A look behind the story of Michigan’s Idlewild, its nightlife and its healing waters

‘Because of their race, people were being harassed, and we’re seeing the same kinds of things happening now that used to happen then’

It was a safe haven for Black families that became famous for its nightlife. In the early 1900s, Idlewild was a resort town where Black people could legally buy property. Currently, Idlewild is undergoing a resurgence, and people with deep ties to the town are coming back for multiple reasons.

IDLEWILD, Mich. – It was a safe haven for Black families that became famous for its nightlife.

In the early 1900s, Idlewild was a resort town where Black people could legally buy property.

Today, Idlewild is undergoing a resurgence, and people with deep ties to the town are coming back for multiple reasons.

To understand the healing waters of Idlewild, you must first understand the history of why Idlewild has been a safe haven for Blacks for 117 years and counting because the history of why Idlewild came to be is not past history at all.

In the early 1900s, Black people were legally discriminated against in the housing industry. Legal or not, it continues in different ways today.

Blacks have suffered disproportionately at the hands of police throughout history.

“Because of their race, people were being harassed, and we’re seeing the same kinds of things happening now that used to happen then,” said Judith Hale. “We see people being accosted and harassed. We want to feel safe.”

Read: The story of Idlewild: ‘Black Eden of Michigan’

In 1917, the widow of a Chicago minister, Olive Bird Clanton, heard about this place in Michigan called Idlewild. She had 11 children and wanted a place for them to be safe, a planned community where Blacks could buy property and live in a cocoon of safety with fresh air, land, and water.

For five generations, the children of Olive Clanton and their children and their children have used this property to survive the outside world. Not knowing Mrs. Clanton’s decision to plant roots in this soil would save the life of her granddaughter, Edna Arrington Brown, 103 years later.

“I grew up obviously before cell phones,” said Brown. “You had to be home by the time of the whistle. We had a six o’clock whistle in the fire station then, but you can play from the moment you got up until the end.”

Every hot summer’s eve on the lake is where you will find Brown, 83, kayaking, which can be seen in the video player above. And while you might find it extraordinary to see an 80-something-year-old kayaking every evening, it’s even more remarkable when you find out that just before COVID, Brown was diagnosed with breast cancer and stage 3 lung cancer.

“I was amazed,” Brown said. “I never smoked, not that it matters.”

Brown changed her routine while living in California then and only returned to Idlewild in the summer.

“We had set up for the chemo and radiation if needed, and all of those things had a couple of weeks, and each time I was able to fly back here, getting up in the morning and having all this stillness except for the birds or crickets, I can’t really tell how it restores you, Brown said. “It makes you just one with creation.”

For the last two and a half years, her schedule has been simple as she is up at the crack of dawn to walk more than a mile to the Idlewild post office and back.

“I love the dirt road part of my walk,” Brown said.

On Wednesdays, it’s a game of bridge with fellow Idlewilders with clean, fresh air on demand and back to lake Idlewild as the sun sets on the day.

“It’s almost amazing as we seem to just live forever,” Brown said. “I mean my grandmother who was born in the mid 1800s, lived to almost 90. Both of my parents lived a long time. My father was 87 and my mother a month before her 91st birthday and they always attributed it to the healing waters of Idlewild.”

That’s not to say there are medicinal properties in the water. Perhaps there are, or perhaps not, as it hasn’t been tested, but what has been tested is the spiritual bond this place has on the generations for more than a century.

The generations who lived there played there and felt safe there when the outside world did not and does not.

The family has called the longitude and latitude on the shores of Lake Idlewild home for 105 years and five generations. And while modern medicine can do great battle with cancer, Brown does not believe she could have survived had she not had Idlewild.

“I think the Native Americans who were part of this before we were are also part of it,” Brown said. “Seeing the oneness of our beautiful sky, these lovely pine trees, and this water, it really is almost a synergy thing all together. Making a wholeness, that’s what I really think it is.”

Away from the troubles of the world outside of Idlewild, where racism and discrimination now hide in other forms, where there are fears and concerns of harassment and danger, is a tiny dot that is hard to find unless you’re looking for it. Or you have deep roots that they lovingly entangle you no matter where you are.


About the Authors:

Paula Tutman is an Emmy award-winning journalist who came to Local 4 in 1992. She's a Peace Corps alum who spent her early childhood living in Sierra Leone, West Africa and Tanzania and East Africa.

Brandon Carr is a digital content producer for ClickOnDetroit and has been with WDIV Local 4 since November 2021. Brandon is the 2015 Solomon Kinloch Humanitarian award recipient for Community Service.