For four decades after its establishment in 1912, Idlewild was a rural retreat for African Americans seeking a bit of rest and relaxation outside the confines of their segregated communities in cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis, and St. Louis. Referred to as “Black Eden” at its peak, Idlewild was one of the most popular resorts in the Midwest. Early lot owners included W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the NAACP. Dr. Daniel Williams of Chicago, the first person to perform open heart surgery (1893), also came to Idlewild for many years.
As many as 25,000 people would come in the height of the summer season to enjoy swimming, boating, fishing, hunting, camping, horseback riding, and nighttime entertainment. Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn, Billy Eckstine, Sammy Davis Jr., Della Reese, Bill Cosby, Louie Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops and many others were regulars at Idlewild’s once-thriving nightspots. When the 1964 Civil Rights Act opened up other resorts to African-Americans, Idlewild’s boomtown period subsided.
Idlewild is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a nationally significant historic site. It remains a retreat for year-round vacationers. The area’s three pristine lakes and public beach access provide the setting for leisurely boating, jet skiing, and swimming. Idlewild surrounds the lake it was named for, and the headwaters of the Pere Marquette River run through it. About half of the township is contained in the Manistee National Forest.
The Idlewild Historic and Cultural Center tells the Idlewild story through exhibits, film, and artifacts from the period. It’s open during the summer months and hosts a variety of cultural events.