Spring Daytrip: Empire

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.
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Note: This article was originally published in April 2006 and was updated for the web February 2008.

Article Comments

  • sfr1rider

    My name is Severt Eric Roen. I am the son of Jack Alvin Roen who still lives in Empire, MI. I have been reading up on the past history of the farm and the family when I research Severt Roen. I have not been to Empire but I can remember growing up there playing at my Aunts (Judy Fillingham) farm house and down the street where my father lived. I read something about a bed and breakfast where the farm house once was. Is there a contact number to the B&B. Do you know if the museum still has all the old family memorabilia as well. I would like to visit if I have some free time this year and show my wife the place where I grew up and maybe some of my family history / mistery. I appreciate any information you can send my way. Thanks in advance.
    WO1 Severt E. Roen
    US Army

  • Lissa Edwards


    Thank you for your interest in the story. I suggest you contact the Empire Area Museum at 231-326-5568–the folks there are a font of information!

    Good Luck,
    Elizabeth Edwards
    Managing Editor, Traverse Northern Michigan’s Magazine