Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 21, 2012

A man and a museum

'Mr. Empire' has spent 40 years preserving history


EMPIRE — For Dave Taghon, history is telling stories.

He and the Empire Heritage Group have done a lot of that over four decades — with hammers and saws, artifacts of bygone eras, photos and what Taghon calls the "confounded computer business" of audiovisual.

"We probably could live without a museum, but I don't think we could live without a deep appreciation for the past like we do with small museums," said Taghon, president of the Heritage Group. "To me, they provide a tangible tie to the past that lets us know where we came from. I think that's important. "

Taghon has long been considered the spark plug of the 40-year-old Empire Heritage Museum Complex, which today covers everything from the village's lumber era to Sleeping Bear dune rides.

The museum, which has attracted from 4,000 to 7,000 annual visitors in recent years, received a state history award this month from The Michigan Historical Society.

The award dates back to 1972 when two women — Julia Dickinson and Jo Bolton — began digging for old crockery and bottles in the dump at "Norway Town," a sandy hillside mill village set up by the Empire Lumber Co. for its workers.

Taghon joined the museum effort in the mid 1970s, when he was asked to help with a Boy Scout woodworking project. He offered to do a scale model of Empire Lumber Company instead.

"That's what got me involved with people like Jo and Julia and others like Leota Nowicki, who gave me a box of pictures and told me I was now in charge of pictures," he said.

That box today has grown to a collection of 8,000 photographs and images. No one knows exactly how many artifacts the museum houses.

In the meantime, the museum has grown from a one-room display in 1972 to a four-building complex. The 40-by-80-foot main building, which opened in 1987, was constructed with the help of a $100,000 state grant.

A construction company in Solon Township put up the building and volunteers finished the interior. The land where the museum and 1911 Hose House sit was donated by the late Paul and Frances Johnson of Empire. Two other adjacent structures — the Old School House and the Billy Beeman Barn — are located on property leased from Empire Township.

Taghon credits two mentors for his 36-year association with the Heritage Group. The first is Phil Payment, a lifelong Empire area resident who was born in 1889 and died in 1978. He began working at the Empire Lumber Co. mill when he was 11, after his father fell off a load of logs and died.

"He was a big inspiration to me and a tremendous source of details," Taghon said. "He had a photographic memory and had worked at everything in the mill. He commercial fished, too, and worked for the railroad. Just to learn firsthand from this guy was inspiring."

Taghon has never met his other mentor — Ken Burns, director and producer of American history documentaries. But Burns' 11-episode Civil War series in 1990 fired Taghon's interest in audiovisual storytelling.

Burns uses a combination of archival photographs, live modern cinematography, music, narration and first-person voices to recount the Civil War's history and impact.

"When I saw what he could do with pictures, wow," Taghon said.

Over the years, Taghon has worked with videotapes, slide shows, CDs and DVD presentations, tying together old photographs, music and narrative.

Today the museum has about eight to 10 DVD presentations available for viewing and use during public talks. They also sell the DVDs for $8, with proceeds going to the museum.

The audiovisual presentations unveil, among other things, the history of the Empire Lumber Company; the recovery of the Empire anchor from Lake Michigan in 1977; Empire's fairs and the drowning death of a stunt aviatrix; and Empire's glider days of 1936 and 1937, before the event moved permanently to Frankfort.

Taghon is a Mr. Empire of sorts.

He is the grandson of Belgian immigrants who came to Empire to work in the lumber company. His parents started a boarding house and corner gas station at M-72 and M-22. Born in 1942, Taghon graduated from Glen Lake High School in 1961 and spent four years in Florida serving in the Air Force from 1962-1966. He was on the village council for 26 years, 14 as mayor.

"There must have been something about Empire," he said. "I remember drawing a map of the village as a kid and putting a dot on it for each house in the village and counting how many residents and businesses there were.

"Maybe it was inevitable that I was going to end up on the village council for 26 years."

The Empire Museum is open daily except Wednesdays in the summer, and Saturdays from Labor Day through mid October. Current hours are by appointment. Call 326-5519.