Tom Fordyce reaches 36 years of Cabin Fever

Photo by Pat Stinson

By Norm Wheeler
Sun editor

When you greet Glen Arbor’s ubiquitous cottage remodeler, musician, and leader of the Cabin Fever Band, he holds out a polished rock. It is probably a Lake Superior agate with a brilliant center full of wispy clouds surrounded by concentric rings of layered complexity in a warm colorful glow. You soon realize that the character of Tom Fordyce is just the same.

Fordyce and his blood brother Tom Keen (who sadly passed away in 2013) built or renovated cottages in the area for 30 years, and the Two Toms hatched the Cabin Fever Band at Art’s Tavern back in 1981. Fordyce began sitting in with Jack Lane, who played music once a week in the corner by the old wood stove (under where Carl McBride’s trophy fish hangs now). Keener began playing, then banjo player Billy Judd, the bartender at Art’s, joined in. Lane moved to Traverse City, but the Cabin Fever Band remained. Sometimes the two Toms would appear as the duo Tomfoolery, playing hilarious non-hits like “Blue Hairs Drivin’ in My Lane”, “The Dog Song”, “The Fred Song”, “Mail Order Dog”, and “I Lobster but then I Flounder”.

But I get ahead of myself. After a move-around-a lot military family early childhood, the Fordyce family settled in Aurora, Col., for Tom’s high school years. When he visited his parents in this area in the 1970s, Fordyce fell in love with the water. Back in Colorado he sold all of his stuff and returned here in 1976. He vividly remembers his first visit to Art’s Tavern. “Mary Sheridan, the owner, sat at the end of the bar. There was nobody else in the place,” Tom recalls. “Then a guy named Ben Whitfield came in, latched onto me, and started showing me magic tricks. Pretty soon an old couple came in, George and Bonnie Andrews. The bar was still empty. I felt a tap on my shoulder and George said ‘You’re in my seat!’” They soon became fast friends. Art’s was different in those days. “There was no food, just a jar of pickled pig’s feet and another of chicken gizzards on the bar. Just Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap. Care Warnes was the bartender, and she’d sometimes have a crockpot of sloppy joes for the working people who stopped in.”

Fordyce spent his first four years here working maintenance at The Homestead, then joined contractor Gary Richmond doing construction and private condo maintenance. They built the Riverfront Pizza building for Sue and Tim Nichols in the early ’80s. When Richmond passed, Fordyce joined forces with Keener. Along with local legend and silversmith Ben Bricker, the Toms converted the long vacant Wescott Garage into today’s Lake Street Studios, where Ben & Ananda Bricker, Midge Obata, and Suzanne Wilson created the Glen Arbor Art Association (GAAA) in the late ’80s. The Cabin Fever Band played many summer street dances out in the middle of Lake Street in those days, and they played for the GAAA Christmas parties for several years. Across from the emerging Lake Street Studios were two mostly empty old houses. One morphed into the Cherry Republic café and the other into the Wine Tasting Room as the Great Hall was built and the whole Cherry Republic mushroomed up out of Bob Sutherland’s imagination from that sleepy corner of Lake Street about 25 years ago.

Ben Bricker taught Fordyce silversmithing in exchange for his work on the old garage because the fledgling Glen Arbor Art Association had so little cash. Twelve years ago Fordyce joined the Grand Traverse Area Rock & Mineral Club and learned rock polishing. His jewelry business evolved from there. Fordyce doesn’t go to shows. “It’s too expensive to have stuff nobody buys,” he says. Instead he does custom designs when somebody likes a rock he shows them.

“I have many rocks: Petoskey stones, Leland blue stone, fire agates. I give lessons at Grand Traverse Rock and Mineral club that meets the third Tuesday of every month at the Library on Woodmere in Traverse City. Folks can contact me for further info on classes. I once made a cool entryway for Rebecca Lessard of polished stones with a threshold of Petoskey stones.” Tom shows his jewelry by appointment only, so if you are interested in classes or polished stone or silver jewelry, contact Tom at 231-590-4980.

The Cabin Fever Band has gone through several incarnations in 36 years. Cabin Fever was one of the original groups to help Mike Vanderberg organize and build the stage for the first Dunegrass & Blues Festival in Empire. (Cabin Fever and (New) Third Coast never missed playing a Dunegrass Festival.) After the inimitable Jack Sharry (fiddle and mandolin) and Billy Judd (banjo) both passed away, Paul Kirchner and Kurt Westie played in the group along with Jim Curtis on bass. The current configuration you’ll see this summer (mostly Mondays) on the big sundeck at Boonedocks consists of Fordyce on harmonica and vocals, Jonah Powell on fiddle and mandolin, Mark McManus on banjo, Joe Wilson on dobro and peddle steel guitar, and Kevin Gills on bass. They will headline the Grand Marais Music & Arts Festival in the Upper Peninsula for the 34th year on the second weekend in August, and they have a new CD Cabin Fever Reliever out this summer. You can follow the band at Cabin Fever String Band on Facebook.

Tom Fordyce is one of Glen Arbor’s genuine up north characters full of local history and lore and always ready with a story or a song. And don’t forget to take a look at the rocks in his pocket.