Saturday, January 09, 2010


This AP/DNews piece on Idlewild has popped up in a couple of places now in the past few weeks, good story worth a read. Thought I'd post a few pictures with it, the first one being the Flamingo Club mentioned below. The community has been getting ready for its centennial celebration in 2012, and thanks to some federal and state grants, they are cleaning up some of the blight of the abandoned buildings, working on highlighting and preserving the history of the area with the hopes of bringing some economic and tourism development back to one of the poorest counties in the state.

Tiny Idlewild wants to be Michigan's comeback story.

And state and federal governments seem intent on making that happen in the historic community tucked away in the Manistee Forest.

The Lake County town of 700 was once known as "Black Eden" because it was a popular resort town for African-Americans for more than 50 years. Top black entertainers, including B.B. King, Cab Calloway, Sammy Davis Jr., Della Reese and Aretha Franklin played to packed houses there through the mid-1960s, when the Civil Rights Act opened other options elsewhere, and segregated resorts fell into decline.

Surrounding Yates Township recently received $624,000 in federal community block grants to expand a senior center and to study the feasibility of fixing up the Flamingo Club, an erstwhile entertainment hot spot. The padlocked hilltop cinderblock building needs a roof, major plumbing and electrical work and restoration of a colorful mural that served as a backdrop to the stage.

The state, meanwhile, is putting the finishing touches on a $325,000 park and boat launch on Idlewild Lake. That project follows the investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in blight removal, arts grants for summer concerts and a children's camp, historical markers and preservation.

I peeked through the scratched and cloudy plexiglass windows on this building and saw the mural they are talking about; a scene of palm trees and, of course, flamingos. The room had a bunch of furniture pushed haphazardly against the wall, half the ceiling seemed to be missing, a couple of empty beer cans on the floor. The outside appears to be in good shape with a fairly new paint job, but the inside definitely needs work. Some locals hanging out told me later they tried to put a roller rink in there at one point, but being a bit too small for that, it didn't fly. Nothing much has happened there since, the Club itself closed in the late sixties. I'm glad that the state put that historical marker there (thank you, Governor), or I wouldn't have known what it was (no other sign to label it) and might not have ventured closer to take a look inside.

I ended up in Idlewild late one day last September. On a whim, I just took off driving, heading up M-37 with the vague notion of trying to find the ruins of the city of Marlborough. No luck. Kept driving. No map with me, no real knowledge of the area, I remembered that Idlewild was located somewhere on M-10, not far east out of Baldwin. Always wanted to see it, so there I headed next. Almost blew right by, a sign on the road alerts you to its presence, better be ready. Turn south and start driving, nothing is really visible at first, but you'll find it down the road, back in the forest. To avoid getting lost in the woods, I hugged the road that ringed the lake, keeping the water in sight, afraid that any wrong turn would take me deep into Lake County with no idea where I was or how to get out.

Idlewild is a strange mix of half resort area, half ghost town. You have anywhere from the nice lakeside houses, with their decks and satellite dishes and speed boats and jet skis out front, to the abandoned, boarded-up homes and cottages with tax lien notices and "No Trespassing" signs taped to the doors, to the historical community structures like the Flamingo Club and the Idlewild Lot Owners Association building. You can sense that something bigger used to be here. In some places, mostly hidden by the trees and the forest floor, only a cement foundation will remain from a dwelling. In the slide show above is an abandoned motel that the earth is taking back slowly but surely; it's hard to tell where the driveway used to be. Across the street from that was a cottage-sized home, weathered notice on the door, a Detroit Free Press from 1995 on the stoop, frozen in time. Newer homes dotted the neighborhood as well. Down the road farther, the narrow city streets feature a small post office, a convenience store, a restaurant/bar called the "Red Rooster". Go around the bend, over the bridge from there is Williams Island, and that holds building that used to house the Flamingo Club, as well as a small picnic area/public beach that had a pretty good crowd out swimming in the lake and playing in the sand on that warm afternoon.

All of this is surrounded by a beautiful forest, hugging that placid, clear, warm lake. It's gorgeous. I wish I had gone up earlier in the day; soon after circling the lake and finding the Flamingo Club, I had to get heading back to GR as it was getting late in the afternoon and I had a long drive home. So, as a result, there are only fifteen pics in the set. Wish I had taken more, but mostly I was just trying to breathe in the scene, imagining the picture of up to 25,000 people around during the resort's heyday, relaxing, not thinking about shooting all that much. It must have been really something.

Hoping that this year I can get up there again and explore some more, get some better shots, learn a bit more of the history, and next time I'll leave earlier in the day - and bring a map with me. It's definitely worth the trip.