After our adventure in Nirvana, it seemed like the day was a complete success. But as we continued west in search of the last small town on our list for the day, we saw a historical marker on the side of the road:
We both looked at each other in complete disbelief. How did we not know about this? We’re both lifelong Michigan residents and had never heard of anything like this. Another sign close to this one pointed the way towards a “cultural center and museum,” so we simply had to go investigate.
The museum there is small, but well-appointed and full of wonderful exhibits. The ladies working there that day were incredibly friendly and even invited us to sit down and showed us a short film that was made by a Detroit news organization celebrating Idlewild–its founding, its heyday, and its decline. The film looked to have been shot in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so they still had many people to interview who were still alive and had memories of visiting the resort. There’s also a good write-up about it here by the Detroit Free Press.
Basically, this resort town was created in the early part of the 20th century as a place for African Americans to vacation (and entertainers to come and perform), as they weren’t welcome at mainstream establishments due to segregation. Apparently, if you had any means at all, you spent your summers there and it was glorious. Nearly every major African American entertainer performed there at some point, and there were multiple night clubs, as well as more family-friendly types of establishments, too. After the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, and entertainers were able to go to the more traditional spots–Las Vegas, Atlantic City and the like–the resort went into decline. Now very few of the original buildings are there, and many are boarded up. We didn’t venture towards the lake, as there were private homes there that some people do still live in and we didn’t want to intrude, but we did get a few pictures from the road:
We spent a good amount of time chatting with the ladies in the gift shop and viewing all the artifacts they had on display. It was unbelievable to us that we had never heard of this place that was so important to Michigan history, and that got us into a long conversation about race and privilege. We thought deeply about how one man in the video we’d watched talked about how his mother would pack the car full of meals for the whole family as they made the trip north from Detroit in their car. As a child, he’d said, he just thought it was being economical; as an adult, he realized it was because there would not have been any restaurants along the way that would have served them. They ate in the car because they had no choice. And at the same time, Detroit was booming largely because of the labor provided by blue-collar workers in automobile factories (many of them African American) and by the growing music industry (again, inspired by and built by African Americans).
The women working at the museum said that there are efforts at present to revitalize the area and build a community center. It is still a very beautiful place, despite the closed-up buildings; it’s northern Michigan to a tee–beautiful woodlands and a lake. It’s a place very much worth saving.
After we finished up in Idlewild, we continue west on M-10 to the town of Baldwin (not a ghost town–very much alive!) As became a habit with us on this trip, we realized we hadn’t eaten lunch and it was 3:00 p.m., so we made a stop and ate. We’d also been told by the Idlewild ladies to check out Gramma’s Treats, so we walked there from our lunch spot and were NOT disappointed! Some of the best fudge EVER in so many flavors! The orange cream was surprisingly delicious, and the more traditional chocolates were also amazing. Gramma herself is also very kind and even gave us each a free homemade donut for the road (also delicious). If you’re ever in the area, stopping by there is a must!
She also gave us some information on the next ghost town we were hoping to see, which was Marlborough. She said the area used to be well open to everyone, and she’d gone there to play and party as a youth. She thought it was probably all blocked off now, and unfortunately she was right. We headed south from Baldwin to find whatever we could of the place, and all that we were able to see was the old cement factory, around which the whole town had been built:
A Lansing-based radio station did an overview of the town, and also threw in directions to find it, which you can read here. Here’s the thing, though; the article states that you can go through the woods to find more ruins, beyond what can be seen from the side of the road. However, if you look at the pictures above, the KEEP OUT signs are clearly visible, as is the barbed wire fencing around the whole thing. So I’m thinking Gramma knew what she was talking about; she also mentioned that the ground there is considered unstable from all the quarrying and blasting they did, getting materials for the cement plant. So while we wouldn’t have necessarily been averse to trekking out into the woods in search of old buildings, it looked like it might have been more difficult (and come with legal consequences) than the author of that article imagined.
After all this excitement, we were quite exhausted! Our plan was to check out some more spots in the Leelanau Peninsula, so we headed north to Traverse City. We got the timing right and managed to see a Lake Michigan sunset (although unfortunately, it was a bit cloudy and rainy)!
And then began our saga of finding the seediest, most out-of-date, crappy motel to be had in northern Michigan (let’s put it this way: we got half off the room rate because there was no heat), and putting aside our fears of being captured by a serial killer, we rested up for the next day’s adventure!