Leelanau News and Events

Leelanau's Landmarks, Part One

By Ross Boissoneau | March 29, 2023

Leelanau County boasts a coterie of iconic buildings, locations and history celebrating everything from the lumbering industry to farming, shipping, schooling, tourism and more. In an ongoing series, The Ticker takes a look at some of the most recognizable landmarks and locations in “the land of delight.”

Empire Lumber Company
For 30 years, the Empire Lumber Company was the largest employer and in many ways the raison d’etre for the town on the shore of Lake Michigan. Though online sources and even the historic plaque at Empire Beach say the village was named for the schooner Empire -- which was icebound offshore in 1865 -- local historian Dave Taghon says it received its name for a side-wheeler of the same name that had gone aground in 1849.

“When they came through to resurvey in 1855, it (the survey) mentioned Empire Bluff. So it was named after the sidewheeler, which was refloated after grounding and lasted another ten years,” Taghon says.

The village was incorporated in 1895. By then, the Empire Lumber Company had been in business for eight years, though it had been preceded by the first mill in 1873. It was actually the second mill, built in 1885, which the T. Wilce Company purchased and renamed Empire Lumber Company in 1887. The Wilce Company expanded the operation, and it became one of the largest hardwood mills in the state. As the town and mill grew, it spawned docks, numerous businesses, and even a rail line. It was destroyed by fire in 1906, but was so vital it was immediately rebuilt. When it burned to the ground in 1917, however, the region had been almost completely logged, meaning there was to be no third act.

As the area was being cleared of timber, locals turned to farming a variety of crops. Little remains of the lumber company that once dominated the town, but Taghon says it’s possible, even likely, that without the Empire Lumber Company the town wouldn’t even exist.

Glen Haven Cannery
The Glen Haven Cannery building is reflective of the history and eventual fate of Glen Haven. Like the town, it assumed great importance as one of the epicenters of commerce until the decline of steamships providing freight and passenger service, and Glen Haven became little more than a ghost town.

The cannery was the brainchild of D.H. Day. In 1881, three years after being hired as the local agent for Northern Transit Company, he purchased the company’s properties, including the village of Glen Haven. As lumbering declined, Day planned for economic diversification: By the early 1920s he had over 5,000 cherry and apple trees bearing fruit, and established the Glen Haven Canning Company on the shore near the dock.

The cherries were hand-picked by local farmers or migrant workers, put into wooden lugs that held about 22 pounds of fruit, and were delivered to the cannery. It processed fruit grown on neighboring fruit farms as well as the Day family orchards.

The canned produce was carried to the nearby dock and loaded onto ships bound for the large cities on the Great Lakes. As shipping turned to trucking and rail service, the importance of the Glen Haven dock declined,until it closed in 1931. Still, the cannery continued to operate until the early 1940s.

After closing, the cannery was used to store and repair dunesmobiles for the popular sand dunes rides. The National Park Service acquired the cannery in 1971, and in the 1980s converted the space to a boat museum.

One other historical note: Engine No. 1, the DB Harrington, was a locomotive initially used on the Port Huron & Northwestern Railroad, before finding its way to the Day Lumber Railroad. In 1923, it was transferred to the Glen Haven Canning Co., where it was used as a stationary boiler. Following the closure of the cannery, it was moved to Traverse City and then Ohio. Today, according to Taghon, it is being restored in its original home of Port Huron.
Photo of engine courtesy of Cedar Point & Lake Erie Railroad

Grove Hill New Mission Church
Most of the village of Omena is part of the Omena Historic District, including houses, outbuildings, commercial buildings, a cemetery, two sets of dock pilings – and the Grove Hill New Mission Church, constructed in 1858. The church was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1971 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places a year later.

In 1839, the Presbyterian Board of Missions sent the Reverend Peter Dougherty, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, to the Grand Traverse area. He organized a Protestant mission for Native Americans at present-day Old Mission in 1843. In 1852, Dougherty moved to what is now Omena, a.k.a. New Mission, constructing a mission and boarding school about a mile west of present-day Omena.  Six years later Dougherty commissioned three local carpenters to build the church.

The building was based on the traditional New England church style. The interior is arranged with two side aisles separating three banks of pews. Twelve-over-twelve windows, four on each side and two on the front, provide light for the sanctuary. 

The religious work at New Mission continued for 19 years. A decline in the population and financial difficulties resulted in the abandonment of the boarding school in 1867 and of the church in 1871. In 1885, a Congregational Church was organized in Omena and the local Presbyterians joined the Congregationalists in the church. A year later, the Congregationalists organized a new church of their own. Since 1925, Grove Hill New Mission Church has been used primarily in the summer months, and is today still listed on the Presbyterian Church USA website.
Some material from a presentation by Mark Smith, Omena Historical Society, and the original application to the National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.

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