Transcript for A Joyous Resistance: Fox Lake and Black Community Building
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Clark: “To the genuine Fox Laker the year is divided into two parts. One part of the year is spent talking, planning, thinking and dreaming Fox Lake and the other part is spent living Fox Lake.”
Beckley: That sentiment from a history of Fox Lake resort, written in 1965, holds true today. Grant Hawkins and Lucy Reynolds, two current Fox Lakers, were kind enough to share memories from their decades at the lake.
Hawkins: Well, we got up when we got up, had breakfast, did whatever chores our parents assigned, and then we went down to the beach, where the lifeguard was more a babysitter than a lifeguard because all the other kids were down there too. And we swam until we were tired or until the lunch hour, when the beach was closed for an hour or hour and a half. We might come back after the lunch hour, might be at our cottage or someone elses cottage playing cards, gossiping, and probably ended up back at the beach. But that was a typical day. After the beach closed around 5 o’clock, you headed to your house usually. The parents were hanging out – they7 might be at a different cottage for all you knew. Back then there was no tv and the radio was spotty, so you made your own fun. Sometimes the kids would gather at one cottage with or without the parents knowledge and just do kids stuff.
Reynolds: Of course, it would be vacation, so we wouldn’t rise that early but we would visit with other Fox Lakers and go down to the private beach area for all of the homeowners in the Fox Lake Property Owners Association. And there were swings and a little playhouse for the kids with a lodge where the meetings would take place and picnics and etc. The lake was one of the cleanest – and it still is – one of the cleanest lakes…Beckley: On this episode of Talking Hoosier History, we’re diving into the history of Fox Lake Resort and the importance of Black community building.
I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.
In the early 1900s, Black Americans left the rural South for the urban North in what is known as the Great Migration. Already impoverished by the legacy of slavery, the unfulfilled promises of Reconstruction and the unfair practices of sharecropping, the Black population of the rural South was hit all the harder when crop failures led to an economic depression. That, coupled with the violent racism of the South, drove hundreds of thousands of Black families to seek what they hoped would be better conditions in the North. What they found in northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Indianapolis, while perhaps a better economic landscape than what they had left, was nevertheless oppressive. White residents resented the newcomers, forming coalitions to keep them out of their neighborhoods and excluding them from many public spaces. This segregation insured that nearly all Black families settled within Black neighborhoods, visited Black doctors, hired Black lawyers, shopped at Black-owned businesses, and patronized Black nightclubs. This widening consumer base for Black-owned businesses led to the emergence of a growing Black middle class in the Midwest. As those business owners entered the middle class, they wanted to enjoy the same opportunities as the white middle class. And by this time, that included a yearly summer vacation.
Vacationing had become a marker of the middle class in the 1870s with the publication of wilderness guidebooks, which introduced the then novel idea that nature was something to be enjoyed, rather than conquered. During this time, few Black families had the means to patronize the resorts and spas popping up across the nation. But, according to historian Myra B. Young Armstead, those who could afford it vacationed alongside their white counterparts. However, as more and more Black professionals entered the middle class, white resort owners began refusing service to Black vacationers.
So, in the beginning of the 20th century, we witness a convergence of two trends – more and more Black families have the disposable income and free time to take vacations while, at the same time, fewer vacation sites are open to them. Demand was going up while supply was going down. In a capitalist society, this is an opportunity not to be missed. And entrepreneurs, both Black and white, did not miss it.
Boarding houses, hotels, and resorts catering exclusively to Black clientele began appearing across the nation, their popularity spurred on by reviews and advertisements in Black newspapers and by word-of-mouth recommendations. On the East Coast, families could visit Highland Beach in Maryland.. In the Midwest they could while away their days swimming and dancing at the Idlewild Resort in Michigan. And in Indiana, they could kick back and relax at Fox Lake Resort.
Fox Lake, located just outside of Angola in Steuben County, is picturesque – surrounded by towering sycamores and populated by snapping turtles, bluegill, and sunfish.
Hawkins: Well, the lake is in a bowl and it is spring fed. The spring – the water comes from Michigan, so the water is capable of being here – it’s capable of being pretty cool when it gets here.
Reynolds: And there’s a beautiful swimming area for the children, and adults, of course, with a pier that people walk on and sit their blankets and towels. It’s an L shape, so we get…
Hawkins: When you swim across, you aren’t swimming straight across, your swimming at an angle. So, it’s about ¾ of a mile across. There is a peninsula, which is not land, it’s just reeds and that gives the lake some contour when you’re swimming around it or boating around it.
