The Jazz Legends of Northern Michigan's Idlewild

Jazz Legends of Northern Michigan's Idlewild: In honor of the exhibit at Dennos Museum in Traverse City, Welcome to Idlewild: The Black Eden of Michigan (January 15-March 13 2012) we are posting the story on Idlewild we ran in Traverse Magazine in June of 2003. Click for more information on the Dennos Museum exhibit. The story, by longtime Traverse Magazine editor Emily Betz Tyra, originally ran under the headline "Where Stardust Lingers."

Bill McClure is stocking the fridge with Budweiser and jugs of cranberry juice when I step into Idlewild’s Red Rooster Lounge. McClure is 78 years old but appears years younger in his cobalt exercise suit and a small black leather cap. He taps the counter, indicating for me to come sit. “One of my wait staff quit last night,” he says, and fills me a glass of Coke from the spray nozzle.

It’s just before opening time, and McClure starts swiping a mop over the kitchen floor. “Watch for the Catfish” reads a sign on the wall. A saxophone, trombone, trumpet and cornet hang up there, too—McClure once did his thing on all of them. He’s a savvy businessman who owned jazz clubs in Indianapolis, and when he retired Up North decided to open up the Red Rooster Lounge in this Lake County town, a half-hour east of Ludington.

Late September has arrived, and, as in many little lakeside communities, the flock of summer residents has retreated south—leaving Idlewild mostly to its year-round population of 714.

Despite the tranquil vibe the Red Rooster gives off today, there’s stardust lingering in the air. Back in the ’50s the bar was called Rosanna’s Tavern, and it was the spot for black vacationers to down a cold beer after hopping nearby nightclubs where musicians like Della Reese, Al Hibbler and Jackie Wilson performed. There was a time in the ’50s when summer nights in Idlewild were charged with the energy of 20,000 people—African-Americans here to relax, listen to music and have an escape from the pressures of discrimination.

McClure stops mopping to pick up a ringing telephone that turns out to be his granddaughter, checking in from school at Ferris State. He hangs up, and it rings again. It’s the waitress who quit last night. She wants to know if she can come in and work.

I mention to McClure a Detroit News article that called the Idlewild of today a ghost town. He puts his rag down on the bar. “What do you say we go for a drive,” he says.

I’ll admit that my drive into Idlewild on U.S. 10 didn’t do much to dispel the ghost-town notion. The only businesses that look open besides McClure’s Red Rooster are a small motel and a variety store. To the untrained eye all that’s left to see of this vacation mecca’s golden era is long lawns, rusty propane pigs and sagging houses, many abandoned. Idlewild appears fast asleep.

But with McClure in the seat next to me, I see a more vibrant place. He’s eager to point me down two-track roads I wouldn’t venture down otherwise—the ones that twist and bend like the lines on an outstretched palm.

We pass a Mercedes parked on the dirt road in front of a small cabin. It belongs to a man from Des Plaines, Illinois, who’s out in the woods hunting. We lurch past some shotgun-shaped modular homes. McClure gestures to a cottage with a tidy yard. “That one was Mayor Archer’s sister’s,” he informs, referring to former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer.

As we circle Idlewild’s eight lakes, I peer through the thick trees and see the sweet stone bungalows and the tiny cottages built in the 1920s. A few have signs of life. We turn around at a log home painted a rich salmon and surrounded by immaculate landscaping. That one’s McClure’s.

We shoot out of the forested roads at the beach on Idlewild Lake, just as a sudden rainstorm opens up. Even in the gray haze the lake and its wide natural sandy beach is glorious. Behind us is the Phil Giles Flamingo Club, an empty, peeling-white reminder of the time when African-Americans traveled 500 or 600 miles to be a part of the utter fabulousness of Idlewild. The Flamingo was known for it hot acts, its bright pink decor and mirrors covered with flamingos.

“But, we’re not just going to sit and stare at the lake and talk about the good old days,” says McClure from the seat next to me. “The past is passe.”

But it’s so hard not to talk about Idlewild’s past, saturated in star power as it is. There is Paradise Lake where prize boxer Joe Louis hung out, the club where jazz siren Sarah Vaughan once sang “I’ll Wait and Pray” to crowds in silk suits and satin cocktail dresses, and the shore where The Four Tops launched a pontoon boat for an afternoon ride. There’s the crumbling Casa Blanca Hotel, where the owner filled his rooms and then turned away 500 more people one 4th of July in the ’50s.

