Mike Wolfe of American Pickers is on a lifelong quest to preserve the items, places, and ways of living from forgotten decades.
STORY BY PATTI VERBANAS
This is a story about a storyteller.
Mike Wolfe is a keeper of oral histories about a way of life long gone as told through the things people save.
When you talk to Wolfe, it’s the people and places that spill out from him, story after story after story. Then he’ll talk about the pieces.
This is not a story about Wolfe’s History Channel show American Pickers, although that’s obviously a huge part of it. Wolfe and his passion for the past long predated the show, which launched in 2010, and his legacy of preservation will last long into the future.
The best way to begin a story about Wolfe is to first tell a story about William “Hyder” Kiser, an octogenarian Wolfe met who had been junking since he was a kid. In short, this is Wolfe’s kind of guy. Hyder stacked and double-triple-stacked his finds in sheds, box trailers, an old school bus, and other containers around his property in Virginia. “Where Hyder lived, there is no garbage service so people like him come to your house and pick up your junk,” Wolfe says. “For 30 years, he happened to pick up bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley’s garbage.”
As it turned out, Hyder’s whole place was filled with Stanley’s discards, including his Grammy Award Nominee medal, his mom’s banjo, and photos of his brother who no one had seen before. Knowing the significance, Hyder kept it. “Hyder was an incredible individual, just a simple, honest man,” Wolfe says. “You see these junk collectors and wonder how they can live with all this stuff piled up, but these are the guys who know more about local history than anyone else. However, they’re fading away. When these people die, it’s like a library burning down—all their knowledge is gone.”
Wolfe and his friend Frank Fritz purchased some of Hyder’s Stanley collectibles and donated them to the Ralph Stanley Museum in Hyder’s name. Because that’s the kind of guy Wolfe is: He gives a name to the otherwise anonymous champions of the past.
Like Hyder, Wolfe, 57, was born this way. With roots in Joliet, Illinois, and the oldest of three kids raised by a single mom, Wolfe began kindergarten at age four, which was the age he started picking. He’d walk to school alone, dodging bullies by ducking down alleyways. These alleys, as it turned out, were wonderlands filled with overflowing trash and open garages. He began collecting cool discards. “It was a treasure trove,” he says. “The things that I found became my friends, my toys that I loved.” When he sold a bike he found in the trash for five dollars—“a lot in 1968 for little kid who had nothing”—an idea sparked.
That idea burned brighter as Wolfe grew older and started exploring the countryside with Fritz, talking to people about the old items they loved and buying things that spoke to him. In 2000, he opened Antique Archaeology in LeClaire, Iowa, the Mississippi River town where he lived and still maintains a home. He opened a second location in Nashville in 2011, near his current home in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee.
Wolfe heard so many riveting stories during his travels that he bought a camera to preserve the oral history he encountered. “As I started showing people these tapes, a friend said, ‘This looks like a TV show,’” he recalls.
And so he started pitching the concept of an “American picker” to networks. It was not an easy sell, and there was a steep learning curve—“I didn’t know what a sizzle reel was,” he chuckles—but after five years, The History Channel bit. When the show debuted, it was readily apparent this was not Antiques Roadshow, filmed on a set where the value was the end game. “This show is my life. We were getting into the nitty-gritty of the digging. When I’d sell to antiques dealers, I would share the stories behind the pieces because I realize those can be more colorful than the items themselves,” Wolfe says. “The show is story-driven.”
American Pickers showed the nation that these stories and local history matters. Since filming began, Wolfe and Fritz have logged close to 350,000 miles in 48 states, spoken to more than 900 people, and encountered about 25,000 items. The show has been distributed in 200-plus territories, reaching an average of close to two million total viewers per episode. “Many could care less about antiques; they want to see us digging and how excited we get buying and selling things. They saw that we really do this for a living,” Wolfe says.
There have been three international format adaptations: Aussie Pickers, Irish Pickers, and Italian Pickers. “They’re telling their own history,” Wolfe says. “How cool is that?”
Part of the show’s success is due to the alchemy of the cast: Fritz—“we’re like Laurel and Hardy”—and Danielle Colby, who he met at a garage sale in LeClaire three decades ago. “The show was simple to make because we were doing what we normally did. It was a natural chemistry,” Wolfe says. “Danielle, Frank, and I are all the complete opposites but we work together really well because we understand the mission.”
