Singing New Life Into an Old Kalispell Standby

By Beacon Staff

Syble Goad and Vicky Kramer aren’t your typical band groupies. But, then again, Sykes’ isn’t your usual concert venue.

Every Wednesday night, people fill the local restaurant, pharmacy and grocery – a Kalispell institution – to enjoy three great unifying forces: cheap coffee, fried food and live tunes. And Goad and Kramer are almost always there, clapping their hands and singing along at a table in the front.

Before last week’s show, the silver-haired duo joked with other patrons about their role as “back-up singers” and “dancing girls.” It’s “always packed” here on Wednesdays, they say, because the mood is fun and the music upbeat. And they’re especially big fans of this band’s drummer, Sykes’ owner Mike McFarland.

“He’s just the cutest, sweetest thing,” Goad said. “Him and his wife are just fantastic. This is fantastic.”

Sykes’ has quietly grown its presence as a cozy home for live music since McFarland took over last fall. For years, there’s been country and accordion performances alternately on one night of each weekend here. McFarland, a long-time musician and member of the local band “Smart Alex,” decided to build on the tradition.

“I started calling in favors of all the different musicians I’ve known forever,” McFarland said, adding that he doesn’t pay much – just a little money and a free meal to sweeten the deal.

Still, Sykes’ is drawing talented musicians. From violinist Christian Johnson to bluegrass duo The Fosberys, they come out of respect for the establishment and its history, and to play for its people.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever played anywhere where I feel like people appreciate the music as much as they do here,” Judy Fosbery said, adding that it’s a different environment from the guest ranch where she and her husband Terry usually entertain tourists.

“Everyone’s really responded to it,” McFarland said. “They’re always asking me who’s going to be playing, and are pretty excited when it’s my band. I don’t know if it’s because they can’t believe I can sing or if they think we’re that good.”

Sykes’ is a landmark business. It got its beginning in 1905 when Ernest Kuster bought the property at the corner of Second Avenue and Second Street West from First National Bank. After a series of other owners, Doug Wise took over the market in 1945. He added the restaurant in 1976 and the pharmacy in 1981.

After 62 years of running the place, Doug, 91, and his wife Judy, 79, decided they wanted to retire and put Sykes’ up for sale, hoping they could find someone who would want to run it in the same manner.

Many people in the neighborhood, particularly the senior citizens living in housing complexes nearby, were alarmed at the prospect of losing what had become an unofficial senior center. They formed a “Save Sykes’ Committee” to preserve the 103-year-old business.

But after several months, no one had stepped forward with the money and interest to continue the businesses as they were.

McFarland was the Wises’ Realtor. When a possible deal fell through, he and his wife Mary stepped in. “It was something too important to lose,” he said, adding that the store’s patrons were skeptical of his real estate background at first.

The new owners, however, understand that changes at an institution like Sykes’ must happen slowly, if at all. From adding flowers to the table to adding a new restaurant manager, alterations have been made sparingly and with the store’s character in mind. Ten-cent coffee and an inexpensive, home-style menu remain.

If the crowds at Wednesday’s concerts are any indication, McFarland has won the skeptics over.

The tables are packed, and every head is turned toward the performers. The audience sings along and laughs – or groans – at the entertainer’s jokes. Everyone asked applauds McFarland for bringing new life into an old standby.

“Tell people they can come to Sykes’,” customer Arnold Laxton said, “and get something good to eat and enjoy better entertainment than any hour of TV.”

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