Tag Archives: american pickers

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Catie Curtis’s most unforgettable childhood memory was exploring the Saco, Maine dump with her father, Phil Curtis, during the 1970s. To anyone else, this sounds more like punishment than paradise, but from her perspective, it was the greatest treasure hunt ever.

Show of hands: How many other picker-raised children are out there?

“We’d take regular trips to the town dump not because we were poor, but because dad appreciated the value of things and encouraged us to do the same,” says Catie. “He created the most magical childhood for our family, using discarded junk and its unique history as his props. Dad hated seeing things that have a certain charm, personality, or history thrown away.” (Reminds us of the story of how Mike used to dig in the trash as a kid.) 

Nothing about that remembrance has changed for Phil, now 79. Seven days a week you can find him in his flannel and jeans, cruising around town, headed to an auction or a sale, looking for something that captures his attention. It could be anything from a piece of art to a gym floor (and we’ll get that in just a minute). His salvage reputation put him on the fast track to being the local catch-all of the town, and it became common knowledge in Saco that whatever you needed, you could find it in Phil’s place.

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Phil would never have guessed that Catie would grow up to be a musician and that her best-known and most-loved song, Dad’s Yard, would be inspired by those childhood adventures in the town dump and her treasure hunting days sifting through piles in her father’s backyard.

The first time she ever performed Dad’s Yard was at Phil’s retirement party after more than 30 years as a high school math teacher. Needless to say, the entire room connected to the song because they too knew the humor and truth behind its lyrics.

“I remember so clearly singing it at the party,” says Catie, “and the way I felt looking at him after all those years spent spelunking through history with him. That song was the beginning of my career. I’ve toured for 35 years and Dad’s Yard is still the most requested song. I know people connect with it so strongly because they’ll come up to me and say how the song reminds them of their father, husband, even themselves. It hits a chord with people.”

“I remember sitting there with tears of humor and honor,” says Phil. “I guess I do have more apple ladders and antique hardware than the average guy.”

Ask Phil how he became a picker and he’ll tell you that while he was always a curious child, his appreciation for “junk” came shortly after marrying his college sweetheart, Catharine.

“When we bought our first apartment, the only thing we could afford to decorate it with was antique furniture,” he recounts. “During that time, I met a few collectors who taught me to appreciate the dovetailing and the marks under the drawers. I began thinking about all the other ways we could furnish a home for ourselves through salvaged and unique pieces and from then on, I was hooked for life. Bless my wife– she never fought me on it during the 56 years we had together.”

Over the years Phil built a reputation in the community for being able to match the person with the pick. His collection is well stocked with pieces that have a story.  All you gotta do is take a walk through his backyard and his barn and then take a few minutes to tell him yours.

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And speaking of barns, even his barn was a pick!  Found in Woodstock, Maine, it belonged to a casket manufacturer who was about to level it. Phil rescued the barn and transferred it piece by piece 70 miles south to Saco where it now lives in his backyard, filled to the gills with treasures.

Inside are two floors of just about anything you can think up. During Phil’s early days as a high school baseball coach, the switch from wood to metal bats began.  Drawn to the old equipment by their nostalgic value, Phil collected and held on to a lot of those wooden ones made locally by the R.G. Johnson Company. You can also find a selection of chairs suspended from the ceiling, dusty books, vintage tools, oil cans, salvaged architectural material and much more.

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Speaking of salvaged material…let’s talk about that gym floor we mentioned earlier.

Phil had pulled out an old section of the gym floor from the Thornton Academy High School (where he taught and later retired from). He stored it for years thinking it would have a purpose someday, and it definitely did.

“It’s now our bathroom floor,” boasts Phil. “Pretty proud of the free throw line placement in front of the toilet if I may say so.”

The Academy provided that pick but was also the recipient of Phil’s largesse. Once while on a pick, he found two dump trucks’ worth of beveled glass from a business that went under.  He donated the glass to the school where it was used to build trophy case shelves.

“There’s a certain serendipity that occurs with picking,” explains Phil. “You don’t ask to find anything in particular, things just have a divine way of finding you.”

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“The main connection I think people have with the song, is the way Dad doesn’t want give up on an object finding a home or helping his community,” says Catie. “There isn’t a single piece on the property that he couldn’t tell you the story of, and he lives to educate others on where everything came from, its use, and how you can use it today.”

Such goes the true mission of the American picker. Who else grew up with a picker parent? Tell us about them in the comments below.

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“And that’s the fun of it, it’s that mystery
In all these things bearing other people’s history
You can look at this stuff, wonder where it’s been
You can pick it up and you can use it again”
— Catie Curtis lyrics from Dad’s Yard

 

Photos by Ted Hess-Mahan

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Remember how much fun we had playing in treehouses as kids? In our minds, a treehouse was more than just a clubhouse or an escape from a room shared with an annoying sibling. It was our own little hideout where we could create our own world and play how we wanted.

As grown-ups, it’s tough to live without those magical places we had as children. That stops today!

We’ve put together a group of treehouses that will transport you back to that feeling of wonder, and, like us, these treehouses have grown up. Some are rustic escapes to an off-the-grid experience, while others offer luxuries like running water, a spiral staircase, a master suite and a sauna!

