By LORAINE ANDERSON
EMPIRE — The Empire Area Heritage Group received a timely birthday present from the History Society of Michigan: a 2012 State History Award.
The recognition plaque recently was presented in Monroe at the History Society's annual fall conference, two weeks before the heritage group's annual Heritage Day and 40th Anniversary Celebration at the Empire museum complex on Oct. 13 from 1 to 4 p.m.
"It's a wonderful award," local history society president Dave Taghon said. He traveled with wife, Diane, to Monroe to accept it on behalf of the Heritage Group's 60-plus volunteers.
News of the award surprised many back home in Empire and Glen Arbor, local resident Grace Dickinson Johnson said.
Taghon, who didn't learn about the award until two weeks ago, said the Historical Society didn't want word of the honor leaked until after Saturday's presentation.
Thomas Plasman, an Empire-area seasonal resident, nominated the Heritage Group in the "Local Society" category.
Dickinson said she immediately thought of her late mother Julia Dickinson and Jo Bolton upon hearing the news Monday. Both were among the earliest founding members of the Heritage Group.
"They would have been so thrilled," Johnson said.
The two women used to take old potato hooks to "Norway Town" just south of Empire Beach and dig old bottles and other yesteryear trash from a dumping area. The Norwegian settlement was a mill village that housed the workers of the T. Wilce lumbering operation at modern-day Empire Beach. Their finds often became part of the museum's earliest artifacts, she said.
The Empire Area Heritage Group was founded in 1972 and began with a one-room display at the Empire Masonic Temple, located in the village's former Methodist Church. Since then, it twice outgrew its quarters. Its second home was the 20-by-20-foot Hose House from the mid-1970s to 1986.
Today, the Empire Area Heritage Museum Complex just off M-22 on South LaCore Street has four exhibit buildings: the Main Museum, Old School House, 1911 Hose House and the Billy Beeman Barn.
In 1987, the Heritage Group built and opened its 40-by-80- foot main building at its present location with the help of a $100,000 state grant and fundraising.
Two years later, it relocated a former chapel/school house from its original M-109 site to museum property. The Billy Beeman Barn was built in 1996.
Artifacts from Empire's past include everything from a handsome pair of old Amoco gas pumps, a hearse and stagecoach to the original bar from Roen Brothers Saloon.
"A lot of elbow grease from a lot of people was put into polishing that old bar," Johnson said.
Some exhibits include animation and sound. The main building also has a viewing room where visitors can watch DVD presentations of local historical photos and videos — from the days of the Empire Lumber Company to gliders days, dune mobiles and coho fever.
The Heritage Group's number of volunteers surprised the woman presenting the award. "Get this: a town of 480 with more than 60 volunteers," she told the audience, Taghon said.
Empire was settled in 1854 by fisherman and fur trader John LaRue. George Aylsworth started a wooding station and operated it for Lake Michigan steamers from 1873 to1883.