Thrill Of The Hunt: An Interview With American Pickers’ Mike Wolfe
Published on Thu, 06/26/2014 - 12:07pm
When talking with Mike Wolfe, co-star of The History Channel’s hit show American Pickers, you sometimes feel like you’re being pulled in two directions at once. Mike keeps the momentum moving forward by conveying thoughts and ideas in rapid-fire succession, painting word pictures quickly and with enthusiasm.
The opposite and equal reaction is that many of the fast-paced thoughts and ideas center around a slower, simpler time. The objects produced during this era have been the focus of Mike’s work for the past 25 years—no small accomplishment for a man with plenty of wiggle room left between now and his fiftieth birthday.
Mike took time away from his busy schedule planning season six of American Pickers, creating new shows, and heading up Antique Archeology’s second location in Nashville, Tenn. to chat about his TV show, his career, and his country home in nearby Leiper’s Fork..
AcreageLife: You’re originally an Iowa boy—can you tell us a little bit about growing up in the Midwest and how that affected who you are today?
Mike Wolfe: I grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa, which is one of the Quad Cities. I kinda grew up across the tracks. Alcoa (Aluminum Company) was right next to where I lived—they built the homes in our neighborhood back in the fifties for their employees. It was working class. My mom was a single mother, raising three kids and working at the Rock Island Arsenal. It had a small town atmosphere, but when you’re a kid, your world is very small—our neighborhood was our world.
Most of our readers will know you from your History Channel show, American Pickers. It’s a unique premise for a TV show. Did you expect this kind of response?
I thought the show would resonate with a lot of people just because throughout our lives we like to be told stories. The premise of the show—the format—is really just telling people’s stories and showing the relationships they have with their items.
You can connect that way with properties as well. When I was in Iowa, you’d get on a century farm where people had lived for generations. It was incredible to go onto those properties and see something that had been in a barn for 100 years or so in what I call its “natural” state: Not at a flea market, estate sale, or auction. That’s what’s driven me to be on the road for all these years and do what I do for a living—it’s like modern day treasure hunting.
You started off in the bicycle business. How did you go from owning and operating a chain of bike stores to picking for a living?
Bicycles have always been a passion for me. I was working as a sales representative in the bike industry. I called on a bike shop in Eldridge, Iowa, that went up for sale, so I bought it. Then, I opened a store in Davenport (Iowa), and I had a store in Rock Island, Ill.—we had three stores for a time.
When sales reps would walk into my store, they were fascinated because I had all of these old bikes hanging on the wall. I wanted people to take a journey.
I was always picking on the side—try to sell a bicycle in January in Iowa! Even when I was a sales rep, when I was traveling, I would drive by barns and always stop—always buying and selling.
For readers who might be unfamiliar with the term, what’s your definition of “picking?”
The term “picking” has been around for a long time, but the way I describe it is we’re out there every day, looking for stuff for the antique and decorator industries.
When you walk into your favorite antique shop and see all of these amazing things, probably 60 to 70 percent came from a picker. As far as running a retail business, most shop owners can’t get out often—they’re lucky to get to an auction once a week. So, they rely on pickers—guys with the same eyes, feel, and understanding of trends to help supply their store. Now, that’s changed because people like me who were filling stores up stopped once we started selling online.
The game changer was eBay. Guys that were supplying antique shops suddenly had a worldwide customer base. My dream—I think everybody’s dream—had always been to hit the road: The great American road trip. No clock, no boot on your neck, just go wherever you want.
So when eBay came out, I thought, “I can do that—what am I doing with a bricks and mortar store?” I was actually making more money online, anyway. That’s when I went from the store with tons of overhead to a cellphone, a cargo van, and a website. That was in 2001.
You jumped online early in the game.
Yeah, the money was falling pretty hard and I wanted to get out of
retail. It was such a grind—a struggle. I loved bicycles, but…
It’s weird coming back around full-circle to be in retail again with the two stores. I look at the people who work for me now here in Nashville, Tenn., and that store is so busy—it’s nuts. We were the second “go-to” location in this city behind the Grand Ole Opry last year. And we continue to be very blessed: We get about ten tour buses a day.
But what I look at is that the people who work for me and the grind. I thank them constantly and give them Christmas bonuses. If I pick something and they really fall in love with it, I’m like, “Take it—it’s yours.” I understand how important they are.
How did American Pickers come about?
Early on, I’d come home from two weeks on the East coast with a van full of stuff and my friends would ask, “Where’d you get this?” I would tell them the stories of the people, the items, and how I found them. And the reaction was always, “No way—are you serious?”
Cindy Sarver, my friend back home in LeClaire, said, “You’ve got to start documenting this.” I actually bought a camera and started filming myself. I’d put the camera on a tripod in the middle of a gravel road and started talking into the camera. [Laughs] It’s funny to look back on that, but I ended up with hours of tapes.
Frank (Fritz, American Pickers co-star) had a job at that time, but I was still filming some with him. Then, the essence of the show was created with help from friends here in Nashville. A lot of the people that I’d met that worked in the entertainment industry down here. They’d say, “Tell me about your project,” then offer up suggestions and help—like with editing. To be honest with you, I would not have this show without the love, support, and creative energy that this town has given me.
We are so blessed: We’re going into season six. For me to put my mind around that… When I signed my first deal with the network, it was for five seasons, and [I]that[I] was a pipe dream. Now, we’re going into season six in January and I’m just like, “Wow!”
