Empire is the southernmost town in Leelanau County and is approximately 25 miles due west of Traverse City. Empire is located in the center of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, on the shore of Lake Michigan. It is well know for its breathtaking views of Lake Michigan, the dunes, and the Manitou Islands. Two nearby inland lakes, North and South Bar, offer enjoyable swimming for children.
Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak offer rentals and lessons for surfing and kayaking in the waves of Lake Michigan; they also show free movies throughout the summer. Make sure to stop by the Empire Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate store for some delicious locally made chocolates. Every summer Empire plays host to the Sleeping Bear Dunegrass & Blues Festival. The festival lasts for three days, camping is available, and it is a great place to hang out with friends, listen to fantastic music, grab a bite to eat, and just relax.
Empire was founded in 1864 when John LaRue, who founded Glen Arbor, moved down the shoreline to what is now Empire. A mill was built and the new community started harvesting lumber. Lumber was sold to passing steamers for use as fuel. In 1849 the steamer Empire went aground nearby what soon became the town of Empire. In 1865 the schooner Empire was icebound off-shore and the village was named after the two ships. In 1887 the Empire Lumber Company was established, turning the small mill complex into one of the largest hardwood mills in the state, which led to the economic growth of Empire. As forests were cleared, farming quickly became more common. Local farmers soon realized that the Leelanau Peninsula soil was perfectly suited to growing fruit and orchards were planted. Empire was a stop on the Empire and Southeastern Railroad, transporting passengers, lumber, and produce.
Almost 60 years after the heyday of lumbering in Empire, in 1951, the Empire Air Force Station was built as a northern outpost to detect Soviet action. The Station was used to alert the Air Force of any imminent attack. The Station is now closed, but many of the veterans still live in Empire and Leelanau County. Empire Area Museum Center houses many artifacts from the station and the town’s history. The museum complex includes a main museum, a one-room school house, a barn with horse-drawn equipment, Taghon’s Corner Museum (Gas Station), and a 1911 vintage hose house (fire station). The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore’s Visitor’s Center is located on M-72 in Empire.