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.

 

 

 

 

56 Comments

56 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.

    1. Dave Ratliff

      Love, love, LOVE the show. My Dad was always an AMC Javelin lover and I’m watching S13 E9 right now and just learned that Hudson and Nash merged to make AMC. Thank you for such an excellent history lesson! I’m in tears because you have taught me something new about my Dad – who passed years ago. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU

  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,
    Chris.

  9. Sean Doyle

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

    Sean

    Wembley

    UK

  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 ★~(◠‿◕✿)

  14. Mark Adams

    I can’t remember why I started watching this uplifting show, but I can’t stop! My very favorite thing about Mike and Frank is the respect and compassion they show to their “picks”. Over and over again, they never take advantage of the person with less knowledge or information about the worth of an item and pay more than is asked on many occasions. It is honorable to treat people with this respect and value them and their belongings and leaves me with a great feeling. It is appreciated and valued by me. I am a fan just knowing that watching another episode will give me a warm and fuzzy feeling. Thanks guys.

  15. Pat Edlund

    Love the banter between Mike and Frank! One of the best shows this 80-year-old great-grandma watches faithfully including re-runs! Thanks so much!

  16. Ann

    I lived in rural CA and now the state is totally lost. The government is trying to drive people off their ranches and farms. It’s truly sad. These people are the salt of the earth who value the land and the people who built it. I love this show because they have the same values I do, even if I’m not a collector.

  17. Bob Musella

    Great entertainment and educational. Still don’t completely understand the full scope oof the partnership between Mike and Frank, and bewildered by the fear both men have for D. God bless and the very best to all involved and their families.

  18. franck

    I live in France and follow the TV show practiccaly from its start. This is a great story which reveals a little bit more of Mike and his journey … Life brings surprises, sometimes hard to face, sometimes pure gifts… but it is admirable to see what a good man with good motivation can achieve. Thank you also to have allowed non US fans like me to understand and see a bit more a part of US cuilture which usually does not travel further than US boarders… it is a beautiful country with beautiful stories .. you guys make it real with honesty and a big heart. My wife and I will come to visit one of the shop next year to swim a minute in that pick feeling! Merci!

  19. Roger Allen

    I get so involved in the show, with Mike and Frank, it is like reading a good book I feel like I am there with them, helping them pick! Danny , Rob and Dave are great, thanks for getting us away from the Rat Race going on around us, BEST SHOW ON TV, FROM NORTHEAST ALABAMA!

  20. Larry Harris

    AMERICAN PICKER’ MIKE WOLFE WANTS TO SAVE RURAL AMERICA Is a great story.I have been to both of his stores. I live in Rochester New York and have traveled to both stores. I’ve been a garbage picker since I was a little kid, before I knew there was a thing called picking.I think every young kid that wanted stuff and had a family that couldn’t afford to buy stuff picked garbage. Life has had a lot of lucky turns for me and I certainly make a comfortable living now. I still pick junk, go to garage sales, go to antique stores, and would rather go look through somebody’s old house and all their stuff then go see a movie downtown. I have all the books that have been published about Mike. I think it is time for A double biography book about Mike and Frank.A book that tells you about their life stories from birth to where they are today, and then tells the story of how they came together and how it is been being together all these years.

  21. Frank Anello

    I have watched your show religiously since the beginning. I am disabled due to 9/11 and spend way too much time in the house. Your show brings me great joy and comfort in so many ways. I have managed to get my son and son-in-law hooked also. We all look forward to each episode and the stories that you and Frank tell along the way. We all have a story to tell and we appreciate your fine work in helping us realize how great this country is due to small towns. I have moved to a small town and the people are so much nicer. We have an organization that is celebrating their 100th anniversary this year with a fabulous fireworks display and a hometown parade in September. Keep up the great work you, Frank and Danielle do all the time.
    Hope to meet you all some day.
    Frank

  22. Judy Gambrel

    This article is absolutely wonderful and so reflective of Mike and his wonderful commitment to history and people. I was fortunate to have him come picking in September 2009, the first month they were on the road and then he returned in April 2010 I was so honored to be featured on two episodes of the show ( White castle on the farm and one pony town) and share my love of history and commitment to my community. American Pickers has changed America for the better! Thank you

  23. Tammy Saracino

    I appreciate the history, people and how you guys uphold your integrity. For example, returning the car so the widow could ride with her husband photo, and paying forward to seller when profit is more than expected. Oh, how about donating to museums. Mike that’s how you got there!

