Traverse City museum offers a glimpse into Idlewild

TRAVERSE CITY - It’s not too often a living, vibrant, and active community becomes the topic of a museum exhibit.

And then there is Idlewild.

Located in Lake County, the community of Idlewild, just east of Baldwin, is famous as having been one of the premiere resorts in the United States catering specifically to African-Americans at a time when there simply weren’t too many vacation locations for upper and middle class blacks.

Idlewild began its development in the very early 20th century - in 1912 to be exact.

The community peaked as a resort in the 1950’s and early 60’s.

But the bustling community was not just a vacation site, or seasonal flash in the pan.

People lived, worked, and raised families in Idlewild year round for generations.

Today, this interesting community is the topic of a fascinating exhibit on display in the Dennos Museum in Traverse City.

The exhibit was gathered and created under the auspices of the Michigan State University Museum.

“Through the evocative stories and photographs in this exhibit, Idlewild community members share their rich past and their contributions towards a vital future,” explained Marsha McDowell, curator of folk arts at the MSU Museum.

McDowell noted that the museum team had worked with members of the Idlewild community over a five-year period to develop the traveling displays.

Today, this exhibit is telling the Idlewild story to hundreds of visitors each week.

From Idlewild’s conception as a place of rest and recreation for African American city dwellers from Detroit, Chicago, and points further afield, to its most notable period as a resort hosting the biggest names in entertainment, the community’s name grew to almost legendary proportions.

In an exhibit hall in the Dennos, panels tell the story, and a finely needled quilt expresses the emotion of history and the times gone by.

“This is actually a traveling show - one that was designed to be displayed in libraries and other such institutions,” noted Dennos director Eugene Jenneman

“We decided to give it a little more prominence than it might have in a smaller venue.

“The primary reason we thought it important to bring this exhibit to our museum as part of our way of commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Black History Month at the same time.

“It was important for us to develop a role for our museum in the broader community marking of these important dates and events.”

As an exhibition institution, the Dennos team decided it would be not only appropriate, but also very educational and informative to highlight Idlewild - a place so close at hand, and yet so culturally far removed from the usual Traverse City audience.

“Actually, we have a number of future museum exhibitions planned as well, including a collaboration with Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum that will be on display next year,” continued  Jenneman

“Response to this Idlewild exhibit has been very, very good.

“We didn’t know how much interest it would actually attract, but visitors to the exhibit have been fascinated with what went on back then, and inquisitive as to what is happening in that community today.

“The exhibition has given people a peek at a historic place taht remains a very vibrant community just ‘around the corner’ in this part of the state.

“The display goes a long way toward introducing what is in effect a neighboring community to many people in our area.”