Published: January 17, 2017
Mike Wolfe proves there is nothing stuffy about antiques. As a star of History channel’s hit series American Pickers, the inveterate buyer puts 75,000 miles a year on his van, traveling the country with sidekick Frank Fritz in search of the weird and wonderful. When not on the road, Wolfe tends his shop Antique Archaeology, now with two locations; works to preserve historic architecture; and spends quality time with family in Iowa and Nashville, his home in recent years. Not since Walker Evans has one man better captured the faded glory of grass-roots America.
How did you fall in love with old stuff?
When I was a little kid we didn’t have a lot, but my mother encouraged me to explore and tried to make room on a shelf or in a corner for the treasures I brought home. I got to live surrounded by my first little picks and they fired my imagination. To this day, I can hear the stories buried in “old stuff.”
Best find ever?
You know, when people ask that, they usually want to know what I made the most money on. But for me, “best” is something different. My best pick was in Rock Island, Ill. I found paintings and original literature from the 1878-80 Schwatka Expedition, when Frederick Schwatka and his team made the longest trek in history through the Arctic in search of the remains of an ill-fated 1845 expedition. What I found were remnants of history that had been totally lost. To me, they were priceless. But I did sell them, for just $5,000, to the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, where they truly belong.
Weirdest road trip?
OK, if you’re squeamish, you may not want to know this, but for sure my weirdest trip took me to a collection of late Nineteenth/early Twentieth Century freak-show memorabilia. Did you ever hear about Marie O’Day? Back in the 1920s, she was murdered by her boyfriend, who threw her body into the Great Salt Lake. When they found her ten years later, she’d been mummified by the saltwater. They put her on tour. People used to stand in line for hours and pay 50 cents just to get inside the tent to see her. Well, there were a lot of these sideshow attractions and I happened upon this collection in North Carolina. I certainly didn’t want the pickled remains of anything, but I did buy the skeleton of a sea lion.
Are bikes your biggest passion?
My family is my biggest passion, but after them, yes, definitely bikes. My oldest motorcycle was built in 1902. My newest is a 1982 model. I collect bikes, bike parts, pictures of bikes, literature about bikes, bike jackets, anything I can find. I look for things every day.
My family and I have lived full-time in Nashville for about six years, and I love it there. But Iowa will always be home. I try to get there for at least a few days every month.
Favorite picker slang?
“Freestyle.” It reminds me of what I used to do. I’m grateful to be where I am and I appreciate all the advantages I have now. But before American Pickers, before people on the road recognized me, I could just head out, following leads and my own instincts, and see what I could see. That was freestylin’ and it was pure joy.
I’m working on a book about my travels and, of course, I’m always working on ideas for TV. But we’re starting our ninth season of American Pickers next year, and that’s 40 new hour-long shows, so you can imagine I’m pretty busy just with that. And of course I have preservation projects. I’m just about finished with a three-year restoration of an 1882 building in Nashville. I also just bought a gorgeous old place in Columbia, Tenn., built in 1857. Can’t wait to dig into this one. My Antique Archaeology retail and online business takes another kind of creativity – I want people to walk into the stores and be immersed in vintage treasures, and I want them to be able to read the blog attached to the online store and learn about people and places they never knew existed. It’s not just about selling stuff, it’s about creating a world and inviting you in. It takes time to keep it fresh, so that’s an ongoing effort. By far the most important thing I have in the works is Charlie Wolfe. She’s 5. Raising her is the most important project in my life.
Got a pick for Mike? Visit www.antiquearchaeology.com for details.
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