Wolfe’s goal for the show is to explain to the public why the pieces he highlights are relevant and worth a certain price point. “These are examples of what our forefathers found important,” he says. “I want people to watch my show and reminisce and romanticize about the way things used to be, because if we don’t where are we as a country?”
Wolfe believes that pickers have the best part of the collecting journey. “We pull things from attics, chicken coops, basements, barns,” he says. “We experience pieces in their natural states. Talking to people who had these items for generations and buying the pieces is an honor.”
To get to those items, though, he often must encounter the building’s wild inhabitants. “The raccoons are scary and can get into the weirdest places, like a cupboard,” Wolfe says. “I can find myself cornering a growling animal I can’t see because everything is so piled up. I tell the camera crew I can’t go in there. We leave the door open and go to the next building and see if that thing—whatever it is—will leave.”
Wolfe thrives on the dirt, muck, and ick, that 140-degree-July-in-the-South attic, because it’s real. “I want people to see me dripping with sweat and my whole face covered with cobwebs,” he says. “I got a GoPro, and my cameraman is right in there with me. I want viewers to see me digging in the deepest part of a building down to the bottom of a pile because that is what you have to do to make a living doing this.”
And the rewards of the dig are great. By nature of where he lives along the Mississippi River, Wolfe often comes across pieces that celebrate outdoorsmen from long ago: guns, fishing gear, traps, taxidermied animals, clothes, artwork, and ephemera. “This whole region is an outdoor paradise. I see old hand-carved decoys, outboard motors, cedar-strip canoes, and advertising,” he says. “Yesterday, I bought a cool, rusty cabin neon sign that says ‘heated’ on the top. Think of that sign hanging out in the middle of nowhere as a beacon of light for anyone who traveled there to hunt or fish and found a heated rustic lodge to rest in. That sign conjures up so many stories.”
A prize possession he recently acquired is a circa-1905 handmade display cabinet from Fort Worth, Texas, that a retailer made to showcase three point-of-sale items: The front is spurs, the left is Winchester ammunition, and the right is barbed wire. “It’s the most incredible piece. It is directly connected to that time and area, when people were ranchers or cowboys,” Wolfe says. It sits pride-of-place on his dining room table.
Discovering a vintage American motorcycle, though, stops his heart. “From the turn of the century to 1915, there were over 150 different brands. The only way we know many of these motorcycles existed is from sales literature. So, when I find a bike or pieces, it’s like finding a major artifact,” he says. Wolfe has about nine motorcycles in his home, including a 1907 and 1928 Indian, 1911 Monarch, 1910 Greyhound, and a 1910 Harley-Davidson in his dining room.
Wolfe knows that every kid is a treasure hunter. He wrote Kid Pickers: How to Turn Junk Into Treasure to help foster that curiosity. These are values he instills in his daughter, Charlie, who collects vintage children’s cowboy boots. (“They are really colorful, ornate and detailed,” Wolfe says.)
He recounts one ah ha moment with Charlie: “I live in a small community without garbage pickup so we take our trash to a recycling center and sort it into dumpsters. Charlie says that’s her favorite place because she found comic books in the paper dumpster. Now, she goes straight to that dumpster and starts digging. Seeing that makes my heart explode. It is the coolest thing ever. She’s starting to feel what I feel.”
Such stories are indicative of how Wolfe moves about in this world. Although so much has changed for him since the show premiered, he still chooses to live in much the same way he always has. In fact, he is speaking to us from his home in LeClaire, which he says is exactly the same as when he left it a decade ago. “This is where I lived when I created the show. We all need that constant reminder about what is important.”
Hearing this, it’s not surprising that after 22 seasons, Wolfe has shifted the focus of American Pickers from people and items to place. He sees Main Street, USA, as an hourglass running out of sand, and he has a unique platform to breathe new life into small towns.
His latest initiative, Nashville’s Big Backyard, brings awareness to 100 miles of the scenic Natchez Trace Parkway that connects communities with populations under 5,000. He has also opened Two Lanes Guesthouse, a loft vacation rental above an 1857 bike shop in Columbia, Tennessee, which allows people to experience the small town like a local.
And as Wolfe educates people, the past continues to stay alive. “We are here to take care of each other,” he says. “We need to make sure these people and places are not forgotten.”
All new episodes of American Pickers air Mondays at 9 p.m. on The History Channel.