Reynolds: And on the – in front of the beach area, there is sand and Adirondack chairs that people will come – first come first serve – and sit and watch the children play. There’s also…
Beckley: In 1924, a group of white businessmen from Fort Wayne, Marion, and Kokomo bought land on the south shore of the 10-acre lake and got to work establishing a resort community for Black families from nearby cities. It’s unclear from the records we have if this was seen as simply a potentially lucrative business opportunity or if it was meant as an act of allyship with the Black community with the potential to make some money along the way.
Either way, these businessmen purchase the property and form the Fox Lake Land Company, which cut a road into the land and divided it into plots to be sold. The first Fox Laker, as residents of the community call themselves, was Carl Wilson, a Black Fort Wayne business owner. Wilson would become a champion of the community, spreading word of the real estate opportunity and eventually building three cottages at the resort. Despite Wilson and others’ efforts, troubles within the Fox Lake Land Company slowed further development.
Eventually, the company passed into the hands of white Kokomo insurance salesman Lowell Boyd and his family. The Boyd’s began to advertise the resort in earnest – they built several cabins that were made available for prospective buyers to rent as a “try before you buy” sort of thing. They placed ads in Black newspapers. And they, along with the early residents of Fox Lake, organized picnic outings at the Lake to bring families in to experience resort life for themselves. One such outing is described in the Indianapolis Recorder:
Clark: “The Ft. Wayne Men’s Civic League is working arduously to promote a Basket Outing at Fox Lake, Angola, Ind., Decoration Day. All Concessions at the lake will be free and a special committee under Oliver Lee is arranging for cars to transport people to the lake. Everybody is invited to participate in all activities. Several sets of Tennis have been booked. Competition in horse-shoe, relay races, baseball, swimming and boating is being arranged under the supervision of the recreation committee.”
Beckley: As more families traveled to Fox Lake for outings and weekend trips, word began to spread, and lots began to sell. Families from Indianapolis, Toledo, Fort Wayne, Springfield, Detroit, and other Midwestern cities began to call Fox Lake their “home away from home.” In these early days, the term “resort” might be a little misleading. Often, when we think of a modern resort, we think of a tropical paradise with all you can eat buffets, bottomless drinks, and maybe even a spa. Well, Fox Lake resort was a little more…rustic. A history of Fox Lake describes these days, saying, that those early Fox Lakers,
Clark: “Recall with nostalgia the daily trips to the beach area with two galvanized buckets, the hand pump and the climb up the hill to the cottage with a portion of the daily water supply…It was not until 1936 that electric lines and service were available to the cottage owners.”
Beckley: Indoor plumbing would come even later than that. While perhaps nice in a quaint sort of way, the residents of Fox Lake knew that more amenities could transform the property from a collection of cottages into a true resort community. To this end, they formed the Fox Lake Property Owners Association in 1938.
Much like a homeowners association, the Fox Lake Property Owners Association collected dues from residents and used that money to make improvements to the community. The original functions were fairly basic – they organized beach recreation and garbage disposal. But as their membership grew, they were able to expand their areas of impact.
Over the next three decades, the association organized road maintenance, relocated the beach to a safer location, worked with the State Department of Conservation to stock the lake, installed streetlights, constructed improved recreational facilities, and the list really does go on and on. So, it’s safe to say that while it was the Fox Lake Land Company that initially developed the land, it was the residents themselves who truly built their community.
Hawkins: So the first few days, at least, were spent catching up and playing cards on somebodies porch, listening to new records. And we had a recreation hall and as it got more developed you spent more time there of an evening. More card playing, more gossiping, more lying. Just catching up.
Beckley: Part of that community building included coming together to have fun. Between playing sports like basketball, tennis, and horseshoes or attending the weekly dances or gathering for the annual Labor Day Water Festival, Fox Lake was rarely a dull place. And it wasn’t reserved for just those fortunate few who could afford to purchase land. Fox Lake featured two lodging facilities – the Mar-Fran Motel and the Fox Lake Hotel. Both of these, as well as Fox Lake itself, appeared in the Negro Motorist Green-Book at various times from the 1940s through the 1960s. Colloquially known as the Green Book, this publication was started in the 1930s as a sort of travel guide for Black Americans – a list of hotels, inns, restaurants, and even private homes that were welcoming, and more importantly, safe for them to visit in a country gripped by Jim Crow racism. And visit they did. Families, yes – but also church groups, fraternal organizations, and alumni groups, traveled to Fox Lake for annual retreats, picnics, and simply to find refuge from the daily reality of living in a country whose white residents were largely hostile to their very existence.
