Located on thirteen hundred acres of lightly rolling hills punctuated by intermittent low-lying swampy zones and four lakes in the Pere Marquette River watershed, Idlewild was one of America's most popular African American resorts. It was developed in 1915 in an effort to utilize cutover timberland. And it was intended for a small but distinguishable African American middle class, largely composed of professionals and small businesspeople established in urban centers who were barred from white resorts by segregation laws or unofficial practices. Erastus and Adelbert Branch, white land speculators from White Cloud, Michigan, organized the Idlewild Resort Company and marketed 25 × 100–foot lots for $35 each in the company's platted tracts adjacent to Idlewild Lake. On an island in the lake, connected with the mainland by footbridges and an automobile bridge, they also built a large clubhouse, which no longer stands. African American realtors in Chicago supervised well-organized sales campaigns and sponsored excursion tours for prospective buyers from that city and others. Testimonials of respected professional men appeared in promotional literature. For example, Dr. Thomas W. Burton, an Ohio physician, conveyed Idlewild's appeal to middle-class African Americans, “When you stand in Idlewild and look around at Nature's beauty, breathe the fresh air and note the freedom from prejudice, ostracism and hatred, you can feel yourself truly an American citizen.”
At first, tents were pitched, but later, unpretentious cottages were built. Eventually, five hundred buildings stood here. Constructed between 1919 and 1935, most were small, gable-roofed vacation cottages, simple bungalows, and occasional multifamily dwellings. In addition, a hotel and grocery stores were put up between 1925 and 1940 so that the community was totally self-sufficient. In 1921 Herman Wilson, a black businessman, developed the Paradise Garden subdivision west of the initial settlement, including Harmony, Unity, Joy, Miracle, Creation, and Grandeur streets. In 1923 he built the Paradise Club. From its inception through the rhythm and blues era, the club was the scene of performances by well-known artists. Louis Armstrong performed at the resort prior to World War II, and Joe Louis trained here on occasion. Following the war the area's popularity increased as society in general became more mobile and such entertainers as Billy Eckstine, Della Reese, and T-Bone Walker all performed at Idlewild. As segregation persisted, the resort flourished. Attendance of property owners, resorters, and guests peaked at 25,000 on July 4, 1959.
The resort declined during the late 1960s, when federal and state civil rights statutes allowed blacks to patronize formerly all-white resorts in most parts of the country. Many longtime lot owners abandoned their allegiance to the community because of the inroads of what were perceived as commercialistic, “honky-tonk” postwar developments. Although showing physical signs of decline, today Idlewild is a retirement and vacation community. Federal and state grants awarded in 2007 are assisting with the revitalization of this once-thriving rural retreat, resort, and tourism destination and with the cultural economic development of this region.