Previously published on the Des Moines Register May 16, 2019, , Des Moines Register

LeCLAIRE, Ia. — “Why am I here?”

That’s Mike Wolfe’s opening salvo at every farm, corn crib, attic and cellar he visits to sift through junk looking for gems on “American Pickers,” the mega-hit reality show he created and still stars on.

But recently, he’s been asking himself that same question: “Why am I here?”

Sometimes, he means it plainly — with his schedule of two weeks filming on the road for every two weeks at home, he jokes he can forget exactly what he’s doing sometimes — but often, it’s existential.

How did a kid from a single-parent household in Davenport, Iowa, who barely graduated high school become a millionaire and a celebrity in antique circles? Where did a listless 20-something carrying around a camera to film himself asking about other people’s trash get the gumption to believe this could be a TV show?

And what about him keeps viewers tuning in after a decade of “Pickers”?

In all that first-person thought, the answer resides decidedly in the third-person. The show has little to do with him or even with the “picks,” as fans call the objects he buys. All that, he says, waving a hand like he’s swatting a fly, is window dressing.

The essence of “Pickers” comes in the answer to his question: “Why am I here?”

“Every object has a story,” he says, holding eye contact. “And that story is reflective of a family, or of a place, or of a time, or of a moment. So it’s a show about all of us. It’s reflective of all of us.”

It’s also a show about transitions — whether people are dealing with major changes in health, family makeup, finances or even the death of a loved one, Wolfe’s job is to bring positivity and a moment of celebration within that tragedy.

He’s up to the task, but when you have hours and hours on two-lane highways to think about the weight of all of it, it gets, well, heavy.

And it gets him to thinking about his own transitions; his own answer to the question he will toss out to 45-episodes’ worth of farmers, collectors and hoarders when the new season of “American Pickers” premieres Monday: “Why am I here?”

In his case, the more specific question is: When you have achieved personal and professional success with a show that dominates ratings and has the shelf-life of a Twinkie, what else do you do? And when you love physical history and rural life in a world that prefers images and ideas carried on fiber optic cables and places where takeout is dinner more often than home cooking, how do you keep the past alive?

Walking the streets of his hometown, stopping in his packed store, Antique Archaeology, and munching tacos at his friend’s Mississippi riverfront Mexican joint, he attempted to work those questions out.

“I’m a storyteller, so is it my responsibility to tell that story?” he asks. “I think it is, like, it is big time. (And) the show is at the point now where it’s, like, I want to talk about these things that matter.”


Third from the bottom

If you think about life as a road trip — an apt way to describe Mike’s experience, given his time traveling on them — Wolfe knew the route from here to there wasn’t going to be smooth, brightly lit highways. From his earliest memories, he understood that his road to success would require him to machete through the overgrowth, lay his own gravel and bring enough provisions to make it through the trip.

As a thin, lanky, poor kid in Joliet, Illinois, and then LeClaire, Wolfe said he was mercilessly picked on, getting jumped to and from school and having milk poured on him in the cafeteria.

In a real-life version of Frogger, Wolfe, now 54, avoided bullies by cutting through yards and alleys to get to school.

“The alleys were safe places for me, and that’s where the garbage was, too,” Wolfe says. “And so the garbage became my toys and they became part of my imagination and they became part of who I was.”

Along the way, he made friends with the old men whose garages overflowed with rusty junk, spending hours chatting with them about bygone days. (On that front, not much has changed, he offers.)

“This old man gave me a cigar box and that was, like, everything to me, you know, because of the colors and the way it smelled and the fact he gave it to me,” Wolfe says.

In school, Wolfe couldn’t focus. He’d read textbook pages over and over as though he was interpreting an alien language. But anything he could get his hands on — autos, woodshop — that clicked.

Massive collection of 110 vintage muscle cars revealed in southwestern Iowa ahead of the auction

‘American Pickers’ comes back to Iowa in search of rusty gold

After graduating third from the bottom of his class — a great memoir title, he says — he bummed around some community colleges in the Midwest, taking a few years to realize that his success wouldn’t be tied to a degree.

He worked in a warehouse building bikes in his early 20s before being promoted to the sales floor. His garbage collecting became “picking,” and he kept it up because, he says, “it’s hard to sell a bicycle in January in Iowa.”