If you haven’t heard of Idlewild, you need to know this: It was at one time the most popular black resort in America—some say the Apollo of the Midwest. The haven drew crowds of thousands to the cluster of lakes in the middle of Lake County. Idlewild was the place where many young stars got their start, a showcase for the country’s finest talent. In the days of segregation, Idlewild was one place where blacks could go in any venue they wished, pop into any restaurant they wanted. Nothing mattered except the unrelenting welcome, the music’s rhythm and an amazing sense of peace.

In 1912, a group of white businessmen headed by Erastus Branch and his brother Adelbert Branch, bought 2,700 acres in Lake County. The land was overcut and unsuitable for farming, but the lakes made it ideal for a resort. According Dr. Ben Wilson, who co-wrote a book called Black Eden: The Idlewild Community, the Branch brothers wanted to create a place specifically for black professionals looking for a place of “recreation and relaxation without humiliation.” The Branch brothers founded the Idlewild Resort Co. and marketed $35 lots to the black bourgeoisie, those whom they called “the best coloreds” in the country. People from Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit came to see about the new resort, and black salesmen were hired to canvass Midwestern cities for potential property buyers.

The prospective buyers were at first suspicious of the white developers’ intentions, Wilson says, but so progressive and promising was the idea of a Black Eden in the North that many African-Americans bought lots sight unseen. They latched onto the idea of owning land, and of a black resort with sandy beaches, unpolluted water, boating and tennis. For many successful blacks, Idlewild was finally a place to have a piece of the American Dream.

Cosmetic entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker, one of the first black female millionaires, considered Idlewild a “great national progressive movement … that supplies a great pressing necessity to our people.” She died soon after she toured Idlewild, but her daughter purchased land there the following year. Many folks were drawn to Idlewild by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the most influential black man in the world of medicine and the first surgeon to perform open-heart surgery. He bought 27 acres here, and sold lots to his friends and associates. One of them was NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois.

Williams died in his Idlewild cottage in 1931, and by that time nearly 800 lot owners had built summer cottages. Idlewild was catching on—not only as a resort community, but also as a place for political ideals to take shape.

A race consciousness awakened by black leader Marcus Garvey from a Harlem lodge room made its way to Idlewild. Members of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association created a stronghold in the resort town, according to Ronald Stephens, associate professor of sociology at Grand Valley State University. Stephens recently unearthed evidence that in 1927—the same year Garvey was deported to Jamaica—50 of Garvey’s followers settled in Idlewild. An all-black town was in keeping with Garveyist ideals of racial pride and intellectual and economic independence, but what’s really remarkable, says Stephens, is that in the early 1930s, these Garveyites actually found their footing in local government. In a time when slim few rural regions had African-American leaders, Garveyites secured positions in the Yates Township government.

Above all, however, Idlewild was about the pursuit of pleasure. In the 1950s Idlewild rose to all its shining, gold-tinted glory. Besides hundreds of summer cottages, there were 50 motels and lodges, two hotels, restaurants and clubs like the Purple Palace, Pearl’s Tavern, the Paradise Club and the El-Morocco. Because racial bigotry made it impossible for black entertainers to show off their talents to America at large, Idlewild emerged as a crucial and high-profile stop on the Chitlin Circuit. Venues on Chitlin Circuit typically were limited to dives and juke joints in black neighborhoods. Stages in Idlewild became proving grounds for young talent. The audience would dance and holler with such intensity, says Wilson, that at times they momentarily drowned out the entertainers. A jammin’ audience was important, he says, because it encouraged performers to explore their art and helped get them invited not only back to Idlewild, but also to bigger city venues. It sometimes meant a recording contract.

Longtime Idlewilder John Meeks, who now owns the town’s only operating hotel, says he remembers hearing The Four Tops when they were straight out of Cass Technical High School. The year was 1954 and Meeks was living in Detroit. “Every weekend a friend of mine would disappear,” says Meeks. “He told me about this place called Idlewild, and I fluffed him off.” But one Friday Meeks jumped in the car with his friend and made the five-hour drive from Detroit, heading north on Woodward Avenue and west on U.S.10. “I got out of the car in the middle of the day in front of the Flamingo Club, and I saw a beach full of beautiful young ladies.”

