Empire, Michigan History
Dave Roche and E. Harvey Wilce display their apples at the annual Empire Fair, which drew hundreds to view and buy the agricultural harvests. The T. Wilce Company in 1898 farmed over 600 acres of apple and peach trees.
In 1864, some 15 years after John LaRue relocated from South Manitou Island to what was to become Glen Arbor, he moved down the Leelanau shoreline and was the first European settler of Empire. The Pete Stormer and George Aylsworth families came also from the islands, and the new community soon had a wooding station, store, church, school, and large steamers and schooners dropping off settlers at the dock. The side-wheeler steamer Empire went aground nearby in 1849, and when the schooner Empire was icebound offshore in the winter of 1865, the village name was firmly affixed.
In 1887 the T. Wilce Company established the Empire Lumber Company, turning the mill complex into one of the largest hardwood mills in the state and feeding the economy of Empire as the village continued to grow. A settlement of Norwegian mill workers, near the Wilce Company, was dubbed Norway Town. With lumbering as the main industry, cleared forestlands and fields for farming soon appeared. When the lumber boom ended with the burning of the last mill in 1917, the farmlands gained prominence. Much of the Leelanau Peninsula was found to have good soil for growing potatoes, although fruit later became the favored crop, especially apples, peaches and cherries. In 1899 there were nearly 4,000 cherry trees in the county, growing to 16,000 ten years later. Local canneries shipped their products within and outside the State of Michigan. Fruit crops continued to add much to the industry of Leelanau, along with tourists lured by beautiful lakeside villages such as Empire. Today Empire is host to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Visitor Center and sits in the 80,000-acre park. From Empire’s 1,000 feet of Lake Michigan shoreline, the Sleeping Bear Dunes and the Manitou Islands provide majestic views.