By Jane Greiner
Sun staff writer
Empire’s reclusive Roen brothers never dreamed that one day their three-man bachelor household would be replaced by a mother-daughter duo that would turn their farm into an old fashioned bed and breakfast. Holly Decker never dreamed it either. Not until it occurred to her while enjoying a stay in a bed and breakfast that she would like to have a bed and breakfast of her own, and what better place to have one than in her home town of Empire, Michigan.
That the place chosen for the new bed and breakfast turned out to be the historic Roen farm adds a hint of mystery to the charm of the newest Sleeping Bear Dunes area bed and breakfast.
The Roen farm has a long and colorful history. Andrew Roen Sr. moved to Empire in 1892 from Norway and was a founder of Norway Town near Empire. He began as a lumber stacker at the local sawmills. He bought a saloon on Niagara Street in Empire around 1900 and ran it for about 30 years. He acquired a 133 acre farm and orchards on Front Street, east of what is now M-22, married and raised five sons there.
Two of the Roen boys married and moved on, but the three bachelor brothers lived and worked on the farm until their mysterious deaths many years later.
The first to die was Severt Roen who disappeared one day in 1977 when he was 75 years old. Despite intense local interest and many organized searches, he was never found. Some people thought he was senile and just walked away. Others speculated that the other two brothers killed him and hid the body somewhere on the farm or in the basement. No one will ever know, as his body has never been found. He was declared dead eight years later.
The two remaining brothers, Andrew and Benhart, also died under unusual circumstances in 1985 when they were 75 and 87 years old. Local men Dave Taghon, then owner of the nearby Amoco station, and Gary Hilts found the two bodies. Hilts theorized from the way they found the bodies that Andrew died first in his bed. His older brother Benhart, who was senile, could not manage without him and died within a day or two. His body was found in the living room.
When the last two brothers died over $100,000 in cash was found in the house along with numerous valuable antiques. The unusual deaths plus the large amounts of money and antiques in the estate were enough to attract wide news coverage at the time. The story was even carried on Michigan’s Unsolved Mysteries television show.
Andrew had been a member of the Empire Area Heritage Group, which put together the Empire Museum. Many of the items on display there today came from the auction of the Roen estate, including the 1900’s bar and fixtures from the old saloon.
Of the original Roen furnishings, only the magnificent old majestic woodstove remains in the bed and breakfast. The impressive black and silver cooking stove sits in a central room in the house, the room Holly calls The Roen Room. “It’s the heart of the house,” she said. “I think of the Roen brothers when I walk through this room.”
The B&B women have learned a lot about the history of the Roen farm. They have gathered newspaper clippings describing the strange deaths of the three brothers and will have them available for their guests to read.
The Decker women have a considerable history of their own in this area. Holly Decker, owner/proprietor of the bed and breakfast, was born and raised in Empire. Her mother Judy grew up on Old Mission Peninsula but has lived in Empire for over 30 years. And everyone knows her dad Jerry Decker, owner of Decker Pumping.
Holly and her mother bought the Roen farmhouse, barn and outbuildings about a year ago. The two women moved in and began the work of converting the spacious old house into a working bed and breakfast. They named it The cottonwood Inn after the magnificent old trees that frame the front yard.
Carpenter Glenn Brown and his wife Judy have been helping them “since day one” to get the place ready. Judy said “we couldn’t have done it without them.”
Holly and Judy feel that they have had a “huge” amount of support from the community in general in getting their new business off the ground.
They expected their first guests on Memorial Day weekend. Holly had said, “we’ve been receiving calls and at this point the guests might arrive before our new sign goes up on Saturday.”
The bed and breakfast will offer four large rooms each with a private bath. Two of the upstairs rooms have a connecting doorway and can be made into a suite.
The spacious guest room on the main floor, called The Monarch Room, features a huge old antique bed. The room has extra-wide doorways and is wheelchair accessible.
The guests will breakfast in the large east-facing room, which Holly likes to call the Sunrise Room. On the opposite side of the house is the L-shaped Sunset Room, which will serve as the common room. The long room has an entire wall of glass so everyone can enjoy the sunsets.
The upstairs guestrooms are called The Trillium Room, the Cottonwood Room, and the Sunset Room. Each is decorated around a theme and all include some antique furnishings. Judy pointed out that many of the antiques come from Holly’s grandparents and great grandparents. Those earlier Deckers were originally from Detroit and had a cottage near North Bar Lake on what is now National Park land.
The rooms in the bed and breakfast will include the usual amenities of televisions and air conditioners. In addition they will soon have Internet hookups installed in every room.
Holly envisions many special activities at the bed and breakfast. “We already have reservations for two receptions and a wedding,” she said. Someday she hopes to have other business functions there such as conferences, spas and women’s weekends. Who knows, they might become a stop on a mystery tour.
Of course, most of their guests will come for the attractions that bring so many visitors to the area: the beaches, the sand dunes, the hiking and biking.
The staff will consist of Holly and Judy. Neither has any previous experience running a bed and breakfast, but they have stayed in them before and are confident that they can learn.
The most fun Holly and Judy have had so far has been in decorating the rooms and seeing everything come together. Meeting new people and hearing their stories has also been a big bonus as they have worked on their project.
Holly recalls their first winter in the house when they joked about feeling like characters in Little House on the Prairie. “I’m going out to the pump hose to bring in some wood,” they would laugh, as they bundled up.
The hardest part of the bed and breakfast project so far, according to Judy, was the painting. “We painted every room but two,” she said. For a big old farmhouse, that’s a lot of painting.
On a serious note, Holly added that the “hard part has been not knowing the outcome of the adventure. It has been a big risk, financially and emotionally.”
We wish them all the best. The Cottonwood Inn has a great old farmhouse, a hint of mystery, a grand location, and two enthusiastic and determined women ready to give it their best shot. What more could anyone ask for when looking for a great place to stay?
The farm is located on Front Street, less than half a mile east of the village. It is near the corner with Bennet Street, the road opposite the entrance to the Philip Hart Visitors Center.
The Cottonwood Inn Bed & Breakfast