Idlewild Historic and Cultural Center now open

IDLEWILD — For more than five decades, African American families packed into their automobiles on summer days, destined for the pristine waters, shady forests and hopping nightclubs that made up the resort town of Idlewild.

The idyllic Lake County resort community is still a destination, with the Idlewild Historic and Cultural Center hosting visitors every Saturday throughout the summer. The museum is open for the season, and regular visiting hours will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Saturday through Aug. 30.

“We have a lot of visitors from surrounding areas who make a day trip to visit the center,” said FiveCAP Executive Director Mary Trucks, whose agency operates the center. “It’s very reminiscent of the way families packed up and headed out in Idlewild’s heyday. The story, and the piece of history it represents, fascinates people.

“The town no longer hosts 25,000 visitors and we don’t need police directing traffic on Saturday afternoons, but after visiting the museum exhibit, it’s easy for people to imagine what it must have been like then.”

Idlewild is perhaps most famous for hosting some of the most renowned black entertainers from the 1920s through the 1960s. Segregation barred many of these performers from playing large venues in more populated areas, giving rise to the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a series of bars, nightclubs and theaters that welcomed African American artists.

Idlewild became a favorite stop on the circuit and the small town nestled in the woods of northern Michigan welcomed the likes of Louis Armstrong, James Brown, Jerry Butler, Cab Calloway, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis Jr., Duke Ellington, The Four Tops, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, B.B. King, Della Reese, The Spinners, The Temptations, T-Bone Walker, Thomas “Fats” Waller, Dinah Washington, Jackie Wilson and Stevie Wonder.

“While the caliber of talent that Idlewild attracted is remarkable, it’s equally important to understand why the resort existed,” Trucks said. “Racism prevailed, even in the north, and Idlewild was one of the first truly integrated places in the whole country. It provided a safe haven, free from segregation and the injustice of Jim Crow.”

The Idlewild Historic and Cultural Center features a museum exhibit called “Welcome to Idlewild: The Black Eden of Michigan” as well as an exhibit developed by the U.S. Forest Service detailing the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps camps nearby. The center also houses a collection of Idlewild memorabilia and artifacts – shared memories from the people who found joy in the historic resort community.

The Idlewild Historic and Cultural Center is located off U.S. 10 between Baldwin and Reed City, at 7025 Broadway Ave., in Idlewild.

The center features a conference space that can be rented for events. Group visits can also be accommodated at times other than regular hours of operation, based on availability and by appointment only.

To schedule a group visit or to arrange for facility rental, contact FiveCAP at (231) 757-3785 between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, or email fivecap@fivecap.org.