Mike Wolfe, American Pickers creator, is as interesting as the characters he picks on his hugely popular History Channel show. An estimated 5.5 million viewers tune in weekly to follow Mike and Frank Fritz travel the back roads of the country looking for rustic gold.
Born in Joliet, Illinois, his mother worked at Rock Island Arsenal. His parents divorced when he was two and she moved the family to Iowa when he was in the fourth grade. “Mom never got a dime from my dad,” he tells me. In addition to having raised three kids on her own, she is also a breast cancer survivor. Mike has come to realize that “every day you wake up is a good one.”
Mike is a very busy guy these days. He will be 48 this year and by the time this article hits the stands, he will have married his fiancée, Jodi Faeth. The two have dated for 18 years and they celebrated the birth of their first child, a little girl, in January.
The show is based at Antique Archaeology in Le Claire, Iowa. The business doubled in size this year with the opening of a new store in Nashville, Tennessee. Mike did his homework on deciding the location of the new place. Nashville has one million tourists a month, and the new storefront is on the tour bus line that also visits the Country Music Hall of Fame. They already had several clients down there over the last 10 years, including celebrities, prop rental companies, designers and decorators, and several antique shops. Mike was also thinking about his own desires when choosing a location: “It is the closest place you can drive from Iowa with a major climate change.” He bought and remodeled a house built in 1901 and it is located about a half hour south of Nashville in Leiper’s Fork. The small town is just off the Natchez Trace, a popular ride for motorcyclists.
The decorating of the new house is complete with three bikes in the dining room. His office is filled with a collection of small items, mostly related to motorcycles. You can find anything from frames to trophies to photos and clothing hanging on the walls. However, the place is not one big antique shop, as you might guess. Jodi collects pottery, advertising and older furniture, but there are lots of contemporary and modern furnishings, too. Mike likes the old, as well as the new items, provided they are practical.
The Iowa roots laid down from childhood remain intact. The Le Claire store will still be open and he is keeping his home there, too. With family living in Le Claire and his new life of being married with a child, he will have to travel between the two towns. “I don’t feel like I live anywhere with filming on the road,” he says. American Pickers is in its fourth year and Mike never dreamed it would be this big.
The idea for the show was pitched for years to several networks with all passing on the gold mine. His homemade video footage focused on the people and stories behind the finds. History Channel liked the concept, but tweaked it a little to showcase the finds as they related to history. One of the things that prove Mike right about his initial concept to showcase the people behind the finds comes from viewer responses. “People don’t remember what we bought from an individual, but they remember the seller,” Mike says with a laugh. They remember guys like “Hobo Jack” or “Mole Man.” The pair may buy 100 items from someone and only three of them make it on the show. People see the three items and wonder why they didn’t buy more. They did!
Mike’s picking partner is Frank Fritz, a local friend he’s known since the eighth grade. Frank is a hard worker and he always had a job. Mike convinced him to quit his day job of selling and maintaining fire-fighting equipment when he sold the show to History Channel. Frank now has his own antique business. The duo has been traveling together, each looking to buy things to re-sell in their stores, with an eye out for anything motorcycle related. Frank has been riding longer than Mike, but Mike rides more. He prefers long-distance riding and on American-made bikes. Frank favors the Japanese motorcycles, and any one of them in a chopper style is right up his alley. There are some American bikes in Frank’s collection, thanks to Mike selling him a ’41 Flathead Harley, a ’32 VL Harley and a ’46 Indian Chief.
When History Channel initially came to Iowa to film the show, they met Danielle, the shop manager, for the first time. Mike had just hired her to take over all the tasks he did at Antique Archaeology. From researching finds, getting appraisals, following leads and selling the merchandise, she handles it all. Mike and Frank are on the road buying and they need someone to man the fort back home. Mike had known Danielle for 15 years and says she is a great friend. He hired her because she has “the look.” She wasn’t someone you would expect to find selling antiques, but History Channel’s audience is 65 percent male, and a pretty face would be a drawing card for the show.
Antique Archaeology was actually started 25 years ago with the idea of finding old motorcycles and parts for guys like Dale Walksler, owner and curator of the Wheels Through Time Museum, and John Parham, owner of J&P Cycles and curator of the National Motorcycle Museum. These guys supplied the money to make the buys and the boys got 10 percent of the selling price. The job consisted of doing the homework, bird dogging, traveling and closing the deal. They soon realized the finder’s fee was not enough to pay the bills and thus began their purchases of old stuff they thought might be an easy sell back in Iowa. Online sales were also an option for those who couldn’t make it into the store. They built their collective knowledge of buying and selling. Mike is first to admit he is not an expert on everything he sees. “I don’t know a ton about Roseville pottery, but I know enough to buy Roseville pottery!” he exclaims.