    I thank you for putting your self out there and sharing your dreams. 😎
    Tammy Saracino

  24. David Howington

    Mike is an inspiration to so many American’s watching him dig American gold. I was born on a farm just out of a little town of Webster Springs, West Virginia in 1949. American Picker’s takes us all back to those little towns. Mike is absolutely correct, pay attention young people. My daughter got a great deal on a car online. She traveled over 600 miles to get it and has been driving it for three years.

  25. Susan Mew

    Loved watching the shows regarding the old Aerosmith van. My husband, John, had worked at a sawmill in Williamsburg MA with Mark Lehman, “back in the day”. John had ridden in the van on a few occasions, when Mark was simply using it as a mode of transportation.
    It was certainly fun to see it again- and nice to know it ended up in good hands! 💞

  26. Duane Currie

    Hi to all who pick,manage and travel and entertain the world. I too watch all your shows and reruns. Had I knew the joy of picking 40 years ago I would of followed your steps and done the same. I love the highway and traveling. I was brought up on a farm in northern Minnesota and moved to the twin cities and worked 35 years. I planned to move and get some land and pole barns to be a picker and sell cars and antiques . Which didn’t happen because I had good jobs and was content. I’m retired now and i do go to lots of estate sales and buy stuff even if I don’t need it and give it to friends. Who knows I might sell the house and move to to get the land and pole barn. Keep on picking it keeps you busy and it’s fun. Thank you for having the show, I love seeing the country and different states.

  27. Carol Morrison

    I love watching the Pickers. It is so interesting!! I wish my dad had been still alive when the show came on. He was kind of a “local” picker and had many items to show his love of the past. Those who I descended from had been in the Bartlesville area since before OK was a state. There are still a few people in the area that history is important to. But since the success of the town has gone downhill over the years, people who weren’t there early in the last century has come in and made changes, unfortunately there has been a lot of history destroyed, but some are still holding on to it. I am not sure how you locate places to pick, but you might check on that area. There are a lot of rural towns in that area. Tulsa is the closest “big” town. I no longer live there.

  28. Terry

    Such a great article! Our family loves American Pickers. I am fortunate to have family that lives across the river from the LeClaire shop and have enjoyed visiting it twice when I traveled from Oregon. (You picked in my town a few years ago!) Keep up the good work Mike and Frank!

  29. Lee Ann Dials

    We are faithful watchers and have been for years. My husband and i have a lot of fun guessing the value of the items and looking at all of the “rusty gold”. We enjoy the history lesson on each show. We also love the “family feeling” of the show and it’s obvious that the whole cast has deep feelings for one another. I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the Nashville store and got ANOTHER cute tank top (Hubby got me one for my BD a couple of years ago and I wear it proudly) as well as a few little things like Koosies, etc. My husband was very upset that I didn’t buy him anything and I was like “DOH……..WHAT WAS I THINKING????” I hope at some point in time to visit the Iowa store. KEEP ON PICKIN’!!!!!!!!

    1. Sarah Buckholtz Post Author

      haha we aren’t sure what you were thinking but you better make it up to him! Always makes us happy to hear stories like yours. Thanks for inviting us into your lives and keep on pickin!!

  30. Ronald Salemme

    Interesting article. I liked reading it because it shows the American dream is still there and can be attained by a man such as this who put in the dedication and effort to succeed in this the greatest country in history. I don’t watch as much as I used to, but I wish him continued success in his career and in his effort to save the great American past. I grew up in a small town with a large farm at the end of our street, and the rural character of that town are long gone; I wish someone such as he had had the foresight to save the character of this town rather than letting it be replaced by shopping malls and suburban clutter.

  31. Julie Tuttle

    My baby brother watched this show and was always telling me that I would like it. When he was diagnosed with cancer, I started to watch it with him. We watched for 3 years before he passed away. He was right, I love the show. Still watching it.

  32. Charlene Little

    My husband and I love your shows!! I’ve always thought, when driving through small towns, that it’s a shame how sometimes it seems as if they’re more like a “ghost” town. Brick buildings that are just standing empty because “Mom and Pop” had passed on with no one to take over or simply lost business to big box stores. We are a “throw away” society, but more and more people are finding ways to re-purpose and your show is proving that. If more people could open a store in their town selling re-purposed goods, our small towns would have a chance to start over. What we need are for towns to assist people who want to do just that.

