The night before they would leave for Lake Ivanhoe, young Janet Louise Cole would watch her mother begin to pack – clothes freshly washed and starched, new PF Flyers and food – then she and her father would go outside looking for night-crawlers, the long worms used for fishing.

“A visit to Lake Ivanhoe never came fast enough,” she wrote in a 2014 story in Shorefront Journal.  

 Janet Louise Cole on vacation with her family at Lake Ivanhoe. Her father loved fishing but she says she “never caught on to the sport.” Credit: Janet Alexander Davis

The two-hour trip would take them out of Evanston to a place where it was safe and acceptable for Black families to visit.

Just five miles from Lake Geneva, Wis., Lake Ivanhoe was established in 1926 “as the first Black-founded resort community in Wisconsin,” according to a Wisconsin State historical marker placed there on Oct. 16 of this year.

Like Idlewild in Michigan, but less upscale and distant, Lake Ivanhoe was a place where Black people could spend a few days away from the city and Jim Crow. In a recent piece, travel and food writer Nneka M. Okona called these spots and others “Black oases.”

In the 1920s, Chicago businessmen Jeremiah Brumfield, Bradford Watson and Frank Anglin were looking for a place where they could vacation with their families, since white resorts were off limits during the Jim Crow era.

With the help of both Black and white investors, they built their resort on Lake Ryan, renaming it “Lake Ivanhoe” after Ivan Bell, who brokered the deal.

They sold lots and named the streets for noted Black leaders, artists and schools. In 1927, legendary band leader and jazz singer Cab Calloway performed at the opening of the art pavilion.

The Depression and the reclaiming

Lake Ivanhoe in 2022 Credit: Larry Gavin

But the Great Depression took its toll, and the unsold lots, having lapsed into foreclosure, were purchased by a white professional football player who put up a fence that blocked people from the park and the beach.

An assistant State’s Attorney from Cook County filed a lawsuit that allowed the community to reclaim the land in 1944. Residents filed articles of incorporation for what in 1946 became the Lake Ivanhoe Property Owners Association. 

With the fun of camping and fishing, Lake Ivanhoe in the late 1940s and early 1950s did not seem appreciably different to young Janet from other places her family visited.

“We used to go to Fox Lake. We went a lot to Starved Rock. … I didn’t know that [at Lake Ivanhoe] we were history in the making,” she said in a December 2022 interview with the RoundTable.

She did know, though, that “Black people just couldn’t go anyplace they wanted to, to vacation. And most people that I knew, the more affluent Blacks that lived in Evanston at the time, would go to Michigan – Idlewild, Michigan, and places like that.”

Back in Evanston in the 1950s, Cole went to school, married, had children and remarried, so the scenes of Lake Ivanhoe joined the trove of memories that, like other busy people, she stored for later.

Recalling the times and the joy

More than half a century after those visits, the late Deanne Thompson, a childhood friend, showed the now-adult Janet Alexander Davis a story she had written about fishing with her father at Lake Ivanhoe.

That story prompted the 2014 memory Davis wrote for Shorefront, which concluded: “So much fun we shared in the outdoors and camping grounds with other African-American people. … This was our Idlewild.”

Peter Baker and Janet Alexander Davis at the Oct. 16 celebration acknowledging the first Black community in Wisconsin. Davis and her family vacationed there in the 1950s. Baker’s family moved there in the 1960s after his mother was dismissed from the Chicago Public Schools for her civil rights activities. Credit: James Davis

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, by 2014 Peter Baker had already spent about 10 years looking at the history of Lake Ivanhoe, the community that had been his home for more than 50 years.

As a preteen in Chicago in the 1960s, Baker had visited Lake Ivanhoe with family friends; he reported to his family about an all-Black community just over Illinois’ northern border.

In an interview with Susan Bence of National Public Radio in Milwaukee in August of this year, he recounted how his mother was commuting from Chicago to Chicago Heights to teach, having been fired from the Chicago Public School system.

“She had been fired from the Chicago Board of Education by Mayor Daley for leading one of the largest protests of the double-shifting of African Americans at the school I was going to at that time. She had to drive out to Chicago Heights [a distance of about 32 miles] to teach; she couldn’t work in Chicago any more. She hated that drive… she was just not a person who really loved driving,” Bence reported Baker as saying.

Back to Lake Ivanhoe

The family bought a home in Lake Ivanhoe, but Baker did not consider the history of the community for several years, until he decided to look into it. After nearly two decades of research, he made a presentation to the Wisconsin Historical Society, which agreed to place the historical marker in Lake Ivanhoe.

This summer, Baker and Davis connected – at first by email and then in person in October. Davis and her husband, James, visited Baker at his home a few days before the ceremony unveiling the markers.

The community of Lake Ivanhoe is now only 9% Black, though the street names commemorating Black artists, educators, scholars and institutions remain.

“One of the first houses that I saw is on the road that leads to Peter’s house, but there was a confederate flag – this man had all Trump stuff hanging outside. It just covered the whole front leg of this house,” she said.

Two streets in Lake Ivanhoe named for famous Black poets Paul Laurence Dunbar and Phyllis (also “Phillis”) Wheatley. Also a novelist, Dunbar wrote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wheatley, born in Africa and sold into slavery, was the first Black author of a published book of poetry in this country.

But the bright autumn day of Oct. 16 brought people together in celebration. “There were a lot of people, Black and white, and people that knew each other. … There was a woman who was the great-granddaughter of one of the three men that bought the area and tried to make it into a resort area and community,” she said.

Reflecting on the day of celebration, the past vacations, Lake Ivanhoe and the country, Davis said, “Just wouldn’t it be nice for people to know that there is a Black history? I understand there are people in the world, in the United States, now that don’t want that history to be told, or only to be told in a sanitized way. …

“If we only knew – we have to know – that people that have been here for however many years, that we were brought from Africa and other places in the world, that those people had a history.

“And what bothers me so much about our country is those that would rather that we not have the right to vote or have any kind of representation. Here, we’re all immigrants, except for the Native Americans … and we as a people took from them, just as in England went across the world and took everything. So, you know, I can see why you wouldn’t want to know the history, because then those people might have rights.

“And so it feels like now, again, we’re going to determine what books can be taught in school. And we don’t teach civics that taught how government works.

“All I know is that my lived experience is different than someone’s who is white, of course, and I still am here. I love my city. I love Evanston. And I want the best for it and its people. And I plan to just do what I can do until the end.”

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  1. Thanks for sharing your life, and our history with others. I heard my parents speak about Lake Ivanhoe. Now I know the history behind there visits there.

  2. This is an amazing and wonderful story. It reminds me of how much we live in the present and how easily we can tuck away the past

  3. This is a truly lovely story and and new history to me. I agree with Janet, we have to keep trying. Fairness and balance are elusive, to say the least. Thank you.