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A Toledo Power Couple's Black Oasis

Marion and Ella Auther in front of the Royal Breeze Hotel at Woodland Park, Michigan.

Each February, Toledo comes alive with educational programs, exhibitions, and events designed to celebrate the profound impact of African Americans on the city's history and contemporary life. Surprisingly, one rarely explored story involves Marion and Ella Auther, a formidable duo who developed a popular Black oasis in Newaygo County, Michigan, while living in Toledo. I was unfamiliar with their story until Dr. Ted Ligibel told me about a Library of Michigan online presentation featuring Dianna Toran, author of "Woodland Echoes: A Cottage in My Heart." After exploring their story, I'd have to say that in the tapestry of Toledo's local Black history, few threads are as colorful as the lives of this power couple who, despite originating from two starkly different worlds, have woven a legacy of innovation and transformation.

Marion emerged from the depths of poverty, his early years shaped by the struggle and resilient spirit symbolic of life's harsher realities. In stark contrast, Ella was cradled in relatively privileged circumstances, her path illuminated by her ardent grandfather's resources. Despite these divergent beginnings, their paths converged, weaving a story of love, ambition, and mutual respect that exceeded the boundaries of their initial circumstances. Today, their union is a profound reminder of how diverse backgrounds can forge a shared legacy.

Marion Elmore Auther was born in Kenton, Ohio, on July 8, 1875, to James and Mesaline Auther. Marion was one of seven children and, according to the 1940 census, left school after the eighth grade to help support his family. Marion never let his lack of education hold him back from success. In 1898, he moved to California and worked as a painter at the Stockton Art Pottery Company. Four years later, he returned east and arrived in Toledo, becoming a librarian assistant—at the time, he was the only Black man working at the Toledo Public Library.

Ella Orzhelle Foster Auther was born on May 16, 1873, to James William and Elizabeth Butler Foster in Amherstburg, Ontario. Ella's paternal grandfather, Levi Foster, a freedman born in 1811 in Stark County, Ohio, became a successful and affluent Canadian businessman. As a young man, before moving to Canada, he and his wife Elizabeth moved to Perrysburg, where they worked with local Ottawa Indians and emerging Underground Railroad depots to help formerly enslaved people escape to Canada. In 1838, after the Ottawa Indians were forced to leave Northwest Ohio, Foster moved to Amherstburg, in southwestern Ontario, Canada, where he found a job as a plasterer and innkeeper. After ten years of working and saving, he opened his own business — a livery stable. He soon expanded his business operations, opening a profitable hotel and stagecoach line between Windsor and Amherstburg.

The Eli Foster homestead in Amherstburg.

A frequently overlooked aspect of the Underground Railroad narrative and the concept of achieving "freedom" by reaching Canada, the ultimate destination, is the discrimination that formerly enslaved individuals encountered once they crossed the U.S. border into Canada. Granted, crossing into Canada saved them from being pursued by slave catchers, but it did not end their struggle with prejudice and inequality. Levi Foster, who had helped organize the True Band Society of Amherstburg to assist freedom seekers who fled slavery in the United States, did his best to combat discrimination. Still, he and his wife were unsuccessful in petitioning the local government to desegregate the schools in Ontario. When Ella and her siblings reached school age, Levi helped finance his son James to move his family to Monroe, Michigan, so his grandchildren would receive a proper education. After arriving in Monroe, James opened a livery and eventually purchased a 23-acre fruit and dairy farm. Ella and her older sister, Myrtle, broke barriers by excelling academically in a white high school, showcasing the resilience and brilliance that would define her life. After high school, her father helped her establish a successful confectionary and candy business near the Foster family home on the corner of E. 6th Street and Scott Street.

Ella met Marion while she was visiting Toledo in the early 1900s. They were both in their late twenties. By this time, Marion was working as a porter. They were married in 1905 and moved into the home Marion had purchased on Indiana Avenue in Toledo's Pinewood District. The young couple began carving a path to success through relentless hard work and an unwavering dedication to financial security. By 1910, Marion worked as a shipping clerk at a local department store, and Ella was running her confectionary store that she had moved to Toledo from Monroe. The Authers were very money-smart and began purchasing real estate with the savings they had accumulated, and soon Marion was focused solely on real estate dealings.