Thousands of people were in the streets. It was like a Mardi Gras in the wilderness. “We did our own cooking—roast pigs or smoke a big turkey,” Meeks says. “The affluent people would rent a room in a hotel. We would rent a room in someone’s home.” People who couldn’t find a room just went to sleep in their cars, he says.

After his first time in Idlewild, Meeks was hooked. He maintains that, as for him and his young friends anyway, having an escape from segregation or discrimination was secondary to having a good time. “Segregation was a way of life, a fact of life. We came to Idlewild for the entertainment.”

Count Basie is at the piano at the Flamingo Club tonight. Jess Brown is just a little boy. It’s the early 1960s. Brown is outside with his sister and cousins and other kids playing in the sand at the beach. Their fathers are up for the weekend, and their mothers are inside fluffing and buffing for a night out at the Flamingo. The women emerge, radiant, from his aunt’s house and join the people milling around Idlewild’s streets in expensive silk suits, evening dresses, fur coats or hot pants. Cars galore are lined up in front of the nightclub, and valets squeeze them in anywhere they can on the sandy roads. Dusk turns the cars’ gleaming exteriors to shadow. Silky laughter fills the air.

Brown’s mom tells him he is too young to go inside the club, so he stays out on the beach watching the car lights parade. He hears Count Basie start to play; the crowd inside shouts approval. Later that night, in bed at his aunt’s cottage, breathing that good air through the open storm door, he makes a promise to himself that he is gonna go in the Flamingo Club. Someday.

That summer, even though he would hear the music of The Four Tops, Sarah Vaughan and Jackie Wilson from his playplaces on the lake and in the woods, what impresses this Detroit boy most about Idlewild is the dirt. He loves days made just for contact with the earth. He loves that even when it rains it is never muddy. The sandy dirt dries up fast as soon as the sun comes back, and then he’s back in the woods, running jumping and breathing great gasps of fresh air.

Brown is young, but he is also aware how his parents feel about being here. At the end of the summer, how they hate to return to the city and to discrimination. Yet, September always comes. And like his parents, Brown feels utter dismay leaving Idlewild’s winding streets and acres of woods for the pavement and straight lines of Detroit.

Brown never did make it inside the Flamingo Club that summer. Tidal changes were arriving in America, and the next year, Brown and his family didn’t come back to Idlewild.

Now, 40 years later from his house in Detroit, Jess Brown explains what happened. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, with it came the end of segregation. For the first time since the 1954 Supreme Court ruling desegregating public schools, the federal government had a means of enforcement. It changed life and how we lived it. “Being able to go places you had not been to before—that was an attractive allure,” Brown says.

The entire nation was open for African-Americans to explore, and suddenly Idlewild had to compete with other premier vacation spots. And, according to Dr. Lewis Walker, who co-wrote Black Eden, many who were once a part of Idlewild’s glory days now wanted to do their part to overcome resistance to integration. The 1960s became for many blacks a time to self-validate, he says. That meant even travel choices became a vehicle for social change.

Prior to the Civil Rights Act, travelers to Idlewild in particular remembered “the onerous task of cooking and packing enough food and drink for the entire trip because they knew white establishments would not accommodate them during their travel,” wrote the authors of Black Eden. Finally African-Americans really could get their kicks on Route 66, and they did so. Somehow, simultaneously, they backed away from their summers in Idlewild.

“People stopped talking about Idlewild,” Walker says. The crowds dwindled. And without an audience, entertainers vanished, too. The hotels couldn’t fill rooms. The nightclubs fell silent. Cottages were left behind, and taxes turned delinquent. “Economically, integration was a one-way street,” Walker says. “Idlewilders took their dollars now to resorts that excluded them, but with no reciprocity.” White people simply didn’t come to Idlewild.

There are no riding stables in Idlewild anymore, no tennis courts, no golf course, no roller rink, not even a filling station. There is one motel left in operation—Morton Motel—a lean and long 1955 structure newly painted white, just off Righteous Street. John Meeks, who came to Idlewild in the ’50s for entertainment, packed in cars with friends, returned to his Shangri-La in 1994. He refurbished the motel after retiring from his dry-cleaning business in Detroit.

