Life | Locations

Historic resort Idlewild to celebrate 100 years

By Oralander Brand-Williams / The Detroit News

Detroit — Local families will be among hundreds expected in the west Michigan town of Idlewild today to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of “America’s Black Eden.”

Idlewild, a vacation hotspot for African-Americans from 1912 through the 1960s, remains a resort community for black families from the Midwest.

Today, the community in Yates Township is home to about 400 year-round residents, who will celebrate its founding and contribution to American history.

Idlewild is about 30 minutes outside of Big Rapids.

John Meeks, an 89-year-old retired Detroit businessman, said while Idlewild is historic the resort has been rebounding for the past 13 years.

“It is actually growing,” said Meeks who owned a chain of dry cleaners in Detroit for 50 years before he retired in 1997 and moved to Idlewild.

Racial segregation played a role in Idlewood’s success. When African-American families were turned away from other vacation destinations, they bought property in Yates Township, a 31/2-hour drive from Detroit, and founded Idlewild.

“Even though it’s historically African-American, Idlewild was always a place that was very, very mixed,” said Meeks.

“The visitors and tourists who came here for the entertainment were white.”

The idyllic vacation venue hosted some of the country’s top African-American entertainment acts such as Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke and Motown performers such as the Four Tops and Little Willie John.

Meeks, who is considered the unofficial ambassador for Idlewild, bought the resort’s old 17-room Morton Motel but sold it in the late 1990s.

Meeks is now a full-time Idlewild resident and a member of its Chamber of Commerce.

Today’s celebration at John Meeks Park, named in honor of Meeks, will feature entertainment, story telling and guest speakers.

At least 400 people are expected to attend.

John Meeks’ nephew Harold Meeks, a Detroit resident and president of the Tell Us USA Media Group which produces Tell Us Detroit media, said summers spent at Idlewild as a youngster during the 1970s will always be special.

“It was like a paradise,” Harold Meeks said Friday.

“It was like a breath of fresh air … a real break from the city.”

Today’s festivities will be part of a documentary filmed on the history of Idlewild by Detroit native and Ohio University associate professor Ronald Stephens.

He also has written a book, “Idlewild — The Rise, Decline and Rebirth of a Unique African American Resort Town.”

The book is scheduled for release next year, said Stephens.

Stephens said Idlewild represents a rare resort venue that catered to upper-class African Americans.

Other resort venues include Oak Bluffs in Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, Highland Beach in Maryland, and American Beach in Jacksonville, Fla., which also formed during days of racial segregation in America.

“It’s a critical part of history,” said Stephens.