In 1913, Marion served as an organizer for the Star Building and Loan Association, Ohio's first black-owned financial institution. He served as its first president.

In 1915, Marion was hired as an agent to sell lots at an African American resort community called Idlewild in Lake County, Michigan, about 80 miles north of Grand Rapids. Idlewild Resort was founded as a response to the era of Jim Crow segregation, and it developed into a refuge for African Americans seeking rest and recreation. Thanks to Marion's success at using leading black newspapers in Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, and Cleveland to advertise and sell lots, it didn't take long for Idlewild to flourish. Soon, famous African Americans, including W.E.B. Dubois, C.J. Walker, and Marcus Garvey, were visiting the resort. As Idlewild developed, it became a major entertainment venue. It drew top talent to its nightclubs, including Cab Callaway and Louis Armstrong, and soon owned a prominent position on the “Chitlin’ Circuit.”

While promoting Idlewild among the Midwest's Black intellectuals, religious leaders, entrepreneurs, and educators, the Authers began to dream about opening a second resort catering to a clientele looking for a quieter, more restful experience. They soon had their eyes on the remnants of an old lumbering village called Brookings—located just fifteen miles south of Idlewild.

In 1921, Marion and Ella started purchasing the Brookings' parcels to launch what they dubbed Woodland Park. When money ran low, Alvin Wright and Wilbur Lemon, co-founders of Idlewild, showed their support by acquiring the last few properties.

Woodland Park blossomed under the Authers' vision. Marion and Ella transformed it into a bustling summer resort known for its serene ambiance—attracting intellectuals, professionals, and families throughout the Midwest. In addition to designing the resort, the couple took on several other duties. Marion handled sales and advertising, while Ella used her photography and writing skills to design engaging postcards to promote Woodland Park.

The first building constructed at Woodland Park by Marion and Ella Auther.

The Authers erected their first building at Woodland Park in 1922. It started as a hotel but was used for many other functions, eventually serving as a realty office, a community building, and a church. By the 1930s, after the repeal of prohibition, Marion and Ella remodeled this building into a tavern and convenience store and named it the Pinecone Tavern.

A postcard featuring the Royal Breeze Hotel.

Woodland Park's Royal Breeze, the Authers' premier hotel, was completed in 1923. It was located on the shore of Woodland Lake and carved out of remnants of the lumber company's bunkhouse. It featured 50 guest suites, a parlor, a formal dining room, a service kitchen, a game room with a stone fireplace, a wrap-around screened porch, and three separate rental cottages.

W.E.B. Du Bois and Woodland Park founder Marion Auther on a Woodland Lake dock.

Woodland Park quickly became known as a peaceful retreat, untarnished by the disruption of show business. During the day, tourists and residents took advantage of the resort's recreational activities. At night, last call was usually announced at the resort's establishments before midnight. Still, in keeping with their cooperative relationship, a shuttle service was offered for those interested in appreciating the late-night entertainment at Idlewild.

Woodland Park also served as a venue and provided entertainment for numerous visitors of Idlewild's Chautauqua gatherings from the early 1920s to the early 1930s. These outdoor events drew the attention of thinkers and social reformers linked with the Niagara Movement, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the National Association of Colored Women, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and the New Negro Movement originating from Harlem.

Marion and Ella's efforts in Woodland Park extended beyond leisure and recreation; they established a vibrant community that thrived on mutual support, especially during the challenging times of the Great Depression and World War II. They pioneered a transportation system, facilitated property ownership among African Americans, and even anticipated the area's industrial potential.

Sadly, Ella Foster Auther died suddenly on Nov. 22, 1941, at age 68. Marion passed away on June 3, 1944. Both are buried in Monroe’s Woodland Cemetery. Despite their deaths, their impact on Woodland Park continued until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This legislation marked a significant milestone for equality and changed the vacation habits of African Americans, gradually decreasing the resort's prominence. Nowadays, Woodland Park is home to approximately fifty families living there throughout the year.

Despite its reduced visibility, Woodland Park stands as a lasting tribute to the Authers' dream and the deep-rooted history of African American entrepreneurship, community formation, and perseverance. For me, the surprise of uncovering Marion and Ella's story was a gift that enriched my understanding of the complexity of our shared history and the indomitable spirit of those who pave the way for progress. Their story makes me wish I had been around to meet them and bask in their energy and courage.

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