  33. Tim Sawyer

    Great Show, Awesome article. We never miss an episode, and watch reruns often as well. Being somewhat of a picker myself and 53 years old come from the same generation as Mike and Frank. Traveled from Florida to Iowa a couple years ago with my 17 year old son to deliver a car to an old friend and made a point to stop in Nashville and LeClaire to visit both shops, they were the highlight of our journey. Keep on Picking and keep up the great work with the show. Sincerely, Tim

  34. Catherine Cave

    I look forward to Sundays and Monday’s to watch old and new episodes of “Pickers”! My mom was a product of the depression and never threw anything away…and I’ve inherited her love of old things. Almost to the point of hoarding, much to my husband’s dismay. As a kid I used to love to go to auctions in our small town of Madison, VA. Now I love to hunt for treasures in several local thrift stores. I volunteer at one of them because I love it so much! Always fun to find something buried deep in a box or bag of someone’s treasures and so thankful that they donated to us instead of taking to a dump to trash! I love Frank and Mike and American Pickers is my favorite show on TV by far! Keep up the great work guys!!

  35. Mollie Broussard

    My husband and I watch your show almost daily, Even the reruns. It’s not often on television that you get a good clean show to watch without filthy language and sex exploited. We know why you are here, Mike. Because God has a plan for you. You and Frank set high morals and good examples on how to live your life and how to treat other people. In the midst of all this, we can learn from your travels and picking adventures about rural America. Yes, we love our country and are true patriots as you are, too. Keep it up! We look forward to visiting both of your stores one day soon. Love y’all!

  36. Irene Knights

    Love watching American Pickers. Love the old stuff. Love the downhome feeling of the show. Live in Rochester, NY which is not a small town, but a small successful City. Wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Love the change of seasons too. Thanks Mike & Frank for waking America up to the important things in life. God Bless.

  37. Stephanie Harrison

    My husband and I have watched every show. I’m trying to talk him into showing Mike and Frank his goodies. Enjoy every show, keep up the good work.

  38. Jodi Harris

    Very nice article. My husband and I have visited both stores twice in the past 3 years on our mid Feb. road trips- leaving from central Wisconsin and venturing thru various states. We revolve our schedule around a large campground, so Feb. is our prime road traveling time.
    The last 2 years I have had the opportunity to renovate a beautiful 3 story Main Street building. I’ve gotten Many words of encouragement. However, I’ve also received the ‘ nothing will work in this town, so good luck’ attitude. I’m on my 2nd project, which is attached to the 1st building. It is one of the ugliest main st. buildings, but one of the oldest. I believe there may be an old large Indian poster preserved under siding on the major advertising side of the building. I hope to show this ‘historic’ little city, that it is worth saving this original brick building. The city was thriving at one time. The all- wheel drive (copy right with the word -four) was created/ invented in the great little community. The army vehicles were manufactured here and went overseas to help win WW1 ! It also has the oldest (I believe) fire apparatus manufacturing plant in the US. I would love for Mike & Frank to visit those places! They are creating a museum and may have items of interest for them.
    Thank you for recognizing small towns in America!

  39. Max

    I love your show, but I am interested in purchasing items I see you find, not mugs and apparel with your logo on them. If you want me to advertise for you send me a free shirt, I would wear it , but I won’t buy it.

  40. George Ward

    I am an avid fan of your show mainly because it shows real life people in small town and back roads America and reminds me how much we all have in common rather than what divides us. So as an Australian old guy travelling by car this last summer across from Seattle to Chicago I had to call by and collect something small and authentic from the shop to close the loop for me. My wife hadn’t heard of Le Claire and was suspicious of my motives in calling a stop for a couple of nights so close to our destination. But we both really enjoyed the people and the atmosphere there on the Mississippi as we did all across the great plains states. So as I sip my nightly glass here in one of the big cities of Oz I will feel that bit more connected to the folks of small town America with special thanks to Mike, Frank, Danielle and the team. Heres to protection and revival of all thats good in our collective heritage, wherever we are.

  41. Joan Mussa

    Thank you so much for all you do for rural America. I grew up in Blue Earth, Minnesota, have had the blessing to travel the world and now living in Seattle. But my heart is and always will be in small town America. I can’t fully convey the impact of what American Pickers and Two Lanes is doing to remind us what relationship is, what connection is, what history is and most importantly what truly matters in life. May your message continue to grow!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.