Mike Wolfe follows his flashlight past a 1923 Avery tractor and a row of rusty gasoline pumps crammed inside of a metal storage building in Parsons, Kan. Half-hidden in a corner is a 6-foot-tall “OPEN” sign with an arrow that lights up.
“Rick, what do you have to have for this?” Wolfe asks owner Rick Trotnic, 52, a collector of automotive artifacts and antique farm machinery.
Trotnic wants $600, but Wolfe offers $500. After some haggling, the two strike a deal for $525. Wolfe wriggles the giant arrow from its dusty resting place as he and co-star Frank Fritz score another purchase on the “American Pickers” television show.
Since the program premiered in 2010, Wolfe and Fritz, both 48, have scavenged America’s back roads in more than 40 states in search of “rusty gold.” That’s what they call the vintage bicycles, motorcycles, farm machinery, advertising signs and other historical gems they unearth from cluttered barns and sheds, junkyards and brush piles.
“People feel intimidated by the word ‘antique,’’’ says Wolfe, who lives with his wife, Jodi, and toddler daughter, Charlie, in Leiper’s Fork, Tenn. “This is blue-collar, digging in the dirt. We celebrate the imperfect— the sun-baked, rusty and dirty.”
Two weeks each month, he and Fritz hit the road to treasure hunt at arranged locations and to “freestyle pick,” stopping unannounced at places to forage for gems among the junk. Sometimes they strike rusty gold; sometimes they strike out.
“You go up to the door and it’s like going on a date,” says Fritz, of Davenport, Iowa. “You can tell in a few minutes if they’re going to like you.”
From vintage bicycles to TV fame
The popular show aired its 100th episode on the History Channel in July and has transformed Wolfe, Fritz and Danielle Colby, 37, into junk-hunting celebrities. Colby helps track down picking sites, researches the history and value of items found by Fritz and Wolfe, and negotiates sales.
The trio has known each other for years. Wolfe and Fritz are childhood friends, graduating in 1982 from Bettendorf (Iowa) High School. Colby and Wolfe met at a garage sale 14 years ago in nearby Le Claire.
“I was looking at a lamp and picked it up and put it down to see how much money I had,” Colby says. “Mike scooped it up behind me. He said, ‘The time to buy it is when you see it.’”
Though all three relish a bargain, Wolfe has been making a buck from his junk since he was 6. While walking to school one day, he found some bicycles tossed in the garbage and dragged them home. His mother turned over the garage for his inventory, and he’s been wheeling and dealing ever since.
His passion for vintage bicycles led to other castoff and hoarded treasures. Fascinated by the eccentric people he met and their stories, Wolfe began making home movies of his picking adventures. Fritz, a former fire and safety inspector and longtime antique motorcycle and toy collector, often joined him. It took Wolfe nearly five years to get a network interested in his TV show idea based on his junking adventures.
“Everybody’s looking for a deal, and we’re all yearning to treasure hunt and to discover,” Wolfe says. “That’s why the show has done so well.”
A heap of history
Tapping into the treasure hunter in everyone, “American Pickers” takes viewers behind the scenes and into the barn to meet packrats and collectors such as Trotnic, who grew up in the metal salvaging business.
At 12, Trotnic began collecting padlocks and marbles, then sold his marble collection in high school to buy a 1934 Harley-Davidson motorcycle. His collection today includes several hundred 1920s gasoline pumps and automotive advertising signs.
When Trotnic saw a notice in the “Parsons Sun” that “American Pickers” was seeking places to hunt, he sent information about his treasures.
“What I like about the show is they’re able to educate people that they shouldn’t be throwing this stuff away,” Trotnic says.
The episodes include blurbs about the historical significance of the objects the pickers find, which appeals to viewers.
“The things that were made in this country aren’t forgotten,” says Elias Orelup, 24, the show’s field producer. “Our audience loves to see that.”
During the all-day rummage through Trotnic’s sheds and warehouses, Fritz convinced him to part with an 8-pack of quart glass Shell Oil bottles for $475; an ornate metal lion’s face door knocker for $35; and a porcelain Ford sign for $450. Wolfe, meanwhile, talked Trotnic out of a $200 clock advertising KTOP radio in Topeka, Kan., and an early 1900s Harley-Davidson bicycle frame affixed to a wooden frame.
Walking out of the cluttered building, Wolfe glimpsed the contraption and stopped in his tracks. Trotnic explained that the resourceful owner had rigged a grinding stone to the antique bike frame so he could pedal it and sharpen tools.
“It’s crazy. It’s primitive,” Wolfe says. “I’d be honored to own it.” The honor cost him $500.
“Picks” from the show are for sale in Wolfe’s Antique Archaeology stores in Le Claire and Nashville, Tenn.; and at Frank Fritz Finds in Savanna, Ill. Colby owns a Chicago store, 4 Miles 2 Memphis, where she sells collectibles and original clothing designs.
Wolfe’s favorites are keepers, such as the legendary 1966 Von Dutch motorcycle created by artist Kenneth Howard from a rare Harley-Davidson XA frame and a Volkswagen engine.
Three or four times a week, “American Pickers’” fans Taylor Thornton, 60, and Jamison Gorrell, 62, visit Antique Archaeology in Nashville to browse the latest merchandise. Gorrell has bought items that were featured in past episodes, including a 1950s pinball machine and a 1905 slot machine that came from a Chicago speakeasy.
Thornton praises the pickers’ love of history, which is evident in the show and store, housed in the former Marathon Motor Works building where automobiles were manufactured in the early 1900s.
“It’s wonderful to come in and hear parents or grandparents telling the youngsters, ‘This is the kind of bike I used to ride when I was your age,’” Thornton says. “I overhear these conversations that connect generations.”
The family-friendly show is so popular with children that Wolfe created a “Kid Pickers” book and website featuring young collectors and offering tips for turning junk into treasure.
“You need curiosity and a sense of adventure,” Wolfe says about the qualities that define a good picker. “You have to be childlike. Everything is new and exciting. We’re all born that way and the lucky ones become pickers.”