There is but one place in the world a person can find sky-scraper-high sand dunes, a maybe-murder mystery and human beings who dress to resemble giant asparagus stalks: Empire. Though its 1.2 square miles is populated with only 378 folks, this coastal village is packed with personality.
Empire sits within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a 35-mile stretch of dunes, forest and ancient glacial phenomena. The backdrop is certainly movie worthy, but it’s the speculation about the disappearance of 75-year-old Severt Roen that’s Hollywood good. One of three reclusive brothers who lived their entire lives together in their family’s Empire farmhouse, Severt mysteriously vanished one stormy night in 1977. Some suspect his brothers murdered him, but when they died years later—within days of each other and of natural causes—they left no clues, just an old farmhouse filled with big stashes of cash.
Small town intrigue aside, it’s Empire’s small town pride that makes this place unforgettable. In May, townsfolk hold the Asparagus Festival to celebrate their favorite local veggie with a parade, spear throwing contest, poetry reading and lots of green eatin’. During February’s WinterFest they celebrate gale-force winds and whitecaps by jumping half-naked through a hole in South Bar Lake ice.
They come together for the Lions Club pancake breakfasts, the Eagles bake sales, a burger at Joe’s Friendly Tavern. It’s said that astronauts can see the dunes flanking the town of Empire from outer space. Folks in Empire think that’s all fine and good, but they’re just as happy with the view from here.
Lynda Twardowski is travel editor at Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
Note: This article was originally published in April 2006 and was updated for the web February 2008.