“Welcome to Idlewild: The Black Eden of Michigan” is now in our second floor gallery, thanks to funding from the Michigan Humanities Council and Big Rapids Festival of the Arts (FOTA). The story of Michigan’s role in the history of segregation and in the development of an African-American sense of community is told in the exhibition.
Idlewild, located only 30 miles from Big Rapids, holds a special place in the nation’s segregated history. For many years, this “Black Eden” was one of only a few resorts in the country where African-Americans could vacation and purchase property.
In 1912, a group of entrepreneurs bought 2,700 acres of cutover land in rural northwestern Michigan to establish a vacation community specifically for upper class African Americans. From 1912 through the mid-1960s, Idlewild was an active year-round community and one of the most popular resorts in the Midwest. Prospective buyers came primarily from Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Grand Rapids, and other Midwest cities but some came from as far as Cuba.
Prominent African Americans who purchased and developed property helped Idlewild quickly gain a national reputation. It was visited by well-known entertainers and professionals from throughout the country. As many as 25,000 people would come to Idlewild in the height of the summer season to enjoy camping, swimming, boating, fishing, hunting, horseback riding, roller skating and night-time entertainment.
When the 1964 Civil Rights Act opened up other resorts to African-Americans, Idlewild’s boomtown period subsided, but the community continues to be an important place for vacationers and retirees. Idlewild also holds special meaning as a place for younger generations of African-Americans seeking to learn about their heritage.
Since its founding in the early 1900s, Idlewild has seen both dramatic growth and steep declines in its popularity. Now, at the start of the 21st century, Idlewild is growing. Population, land sales, tourism, and new housing starts are up; a new summer jazz festival is being inaugurated; and the Historic and Cultural Center is active in various local cultural events. Time will tell how Idlewild will flourish in the future, but today, this still-beautiful rural locale continues to be a special place to work and play, offers the fellowship of new and long-time friends and neighbors, and is an important symbol of a time when African Americans had limited opportunities for visiting, let alone owning, resort property.
The exhibition, developed by the Michigan State University Museum, traces through words and images the development of the Idlewild community from its inception in the early twentieth century to the present day. It glimpses beyond the often-told stories of Idlewild’s entertainment scene during its resort heyday period to tell the full story of a community that has survived the challenges of historical change.
Join us at Artworks on February 1 at 2:00 for a presentation of stories and live music from Idlewild’s history. Sponsored by the Big Rapids Festival of the Arts, local musician and Artworks Education Director Chris Kjorness will bring Idlewild’s musical past to Big Rapids. Refreshments at the event will be provided by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs-Big Rapids Chapter.
If you are interested in learning more about segregation and why places like Idlewild existed, we recommend a visit to the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University. Please note that the Jim Crow Museum is not recommended for visitors younger than 12 years. Hours are Monday through Friday, noon to 5:00 p.m.
The Big Rapids Camera Club (BRCC) is about to snap. More than fifteen BRCC members will be displaying their work in the Artworks Gallery for the “I’m about to Snap” exhibit. The exhibit begins December 6 and runs through February and Festival of the Arts.
Each member will display four pieces. Some will be for sale. Please come to the reception on December 12 from 5-7PM and throughout the display to see these unique pieces showcasing the photographic talent in our town and area.