Before the internet, he picked in the only way he knew how — by knocking on farm doors. He’d spend hours talking to the owner and, sometimes, come away with nothing.

His life was so weird to his friends, and the stories he told were so revelatory, nearly everyone around him would say, “Wow, you should be on a TV show.”

After hearing it enough times, Wolfe decided they might be on to something.






18 thoughts on “American Picker’ Mike Wolfe wants to save rural America”

  1. Gary Truman

    Love the show, and everyone, and everything about it.
    Been to the store in Le Claire. The Des Moines Register is one of the best newspapers/news organizations in the World.

  2. Barbara Jones

    I can’t tell you how much this series means to us. In a world of throwing everything away, Mike and Frank are teaching us to value craftsmanship and the way to re-use the things around us. The USA is lucky that people have space to keep/hoard things .. whereas in the UK we have smaller homes and have suffered from Ikea and Primark persuading young people to throw things away and buy new. I have been an artist and designer, working in design education and I used old “treasures” to inspire students. Now retired, vintage “truffling” is my life too.

  3. Colin Kain-Duncan

    What a team you have Mike & Frank, you guys deliver great tv and some , love the show and continue to watch the repeats daily. I love collecting art, silver & gold coins and rare music memorabilia. I get the addiction or should we say the enjoyment of collecting, long may you continue.

    Best wishes, or as the Celtic Football supporters say. Hail Hail

  4. Michael Lane

    Living in an area near small rural communities I applaud you for trying to keep these towns in the spotlight we can’t just let them die out. Thank-you.

  5. Janet Rice Smith

    Great story! I’ve enjoyed watching the show evolve over the past decade to become the thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening program it is today. It’s similar to that one teacher that was able to make learning fun. Mike, Frank And Dani have done just that, providing viewers a historical education in Americana.

  6. Tim

    I love the show and appreciate what he is doing to remind folks about the great stories all around us and particularly in the out of the way small towns.

  7. Yvonne McDonald

    Wonderfully written. I like your success,it’s wonderful. Liked seeing you around LeClaire, East,Village.
    Famous Mike, still a hometown boy! (With a big smile)

  8. Chris Shaw

    I live in the UK, and caught one of Mike and Frank’s shows one day by accident, flipping through channels. I was hooked right away, and I’m working my way through all the episodes I can find gradually. I LOVE how the guys work together, and with Danielle, Robby, and others, to make this show what it is,… ABSOLUTE GOLD! Mike is such a genuinely sincere person, and makes everyone he comes across WANT their story to be told, and their history shared and preserved.
    Keep it going guys, I love the way you tell these stories, thank you.
    Best regards,

  9. Sean Doyle

    Watched the show from the beginning. Got my sky box set to record so I never miss an episode.




  10. Pam Ramsey

    My wish would be more people would love to save America…I enjoy the show for many reasons. So much so, we took a road trip to the Iowa store last year. It was on my Bucket List. We live in a suburb of Chicago, know Joliet well. I enjoyed the store, the town and other interests in the area. I wish I could have seen you or others…impossible dream. At least I have dreams, a dream will never come true if you don’t have one.

  11. bob

    sent a package to Frank in Iowa with a couple of bottles of pop with KISS Labels since he is a big fan of the band and thought he would get a kick out of it but for some reason a person there refused to accept it so it was returned to ups store.Don’t mind spending the cost of the pop or the shipping but a note explaining the refusal would have been nice. Just a long time fan of the show.

    1. Sarah Buckholtz Post Author

      Thank you for your thoughtful gift! (You are right– Frankie is a HUGE KISS fan!) Unfortunately, as it says on our website we are unable to accept unsolicited packages. We’ve had issues arise and can no longer take that risk. However, Frank does have his own shop in Savannah, Illinois called Frank Fritz Finds. You’re welcome to look into shipping options there!

  12. Judy Brown

    I love this article, and all that Mike represents! And I wholeheartedly support his mission of saving rural America – what a wonderful legacy to pursue. You go Mike! (and we’ll watch from afar!)

    Judy & Mike

  13. Gert Klimanschewski

    Great show & great ladies and guys….
    It’s so awesome to cross the USA on the trails of ‘rummage’ and antique artworks. So much interesting people and a great history knowledge are coming to my home while I watch American Pickers ★~(◠‿◕✿)

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