticked up, while those unemployed or on government assistance have gone down.

Evans says Idlewild’s next big hurdle is having the infrastructure for long-term growth: things like better broadband internet access and road maintenance.

“This year a lot of people are calling up saying 'okay we’re doing remote work, I’d like to do it up there, is the infrastructure there from a digital perspective there?'" Evans said. "So there are different areas of economic opportunity that are emerging here.”

 

Ron Stephens in Idlewild
Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio

"It's happiness"

Ron Stephens’ home in Idlewild is still under construction, it should be done in the next 2-3 years.

He says Idlewild, like a lot of places in northern Michigan, is figuring out its identity. Is it a resort town? A year-round destination? A retirement community? Or all of the above?

Stephens doesn’t know the answer yet, but he does know one thing: he’s excited to retire here.

“I can imagine myself sitting around a campfire on my property with my grandkids telling them stories. And so it’s happiness, it’s peace, it’s serenity,” he said.