The luxury resort that discrimination built

Phil Giles, a Detroit hotelier, opened the Flamingo Club at Idlewild in the 1940s.

Lake County was created in 1840 and originally named Aischum after a Potowatomi chief. The present name was adopted in 1843. The county is not on Lake Michigan, but does contain 156 small lakes. It is the geographic center of the Manistee National Forest, has three famous trout streams, abundant deer, grouse, and wild turkey.

Lumbering removed most of the indigenous white pine, and the second growth forest and remaining sandy soil allowed few to eke out a living by farming. In the early years of this century, however, a group of developers bought 2700 acres of land in Yates Township around Idlewild Lake. The land was 70 miles north of Grand Rapids and 30 east of Lake Michigan. Erastus Branch and his partners began to advertise the lots in black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, and recruited black salespeople by offering them a lot for every one they sold.

This sign points out the features of the town of Idlewild This sign points out the features of the town of Idlewild.

Small lots, 25 x 100 feet each, were sold for $35 with $6 down and $1 a week. A typical ad touted: high and dry building sites, beautiful lakes of pure spring water, perfect hard sandy beaches, beautiful timber, profusion of wild flowers and berries, myriads of game fish and game of all kinds.

Excursions were organized for black prospective buyers from Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, or Milwaukee, for groups as large as a hundred, though usually smaller, who would come by bus or railroad. After the excursion, the salesmen would visit the city where the excursion originated and organize the buyers into an Idlewild Lot Owners’ Association.

Leona B. Simmons, shown here in 1984, owned Lee Jon's in Idlewild for many years.

Leona B. Simmons, shown here in 1984, owned Lee Jon’s in Idlewild for many years.

Segregation policies at most resorts kept middle class blacks from vacationing comfortably. The concept of a black resort was very welcome to those who had run into discrimination in their travels.

Herman and Lila Wilson came from Chicago in 1915 along with Dr. Daniel Hale Williams and other ‘pioneers’. These early landowners bought 10 miles of telephone wire and set up their own telephone company with 13 subscribers. Dr. Williams’ prominence attracted more investors and owning Idlewild property became a status symbol.

Dr. Williams had performed the world’s first successful open heart surgery on July 9, 1893, in Provident Hospital, a black hospital which he founded in Chicago. He repaired the heart of James Cornish who had been stabbed, by opening his chest and operating on his pericardium. He was the only black doctor among the 100 charter members of the American College of Surgeons. After vacationing at Idlewild for years, he retired there and died at Idlewild in 1931.

Another Idlewild advocate, W.E.B. DuBois, was the first black American to get a Ph.D. from Harvard and was founder of the Niagara Movement, precursor to the NAACP. He served on the board of the NAACP and as editor of their magazine, Crisis. He was a strong proponent of a black intelligentsia, whose leadership would elevate the position of all black people.

In 1921, DuBois spoke of Idlewild in the NAACP magazine:

“For sheer physical beauty, for sheen of water and golden air, for nobleness of tree and flower 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 add to that fellowship — sweet strong women and keen-witted men from Canada and Texas, California and New York, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois– all sons and great-grandchildren of Ethiopia all with the wide leisure of rest and play, can you imagine a more marvelous thing than Idlewild.”

Madame C.J. Walker, the first self-made U.S. woman millionaire, owned property at Idlewild.

Madame C.J. Walker, the first self-made U.S. woman millionaire, owned property at Idlewild.

DuBois bought lots there, although he did not ever build. He also commended the developers, stating that ‘Idlewild is worth every penny.’

Another early resident was Madame C.J. Walker, who invented the straightening comb, sold door to door and eventually had a sales force of 20,000 for her hair care products and cosmetics and opened offices in Denver and Philadelphia. In 1917, her business was earning $250,000 a year. She bought her lots from Dr. Williams.

Charles Chesnutt, the celebrated novelist also owned Idlewild property. A journalist turned lawyer, Chesnutt found his true calling in literature, publishing short stories and novels, although he continued to practice law.

These renowned early residents and vacationers gave Idlewild a cache that attracted many less famous, middle class blacks to the Michigan ‘Paradise’. Blacks who could afford resort vacations were unwelcome at most white resorts, and with the imprimatur of the black elite, and its natural beauty, Idlewild had much to offer, as an early promoter promised: “When you stand in Idlewild, breathe the fresh air, and note the freedom from prejudice, ostracism, and hatred, you can feel yourself truly an American citizen.”

The white developers turned over the resort to the Lot Owners’ Association in 1921.

The Idlewild Clubhouse was built on the island in the 105 acre Idlewild Lake. Floors were set on lots along the lake for canvas tents, later replaced by bungalows. Eventually, substantial homes were built for those who could afford them, many of whom were early real estate investors. Lela Wilson bought property about four miles from Idlewild at Paradise Lake, a forty acre lake on which she built a hotel, store and nightclub.

Lela Wilson bought property about four miles from Idlewild at Paradise Lake, where she built a hotel, store and  nightclub.

Lela Wilson bought property about four miles from Idlewild at Paradise Lake, where she built a hotel, store and nightclub.

The resort grew from the twenties through the 1950’s. The 1940’s saw black plant workers making good money in the war effort. Sonny Roxborough, of the Detroit insurance family, whose brother was Joe Louis’ manager, opened the Rosana Tavern in 1943. Phil Giles, a Detroit hotelier, opened the Flamingo Club. A 1957 article mentions 1000 summer homes and rental cottages, 50 motels and lodges, 2 hotels, dozens of shops, grocery stores, restaurants, night clubs and taverns, beauty shops and service stations, a roller skating rink, riding stable and two swimming and bathing beaches. At least 13 churches flourished.

The riding stable, the Cloverleaf Ranch, was run by Sergeant Johnson, a veteran of the Spanish American War cavalry.

From the thirties to the sixties, top entertainers from across the country performed at Idlewild’s clubs: the Flamingo Club, the Paradise Club, and the Purple Palace. The El Morocco was an after hours spot, the place to go when the other places closed, open till 8am.

There were stars just starting out and those who were at the top of their career. The names are legendary: Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Della Reese, Dinah Washington, B.B. King, The Four Tops, Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis and Bill Cosby. Moms Mabley, T-Bone Walker, Fats Waller, and Billy Eckstein performed at Idlewild as well. Three of the Four Tops met their wives there.

Idlewild in its heyday drew as many as 22,000 people on a summer day.

The 1960’s brought great strides toward integration. The 1964 Civil Rights Act forbade discrimination in housing, and white resorts opened their doors to blacks. Integration spelled the end for Idlewild. Black vacationers began to head toward previously forbidden spots: Las Vegas, Florida, Cape Cod. The big names no longer played at the Paradise or the Flamingo, and the crowds dwindled.

The Four Tops often played the clubs at Idlewild.

The Four Tops often played the clubs at Idlewild.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Jenny Nolan / The Detroit News