Buying old motorcycles and related items is easy, but antiques can become boring. Mike likes to look at an item to recycle or re-purpose it. He explains, “See it through the eyes of a decorator.” You collaborate instead of just buying it. You can fill a van full of antiques from anywhere, but to find that one piece that becomes a focal point of someone’s room is the icing on the cake. That is what they seek out.
When discussing the best places to pick, Mike is quick to answer “the East Coast,” and the best state by far is Pennsylvania. There are so many small towns in that state and the barns out back of the residences hold the real treasures. The state is a manufacturing hub with several ports and railroads. “A lot of stuff came in and never left.” People there had good jobs and money to spend. When it comes to motorcycles, he has found a ’37 Flathead Harley with sidecar, ’50 Panhead Harley, 1909 Indian Twin and there are tons more to be found.
The popularity of the show is a double-edged sword. Prices have gone up, but leads are more plentiful. With 5,000 e-mails a week, there is so much to pick from. A ’53 Vincent from Milwaukee was picked from an e-mail, as was the ’37 Flathead Harley that had been sitting in a barn. Both sales would have never happened if the eyes of the world weren’t watching the show. And it is not just the bikes. The parts market continues to bring high prices. He sold an old camel-back Indian frame that he picked on the show to a guy in New Hampshire. Mike wishes now that he would have kept it, because he has a 1908 Indian motor and oil tank to go with it. A couple other frame picks were an Excelsior, a Harley JD and a 1914 Yale. The search is on for a Yale motor!
For Mike, one special thing about selling motorcycle parts is getting to see a piece of history come back to life. A rare Curtiss motor he bought from Hobo Jack was sold to a gentleman in California. The purchaser came across some wheels and gas tank and he is now having a frame and forks built. It will be a running motorcycle one day.
A truly great find came from a barn full of bikes, 10 total, just outside Philadelphia. Mike went to look at a 1912 Indian and was shocked when the owner opened another barn with the 10 bikes, all Indians. The best of the lot was a 1938 4-cylinder model. Mike bought the whole barn full. He also picked several Indian parts from another barn on the property. A 1913 Harley was located in a shed in Upstate New York and another Harley was found in a barn. That one was a 1911. A lead from a gentleman he picked in the past came in the form of an odd motorcycle find—a Von Dutch VW-powered bike known as the XAVW from 1966. The custom bike was built, painted and pinstriped by the man himself, and consisted of a 1942 Harley frame with a VW engine stuffed in it. The caller had spotted the bike at a yard sale, just sitting there in the barn. Having seen only one similar motorcycle in the ’70s in a biker rag, Mike rushed out and bought it. It was indeed the motorcycle from the magazine and currently not for sale. It is spending time on display inside the Iowa store.
Mike has about 35 bikes in his own collection. The list includes a ’53 Vincent Black Shadow, two BSA Rocket 3s, an Excelsior, a Triumph Bonneville and several Harleys and Indians. His favorite is a 1905 Indian that currently resides in the foyer of his home. Some of the bikes came from sales he had made in the past and wished he had never sold. The 1912 Excelsior belt-drive twin came from John Parham. Mike sold him the bike 10 years ago and his attachment was that it happens to be the first bike he picked on the East Coast.
The popularity of the show and Mike’s passion for old Indians recently brought Polaris knocking on his door. The company has purchased the Indian name and they signed Mike on as their spokesman for the next three years. The bikes will be built in Iowa at the Victory plant with 2013 heralding the beginning of the new line of bikes, including the Scout. Mike gets asked to do a lot of stuff and he always passes on the offers. The chance to work with Indian, though, was, as he says, “A dream come true. It is near and dear to my heart,” as he has been collecting them for 25 years and they are a major part of his life. It is a product he can stand behind, because they have a history. With the Polaris engineers and designers, they will put Indian back on the map, as it should be. After all, Indian was the first American manufacturer in 1901, with Harley-Davidson following in 1903.
Another venture Mike undertook is called Kid Pickers. He created a venue for kids where they can be pickers, too. A book is coming out in the spring of 2013 that teaches kids to find things and learn about them though family and community history. “Schools teach World History, but not what happened in the kids’ own backyard,” he says. They gain pride in their community by the history behind the things they find. Kids are natural pickers and treasure hunters. They want to discover. Kidpickers.com is a social website for children to go to and connect with each other over their finds.
Like the opening dialog on American Pickers states, “They travel the back roads of the country looking to buy rustic gold. They make a living telling the history of America, one piece at a time.” Pick on, Mike Wolfe; pick on!