He’s opening the day’s mail in his motel office, which consists of a long folding table in a kitchenette with a “We are Family” sign in multi-colored letters behind him. A man named Jake, wearing a Detroit Tigers ball cap, smokes at another folding table in the corner. A woman in camouflage coveralls comes in looking for a room. “You got cable?”

Meeks shakes his head no, and the woman changes her mind about the room. The idea of Idlewild becoming something big again may seem improbable on this sleepy September day, but John Meeks has the kind of intensity and conviction that makes people believe in the possibility of renaissance. Meeks doesn’t want just any kind of rebirth either. His unapologetic “tourism or death” outlook is not one he’s going to be dissuaded from. He wants Idlewild to once again become a tourist destination. His wish list: fishing, entertainment, sports and history tours.

He’s equally vocal about what he doesn’t want here. Much to his chagrin, ground will be broken soon on a low-income housing unit to be advertised in other Michigan cities. “I went to that township meeting and asked if anyone could give me statistics or facts that would say that low-income housing enhances a community,” he says. No one could.

There are also those who think making room for industry in Idlewild is the solution. Again, Meeks is not interested. “Never in a million years would I support that, with our lakes and streams here. We must preserve this,” Meeks says.

Instead, Meeks put his energies in refurbishing the motel and starting the Idlewild African-American Chamber of Commerce to excite people about coming here on vacation again. He talks about social attractions like the 4th of July parade, and how he helped launch the Jazz and Blues Heritage Festival last August, a benefit concert that drew more than 1,600 people.

Still, before a tourism rebirth can happen, there is the urgent subtext of money. Idlewild is in Lake County, one of the poorest counties in Michigan. In 1997, Idlewild had a median household income of $9,116, compared to $31,030 for the state. This figure doesn’t represent the income of the more-well-off transient summer population, but locals still worry that a growing senior citizen population and a lack of businesses to support year-round jobs makes the place economically stagnant.

Idlewild is a federal Enterprise Community and spent $1.5 million in federal money to put in sewer and gas lines a few years ago. But, despite the availability of additional grants and tax breaks for new business owners, Idlewild can’t give the money away. Even enterprising owners of a Sav-A-Lot store chose to go into another nearby town, walking away from a 15-year tax break.

Like Meeks, Bill McClure believes in Idlewild. Enough to buy and operate the only restaurant here. Some nights he brings in live acts to entertain his regulars. “I wouldn’t take a gamble like that if I didn’t think people were going to come.”

You’re not leaving are you?” McClure asks, back at the Red Rooster Lounge after our drive. “The oil’s hot.” When the catfish is crisp, he places it on some white bread and spoons some coleslaw on my plate. He drenches his own filets in hot sauce and we sit down together to eat. He tells me how to fry up September apples. He mentions that his rugs are getting dirty. He worries about who he and people like Meeks will pass the torch to. “After all, I’m 78; John’s 80,” he says.

The hope for Idlewild may stay alive in people like Jess Brown, who fell in love with the sandy shores of Idlewild as a boy. On weekends he gets in the car with his wife and drives up to Idlewild. Their cottage is on Northrop Street, right by the now-empty Flamingo Club that he longed to go into as a child.

For him, Idlewild isn’t a place that lacks anything. “It’ll never be what it used to be,” he says. But he doesn’t despair over Idlewild.

“I spend very gratifying summers in Idlewild, I feel it once I come on the two-lane highway,” he says. “You cross that county line, and calm comes over you.”

He prefers to remember not the segregation that helped Idlewild, or the integration that caused it to fall. What sticks with him is the town’s peaceful, fresh profusion of life.

Brown recently became president of the National Idlewilders, a group of about 250 members with chapters in Detroit, Chicago, mid-Michigan and St. Louis. All cottage owners come back to the vacation spot they love so much in August for what they call Idlewild Week. Hundreds gather on the lawn outside Meeks’s Morton Motel for a cookout and reunion.

It may be these people with childhood ties to Idlewild, in their own quiet way, who will keep Idlewild—or the dream of Idlewild, anyway—afloat. “It has always been a place where people can get away and relax. That has never changed,” Brown says. “So no, the purpose of Idlewild is not dead. It is alive and well.”