Since the mid-1920s, Ann Hawkins has summered on an idyllic oasis in northwestern Michigan called Idlewild, once known by some as the Martha's Vineyard of the Midwest, but for well-to-do black folk.
She grew up riding horses there, swimming in the inland, spring-fed lakes and relaxing on beaches surrounded by property that was black-owned. Houses ranged from modest cottages to estates.
"We ate at the Shrimp Hut and watched matinees at the Paradise Lounge," said Hawkins, 86, a longtime Chatham neighborhood resident. "Years later, a skating rink was built and quite popular among the young people. We played tennis. We did it all."
During Idlewild's heyday in the 1940s and '50s, there was a grand hotel that housed the island's many tourists. The clubhouse hosted Sunday lectures by intellectuals such as NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois. And restaurants and nightclubs attracted entertainers like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and, in later years, Bill Cosby, The Four Tops and Las Vegas-type revues.
But in the mid-1960s, Idlewild began to decline. It lost most of its tourists as civil rights legislation opened up other vacation spots previously off-limits to blacks. Its population decreased further as older property owners died and their children sold the land. By the 1980s, Idlewild was a ghost town.
This year, Idlewild has been celebrating its centennial and taking stock of what it hopes is the beginning of a resurgence.
"More and more retirees are moving back now," said Coy Davis, who produced the documentary "Whatever Happened to Idlewild?"
"For the last 12 years we've held a three-day music festival that has brought, at most, about 1,200 people," Davis said. "In its prime, Idlewild would attract up to 10,000 people for a special event."
This coming weekend, Hawkins and other lot owners will return to the community for the annual "cabin closing" ceremony, the capstone to a summer filled with events. Hawkins said although Idlewild no longer is the economic powerhouse it once was, it retains its rich history and charm.
"Even before the tourists and the entertainment, Idlewild was just Idlewild," Hawkins said. "It was a beautiful resort where you had hard-working people and role models like judges, doctors and lawyers. Families knew one another and we had friends from all over the country.
"It was the place we could go and be perfectly free and didn't have to be bothered with racism or prejudice."
Davis said that's exactly what the two white civil rights activists envisioned when they and several others formed the Idlewild Resort Co. in 1912.
"They knew that blacks were moving to the big industrial cities from the South (during the Great Migration)," Davis said. "And blacks had this rural background and loved fishing and hunting, and so the men bought the land that makes up the island of Idlewild."
According to the book "Idlewild: The Black Eden of Michigan," the resort company, which included brothers Erastus and Adelbert Branch, purchased the 2,700-acre property. They then partnered with a couple of black real estate agents from Chicago who placed advertisements about Idlewild in black-owned newspapers in cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis and St. Louis.
The agents then arranged for blacks from those cities to take "excursions" to Idlewild.
"Once people arrived, they fell in love with the land," said Davis, whose family built their cottage there in 1956. "The slogan was: 'We want the men to be idle and the women to have fun and run wild.'" Hence, the name Idlewild.
After the excursions, the resort company would send salesmen to the cities to sell lots as vacation properties and organize the purchasers into a lot owners associations. Individual lots were 25 feet by 100 feet and sold for $35 each. The purchaser could make a $6 down payment and pay as little as $1 per week. Many residents cobbled lots together.
Davis said one Chicago family bought 80 acres along a lake called Paradise Lake. The family paved the roads in Idlewild, brought in electricity and built a grocery store and the Flamingo nightclub.
He said Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a heart surgeon, helped settle Idlewild, and his prominence drew other luminaries such as businesswoman Madam C.J. Walker and Du Bois.
It was not uncommon to see the "who's who" of the black community, such as boxer Joe Louis, or Williams strolling down the streets or fishing in one of the lakes.
She said her parents met in Idlewild and after they married, they bought property and built their three-bedroom home.
"My mother was a housewife and daddy had an electrical contracting business, and every year when school ended, we'd drive up and stay until school started," she said.
"And I've done the same thing with my children and grandchildren. There have been summers when we've had four generations of us up there. It's our place where we all bonded."
She said during lean economic times the family has struggled to hang onto the property, and she hopes future generations won't let it go.
"We don't have all of (the amenities) in Idlewild that we used to," Hawkins said. "We have (two motels) and a (restaurant) that's holding on by its fingertips. But now we go between each other's houses and we find entertainment and arrange activities that way.
"For people like me, Idlewild will never die."