If you had to choose, what’s your favorite pick? Do you have one that stands out?
Every time you find something that’s in its natural state and can talk to the person who owns it—hear the stories firsthand—it’s a cool experience no matter how big or small. But all of my epic picks have all been early American motorcycles. That’s what I love.
I bought a 1948 Indian Chief from a gentleman in Durant, Iowa, near the Quad Cities. I still own that bike. But most of my really epic picks that I did really well on were all on the East coast. The farther West people travelled, the less they brought. In fact, my favorite state to pick is Pennsylvania—half of my motorcycle collection came from there.
Is there anything that you couldn’t bear to sell?
Yeah, the first high-wheeled bicycle that I ever bought: an 1885 Victor. It was up in the rafters in a barn in Andalusia, Ill. I bought it probably 25 years ago and no matter how tight money has been since, I’ve never sold it.
Can you ride it?
Oh, yeah! I used to ride it quite a bit.
You grew up in the Quad Cities and the first Antique Archeology location is ten miles north in LeClaire. How did you end up in Leiper’s Fork, Tenn.?
My wife and I were on a motorcycle trip from Iowa to North Carolina. We stopped off in Nashville and met a guy who asked us if we wanted to go for a ride the following day. We said sure and he took us on this ride—our jaws were dropping the whole way. And we made a stop in Leiper’s Fork.
I started talking to the woman at the only antique shop in town, told her what I did, and she said, “I’m always buying.” So I was constantly coming through town and selling her things. Eventually she said, “Hey, you’re bringing me way too much stuff! Why don’t you set up at the Nashville flea market?”
Frank and I would come down and set up at the flea market here. And that marked a complete change in my business—my soul—as far as what I was doing. When you’re buying antiques, how many dressers can you buy? You get tired of it.
But at the Nashville flea market I was meeting all of these people that made movies, music videos, photography, decorators, designers… What I found was a collaboration, like, “I like this piece that you have, and this is what I’m gonna do with it…”
It made me think differently. I started doing some prop rentals down here and buying things with a different eye. I’d buy the rotted leather chair that an antique dealer wouldn’t touch because it could be used as a music video or photography prop.
My wife and I decided that if we ever retire [Laughs], we want to retire in Leiper’s Fork, Tenn. It’s just an incredible town; very creative people live here; and there’s such a mix of rockstars, movie stars, and locals. Everybody is the same here—nobody is treated differently. It’s just down-home.
Also, I’m here because of the people gave me their time who didn’t have to. They didn’t have to give me their ears, eyes, ideas, and creativity. But that’s the way this place is.
What’s your favorite part of your property? Can you tell us a little bit about it?
We have 33 acres—our driveway goes probably about a half mile to the house. There’s an old logging road on my property that goes through a couple of creeks. All of the creeks here run over slate—they’re incredibly beautiful.
Along the logging road, we’ve cleared out a section right next to a creek for a 1952 Airstream so we can have a little campsite. My wife, daughter, and I will get in our Polaris Ranger and drive down the logging road and we’ll stop and hike around the property. There are 10 acres of pasture, and then the rest of this property is woods. The guy that built this house 12 years ago literally cut down just enough trees to tuck in the house.
There’s the privacy factor, and when you get onto the property there’s such a calming effect. I spend eight months of the year on the road, so when I get home and drive up the driveway, it’s always so calming and peaceful.
We live—I guess people call this the Bible Belt. It’s a very spiritual area. With southern tradition, I think, it’s different than anywhere else in the country. People hold family history so close here. And they hold community close, too, which is what I long for when I miss Iowa. Like LeClaire, Leiper’s Fork is all about community, history, and involvement.
What has the show’s success done for you?
It’s led me to other things. I’m pitching new shows. I wrote a children’s book, Kid Pickers: How To Turn Junk Into Treasure with Lily Sprengelmeyer, a third-grade teacher in the Dubuque (Iowa) area. I’m doing an animated series with a company in Los Angeles for kids. It’s based on the Kid Pickers book—it’s like Scooby-Doo meets The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew—about mystery and discovery.
I’m pitching a movie, too: The Easy Rider Story about the motorcycle magazine and how it started. And I’m working for Indian Motorcycle now, which is crazy. I’ve been collecting Indians for 25 years, so for me to even be in the position where they’d want me to work for them is epic.
Have you had the opportunity to ride the new Indian motorcycles? What’s your take?
Oh, yeah! I was heavily involved with all of that. I did the commercials that Indian shot for The History Channel. The company has so much history and the bikes are incredible—they really are.
They see me as an enthusiast. On the show, we talk about Indian a lot. It’s an organic relationship—it’s real. It just made sense. Plus, the bikes are made in Spirit Lake, Iowa! I’ve been to the factory there. I’ve met the people who are making the bikes, and they are so proud—they understand the heritage.
I love bikes. I’ve got like eight motorcycles in my house—I’ve got a 1914 Harley sitting next to my bed!
Your living space in LeClaire, the bikes that you like—everything—is late-19th and early- to mid-20th Century. Why do you think you’re drawn to that era?
If you look at the creation of the bicycle, from its heyday in the 1890s, then look at the crossover and connection between bicycle and motorcycles—it’s huge. And those are the two things I love most in life.
Imagine standing on the corner at the turn of the century and suddenly seeing a guy ride by on a motorcycle. It would be like a man walking on the moon.