Popular venue that rocked Betsie Bay for three decades will continue
The first time that Joshua Davis and his band, Steppin’ In It, played at The Cabbage Shed, the reveling crowd danced into such a frenzy that the floorboards bounced and the old building seemed as though it might tumble into Betsie Bay.
“It felt like the ceiling was going to break, there was so much pounding,” Davis remembers.
It was Earth Day in the spring of 2001, and the Beulah-based Michigan Land Use Institute (now in Traverse City and called the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities) had booked Steppin’ In It to play its annual party at The Shed. It was the band’s first concert outside of Lansing, though the group would go on to play many gigs at the Benzie County attraction and around Northern Michigan. (Davis and band mate Joe Wilson have since moved to the Traverse City area.)
Davis achieved national fame earlier this year when he captured third place on NBC’s reality television show The Voice. But long before Los Angeles came calling, Davis and his musical troubadours developed a bond with Cabbage Shed owner Jim Clapp.
“We loved playing clubs where the owners loved music,” Davis recalls. “Jim obviously loved the music that we played.”
The bar owner might have played bass with Steppin’ In It on the band’s first night at The Shed, or perhaps it was one of their subsequent shows there. Either way, Clapp had a knack for being in the presence of great musicians. As a New York City native in the early ’60s, he once played Irish folk songs at an open mic in Greenwich Village—with a kid named Bob Dylan sitting at the bar watching him.
Clapp would book Steppin’ In It to play a couple of times throughout a weekend. He housed the musicians upstairs, they’d play at night, and Davis remembers “screwing around in the countryside all day.” The Cabbage Shed concerts opened doors for the band to play shows all over northwest lower Michigan, from the Dunegrass Festival in Empire to opening for Greg Brown at Interlochen to closing down bars in Traverse City.
“We started coming Up North a bunch,” Davis says. “We’d play the entire summer up here and camp out in the dunes all week between gigs. It was a magical time.”
End of an Era
The Shed will be closed this winter for the first time since Clapp opened it in 1985. On November 6, Clapp sold the business to Colleen and T. J. Hudson, who plan to remodel some of the interior and reopen in the spring.
The Hudsons have a long history with Elberta and The Shed—they have owned a place in Elberta for more than 20 years, and their niece and nephew, Lydia and Jerrod Zuker, are former Shed employees. Clapp feels confident that the new owners will maintain The Shed’s tradition of providing food, drinks, and musical entertainment, which is music to everyone’s ears.
Hundreds of people turned up for The Cabbage Shed’s annual Halloween party this year, a fitting tribute to celebrate the end of an era. The place was wall-to-wall packed with ghouls and goblins, all abuzz with rumors of what was in store for the former storage facility, as the sale had not yet been finalized or publicized.
The party marked the culmination of a 30-year run for the Clapp family as owners and managers of the popular music venue and open mic stalwart. Nobody wanted to miss it—it was the last time that The Shed’s doors would be open under Clapp ownership.
From One-man Band to Rockin’ Club
The Shed’s musical history began with Clapp as a one-man band after he opened the old cabbage storage facility as a 43-year-old family man in 1985.
“The first music was just me,” says Clapp, who would sing and play acoustic guitar. Later, a washboard bass player showed up, and they formed the Elberta String Band. “But people wanted music that was more danceable. Then a guy came along who could actually play the electric guitar. He became the front man, and we started drawing real crowds.”
Clapp admits that he had to be dragged—kicking and screaming—toward dance music.
“But our crowd kept telling me that’s what they wanted,” he says.
The Cabbage Shed’s musical repertoire would soon include jazz piano player Don Jones, a magnet for jazz in this part of the state; he attracted an older crowd who dressed in ties and drank martinis. Above all, The Shed’s Thursday night “Open Mic” night has given many amateur musicians a chance to play, and some of them have gone on to form bands.
Clapp was an early member of Song of the Lakes, the popular local Irish and Nordic folk band. Ingemar Johansson, another Song of the Lakes member, remembers taking The Shed stage during several community fundraising events and feeding off the energy of the friendly Benzie crowds.
“The pivotal show was perhaps the night when the crowd gathered at The Shed to promote the passing of the Benzie Bus millage,” Johansson says. “The energy in the establishment was tremendous and marked the strong support of this millage request.”
Davis’s memory of the floorboards bouncing was not unique. Clapp told the Benzie County Record Patriot’s Colin Merry about one night when dancing patrons laughed at the buoyant surface.
“Everybody thought it was funny,” Clapp told the Record Patriot. “Later, I went downstairs to get some beer and saw the floor joists were flexing. It looked like the floor was going to collapse. We had to stabilize it right away.”
The Shed was, above all, funky and unique—a whitewashed establishment for the pious, it was not.
“Back in the ’80s, a friend of mine, Mike McDonnell, painted this nude, and gave it to me,” Clapp told the Record Patriot. “We hung it over the bar. One of our regular patrons noticed it and asked me to take it down. I didn’t. Next thing I know, he got mad, and started telling people to avoid the ‘den of inequity.’ Letters were written in the local paper, and the Traverse City Record-Eagle did a story on it. It actually went statewide. The thing is, it go so much notoriety, people came from all over the state to see it.”
Clapp’s daughter, Becky Hunt, has run the establishment for the past 15 years. She was five years old when The Cabbage Shed opened—she literally grew up there. Hunt remembers the big wooden stove upstairs in their living quarters. There was a chimney pipe running through the room, and instead of falling asleep, she would peak down through a hole in the pipe and check out the live bands, jamming below.
She remembers, too, that Clapp worked as Benzie’s probation officer. He’d take them on field trips and play music for them. Many of the kids with whom he worked would later the frequent The Cabbage Shed.
“I’ve got a million memories,” Hunt says. “The Shed helped turn me into the person I am today—fond of people and a natural host.”
Clapp told the Record Patriot that he discovered Benzie County during summer vacations. His Brooklyn family had ties to the Congregational Summer Assembly (CSA) on Crystal Lake. Clapp fell in love with the area.
“I had always been drawn to the restaurant business, and I had this dream of owning my own place,” Clapp told the Record Patriot. “One day, I was wandering around in Elberta when I saw this neat place on Betsie Bay…”
And the rest is Cabbage Shed history.
With the passing of the torch, Hunt now plans to further her career as a registered nurse. Clapp says he and his girlfriend plan to spend more time at their apartment in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Of all the fond memories that The Shed holds, Clapp says he is most grateful to have run the business together with his daughter.
“When I was a kid, my dad would go into Manhattan on the subway. I had no idea what he did for work,” Clapp reflects. “I’m lucky; I got to work together with my kids.”
Andy Bolander and Kimm Jayne contributed to this report.
Feature photo: Jim Clapp (R), who owned The Cabbage Shed for 30 years, plays with the Platte Plain Wolf Pack during the final Halloween party. Photo by Aubrey Ann Parker.