Reynolds: It was one of two areas where Black people could go and feel safe. The other one, up in Michigan, Idlewild. So people felt safe there. The community was receptive.
Beckley: Fox Lake, like many Black spaces in Indiana, such as the Senate Avenue YMCA and Crispus Attucks High School (just to name a couple of topics we’ve explored in past episodes) were products of exclusion and discrimination. But in every instance, they became places of community building. Black men, turned away from the Indianapolis YMCA, formed their own branch and provided a space for Black empowerment by creating the Monster Meetings – a series of talks which included speakers like Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Phillip Randolph speaking on topics such as “Democracy: A Goal to Defend,” and “The Fight against Discrimination in the Armed Forces.” Barred from attending other Indianapolis schools and consistently underfunded, the staff and students of Crispus Attucks created a top-notch educational experience that led to increased social and occupational opportunities. And unwelcomed at other resorts, Fox Lakers created a community where they could gather to rest, relax, recover, and revel.
Hawkins: Fox Lake was just always a constant. Stop and think about growing up – you had your school friends. If you played a summer sport, in my case, you had your little league buddies. And then you came up here and you had friends from Chicago, Detroit, Lima, Ohio, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Indianapolis. So it was just a third group of friends.
Reynolds: It’s a pitch in and everybody comes. The line is so long. And we sit and we reminisce about the season and what we did and how we’re going to miss each other.
Hawkins: Most of the families up here consist of a mom, or a stay at home mom whose a school teacher, so she had the summer off. The kids would be up here in the cottage with their mother and on the weekends, the dad’s would drive in and the parties would start.
Reynolds: Light the night festival where people just laugh and enjoy the food and dancing and it’s really a wonderful night.
Beckley: And this, more than anywhere else, is where Fox Lake’s true importance lies. As IHB Historian Jill Weiss Simins explains in her blog post “Marion’s Allen Temple and the Importance of Black Spaces,” Black spaces have been and continue to be essential to healing from the generational racial trauma endured by people of color in America. In Indiana, Black Hoosiers have suffered enslavement, persecution, discrimination, and lynching, the trauma of which has been shown to negatively impact the mental health, fertility, and susceptibility to disease of Black people to this day. Having a place like Fox Lake to temporarily escape the pressures of everyday life in America as a person of color was essential. It was more than a vacation spot, it was a sanctuary. Generations of families have called Fox Lake their home away from home and their refuge from the world, and they continue to do so today.
Many Black resorts in America dwindled after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which opened more doors to Black vacationers. For example, Michigan’s Idlewild, perhaps the most famous such destination, became nearly a ghost town by the 1970s, with empty houses overrun by nature and abandoned storefronts standing as reminders of the past. Fox Lake did not share that fate – many Black families still call themselves Fox Lakers, although the resort is now integrated with several white families owning property there as well. Today, Fox Lakers are the driving force behind the preservation of their community’s history, much like they were the driving force behind its development. In 2002 Fox Lake residents led the effort to add the resort to the National Register of Historic Places and this year IHB partnered with residents to install an Indiana state historical marker, dedicated in June as part of the community’s Juneteenth celebration.
Necessitated by the discriminatory practices of the United States during the Jim Crow Era, Fox Lake stands as one of many examples of the Black community coming together in the face of discrimination to meet their own needs – needs not otherwise being met. It also stands as an example of something that is a little harder to find in our media environment – a story of Black joy. Oftentimes, when stories of Black Americans are shared, they are the heart wrenching stories of enslaved people or the inspiring stories of stern-faced activists. And this is for good reason – our country’s history of, and continued enforcement of, systematic racism has produced many such accounts as Black Americans struggle to perfect the promise of our democracy. But, as writer Chante Joseph asserts in her article, What Black Joy Means – and Why It’s More Important Than Ever, “it is an act of resistance to revel in the joy that they have spent much of history trying to take away from [people of color.]” And in that sense, Fox Lake has been one nearly 100-year long act of resistance.
Reynolds: …dancing and talking the night away. But we try to do things that bring the people together and everyone is so relaxed and happy. It’s just a beautiful place to find joy in.
Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is brought to you by the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. This episode was researched and written by me, Lindsey Beckley, and produced and engineered by Jill Weiss Simins. I want to thank Judge Grant Hawkins and Lucy Reynolds for talking with me about their memories of Fox Lake. And thank you to Justin Clark for lending his voice to the show. Find a transcript and show notes for this and all of our episodes at podcast.history.in.gov. And remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks for listening!