The Story of Empire
Situated in Leelanau County, with a population that's never really reached above 1,000, the village of Empire has gone through several transformations. It was settled in the mid-1850s by John Leroux and named after one of two ships that ran aground in the region.
Like much of Northern Michigan, Empire was filled with hardwoods, which made it easy for the lumber industry to set up shop. The Empire Lumber Company purchased a mill in December, 1887 and expanded it to be one of the largest hardwood mills in the state. The plant was owned by the Willis Lumber Company out of Chicago, and after the Great Chicago Fire, business for the Empire Lumber Company was booming.
Unfortunately, not too many years after the Great Chicago Fire, Empire had a fire of it's own and the lumber plant burned down. Ten years after it was rebuilt, it burned down again, but the Willis family had already start putting in orchards. Apple and cherry orchards led the transition to an agricultural economy and held up the town until the late 1940s when patriotism took over.
"When the air base came in bringing up to 300 people, young single GIs in many cases, we joked you had to lock your doors when all the fly boys were around," said Dave Taghon, President of the Empire Heritage Group.
The base was mainly used as a radar site during the Cold War, then was turned over to the FAA.
Today Empire is a tourist town, seeing over one million visitors every year, stopping by to visit the Sleeping Bear Dunes.