‘Something we can call our own’: The heyday of Michigan’s Black resorts

Black History Month

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Grand Rapids author and historian continues to shed light on two northwestern Michigan communities that were among the first African American resort towns in the country. 

Over the years, Rose Hammond has chronicled the storied past of Idlewild in Lake County and Woodland Park in Newaygo County.  

Founded in 1912, Idlewild offered Black families a place to relax and unwind during a time when most vacation spots and other establishments accepted only white guests.

“They had nowhere else to go,” Hammond said. “These were African Americans who were seeking to have somewhere to go for the summer, just like everyone else, and they were shunned and not welcomed at the other resort areas. So when (Idlewild) came along it was like, ‘Wow, we have something we can call our own.’” 

By the 1920s, Idlewild was known as one of the premier summer vacation spots for prominent Black families.  

“In order to come up to Idlewild or Woodland Park in the summer, you had to be able to afford a home of your own wherever you live and a afford property around Idlewild and Woodland Park,” Hammond said.  

Vacationers would spend their days swimming, boating and horseback riding. Nightlife would follow with the opening of clubs and entertainment venues that featured top African American performers.

By the mid-1950s, Idlewild was in its heyday, drawing as many as 25,000 visitors on any given weekend.  

“They just couldn’t believe that all these cars were backed up behind each other, people (were) sleeping in cars,” Hammond said of the crowds seen during Idlewild’s peak. 

Hammond said at the time, people were likely too busy enjoying themselves to fully realize the history that was unfolding before them. 

The passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation in America, but with that came the decline of African American resort towns like Idlewild and Woodland Park as people were eager to visit places they previously couldn’t.

Still home to a small number of year-round residents and a summer vacation spot to a few others, Idlewild and Woodland Park never bounced back to what they were during the time of segregation. But Hammond said in recent years, there has been newfound interest in the area.  

“You do have some of our young people who are wanting to buy property up there and get it going again,” she said.  

Hammond and others are hopeful Idlewild and Woodland Park will make a comeback, imagining a resurgence that embraces the communities’ cultural and historical roots.

“No matter what, it’s always going to be Idlewild and Woodland Park,” Hammond said. “They’re always going to be two of the country’s first African American owned and operated resorts. That will never be taken away from them and that’s what I’m really proud of.” 

Hammond is the author of three books, including “Idlewild & Woodland Park, Michigan: An African American Remembers.” She also released a 2019 documentary on the topic titled “In Between the Trees.”

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