On Saturday, Aug. 3, FiveCAP encourages everyone to attend an event to join those who remember the historic community of Idlewild as it was in its heyday and those who are enamored by its history – will take place from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the John Meeks Park in Idlewild. The Idlewild Homecoming will be a free event featuring music, food, poetry, book signings, and jewelry crafters and will give visitors and residents a chance to meet and greet and create a whole new set of remembrances.
Remembering is often a personal experience, recalling happenings of times gone by. But when enough people share the same memories, they accumulate significance and become history.
The success of the dedication and grand opening of John Meeks Park, held as part of the centennial celebrations last year, helped inspire the inaugural Idlewild Homecoming event, which is being held on Saturday, Aug. 3.
The draw of Idlewild is two-fold. On one hand, people return to the bucolic community in the midst of the Manistee National Forest because they remember the good times they’ve had. These Idlewilders gather together to rekindle old friendships and collectively celebrate the remarkable times they had.
For these people, swimming in the same lake as Louis Armstrong, sipping drinks while Della Reece crooned nearby and strolling down streets lauded by W. E. B. Du Bois was simply a part of summer. But collectively, spun together with tens of thousands of others, these memories represent an important piece of American history. And this history is generally what draws newcomers to Idlewild.
“A lot of regulars who are there have established friendships over the years and it’s the memories from those friendships, it’s the memories of past events and maybe it’s the memories of stars they saw perform there that keep them coming back,” said Dr. Ronald Stephens, an associate professor of African American studies at Ohio University and Idlewild historian. “The biggest hook for new people is the entertainment history, even though the history is much richer than that. People can’t believe some of the stars that performed in Idlewild.
“For other people, the property ownership is a big deal. There were black property owners and it was a black town. There are not many places where people can boast and brag about property ownership like that.”
For Idlewild resident John Meeks, one of the main organizers of the homecoming event, the community represented freedom from his first visit there as a “young buck” in the summer of 1954.
“I experienced things young people today can’t even envision,” said Meeks, who is in his 90s. “My grandkids don’t have a clue how things were and they’re not interested in it. They haven’t experienced it, they haven’t been exposed to a lot of textbooks that even talk about segregation. My experience in Idlewild was the only experience I’d had of freedom of movement.”
Meeks grew up in southern Illinois before relocating to Detroit in 1947. He tells tales of attending a segregated school, watching Tigers baseball in a segregated Briggs Stadium and moving out of “white only” train cars when they crossed the Mason-Dixon line.
“On the train from Chicago to New Orleans, you could sit anywhere,” he said. “And then when you got to Alexander County (Illinois), going south, the conductor would come through and put up signs that said ‘White Only’ and there would be one coach that would be ‘Colored Only’ and it would be completely segregated. Then, coming back north, they would take the signs down.”
But Idlewild was completely integrated. Despite being known as an African American resort community, Meeks said business owners depended on white patrons too. During a time when racism prevailed – even in the North – in Idlewild, everyone was welcome to enjoy the benefits the community provided.
For Meeks, it took some coaxing before he checked out what all the buzz was about. A friend had been trying to get him out to Idlewild for years before he finally succumbed to the peer pressure in the summer of 1954, and instantly became a devotee.
“It was such a beautiful world,” he said. “I was just shocked. I was amazed to see people wall-to-wall. At the time, Idlewild had an eight-member police department and they weren’t there to fight crime. The one thing they did was to make sure no one blocked traffic.”
He spent time in Idlewild every summer thereafter, bought property in the 1970s and finally became a permanent resident in the 1990s after he retired fully. This devotion inspired him to invest in the community, establishing businesses over the years and becoming a valiant community activist. The Idlewild Homecoming is the latest step in a long-term plan to revitalize the resort community.
“I witnessed the downfall of Idlewild,” Meeks said. “Nineteen-fifty-four was the peak year. That was the year Idlewild allegedly had approximately 25,000 people visiting. There were 25 motels because it was the hub of black entertainment at the time. … The most meaningful experience for me was to come to this small community of 500 to 600 people and watch some of the country’s best performers. This was Las Vegas-type entertainment with a full chorus line, backup band, everything. The excitement of the entertainment glued me to Idlewild.”
Meeks describes the Idlewild of the 1950s and 60s as a “party town” where people came to meet, greet and occasionally get engaged.
“Two of my best friends met their wives here,” he said.
The legacy of Idlewild remains in the memories of those who were there in its heyday. But Meeks and a devoted group of Idlewilders are working diligently to maintain that legacy for future generations. The Idlewild Homecoming is a way for people to gather, celebrating and sharing what came before while creating fresh memories that will eventually become history for future generations.
“The homecoming is going to be a success, I think,” Stephens said. “A lot of people have been waiting for something like this to happen. It’s a great way to draw outsiders to Idlewild as well as people who live there, bringing them together to celebrate. This homecoming is definitely a step in the right direction.
“I once brought four students out for an event and we enjoyed the music, food and friendship. Those are the kind of memories people want to cherish and keep going.”
For more information on the event, visit www.iaacc.com.