Get an eye-level view of the beautiful colors of fall from a whole new perspective, or at least one you haven’t had in a while… here are six of our favorite treehouses, located all around the country, and all available to rent at as little as $95 a night!

 

Treehouse in the Shire — $95 per night

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Location: Conway, New Hampshire

The Tree: There’s no better place to observe the colors of fall than in New England, or, more specifically, from this treehouse in New Hampshire. The Shire is a cozy escape resting on 200+ acres and should only be reserved by folks looking to truly disconnect. (We’re talking zero wifi, electric, or running water.) Never taken a bucket bath before? You won’t be able to say that after your stay! Town is only 20 minutes away in case you need extra batteries or another bag of mallows. Don’t forget to bring your bike because the Kangamaguas Highway, the quietest stretch of road in New England, is right down the road!

Pet Friendly: Yes.

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The Stump House —  $100 per night

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Location:  Seder- Woolley, Washington

The Tree: This yurt-style treehouse looks like it grew out of the old stump it lives on! Overlooking a peaceful pond in the Washington woods, The Stump House is a quiet retreat with your basic amenities: running water, electricity, and — we’re not making this up — a sauna. Cook your meals in the seasonal outdoor kitchen and enjoy a nice outdoor shower after exploring the 9-acre property.Fill up a cooler and get out here!

Pet Friendly: No.

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Whispering Wind Treehouse — $179 per night

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Location: Argyle, New York

The Tree: The most appealing part of this treehouse is that while you rest your head on a full-sized mattress in the loft, you can look up through the clear roof and feel totally connected with the nature around you. The treehouse is full of salvaged windows which perfectly frame the changing leaves outside. You’re sure to feel like you’re in a nest! Now that we’ve hooked you, you should know that this treehouse is totally off-the-grid, no electricity, and no wifi. Completely worth it.

Pet Friendly: No.

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Trillium Treehouse —  $195 per night  

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Location: Linden, Virginia

The Tree: Can’t you see yourself reading a book or enjoying coffee on that balcony? Perch in this tree, and you’ll have more than 200 acres of wilderness to explore as well as access to the Appalachian Trail, Shenandoah Park, and a few wineries. After a long day of exploring, enjoy a spring-fed shower out back. There are battery-operated lights throughout and a gas stove for cooking your favorite camping meal. This treehouse also comes with its own four-legged welcome committee: three Anatolian Shepherd dogs! Sign us up!

Pet Friendly: No.

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Montana Treehouse Retreat— $250 per night

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Location: Columbia Falls, Montana

The Tree: You will by no means being “roughing it” here. Nestled on seven acres of private woods, this double-decker, 500 sq feet treehouse includes two custom Douglas fir spiral staircases, a full kitchen, and a master suite. This treetop canopy castle rests at the gateway of Glacier National Park, is minutes from the slopes of Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort, and close to the no-power town of Polebridge. Utopia in the trees…

Pet Friendly: Yes.

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Treehouse Retreat Bolt Farm— $265 per night

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Location: Walhalla, South Carolina

The Tree: What’s better than one treehouse? TWO. Decked out with a fireplace, chandeliers and antique furnishings, it also has access to a 40-acre farm. This luxury treehouse has romantic accents throughout and was designed by Seth Bolt of the band Needtobreathe, who grew up on the farm. They grow seasonal vegetables that are 100% organic. For $50 a person they’ll even deliver dinner to your tree! The ultimate honeymoon in a tree.

Pet Friendly: No.

Make a Reservation

Who else is ready to retreat to the trees? If you have treehouse experience, we’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

 

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Filming American Pickers keeps Mike pretty busy these days, but it’s collaborating with guys like Timothy and AC that allow him to still share his passion for bicycles and old buildings. 

It’s a cold, rainy Tuesday morning in Columbia, Tennessee, about 40 minutes south of Nashville, as three bike shop owners — Mike Wolfe, Timothy Wakefield, and AC Howell — walk into the Trek Bicycle Shop on Main Street in the town square. This isn’t the first time the three have met, but it’s the confluence of three generations and 160 years of bike shop ownership and love.

Columbia, with a population of fewer than 38,000, is a town Mike has long admired for its historic Main Street and preserved buildings, particularly the 1857 brick two-story they’re about to walk into.

It’s a bicycle shop now, but it originally housed different wheels, operating as a wagon and plow business, still advertised by the gigantic faded painting on the huge brick wall outside. In 1973, while working at the local military academy, AC bought the building and opened The Wheel, the first bike shop in Columbia. He ran it as a hobby and side business and over the last 45 years it’s become a community treasure. Now it’s the thread that ties AC to Mike and Timothy.

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The first thing to understand is that AC began his bicycle business at a pivotal time in Columbia’s commercial history.

HOW AC STARTED THE WHEEL

“Everyone was leaving the square and taking their businesses to the mall,” says AC. “I was the chairman of the historical zoning commission here in Columbia, so it was my job to maintain the integrity of any downtown restoration projects in order to preserve our local gems. As long as I had something to do with it, I wasn’t going to give up on this building or the community because what existed and still exists here is one-of-a-kind.”

From offering payment plans to customers who needed bikes repaired so they could get to their jobs to hiring local boys in need of work, AC was integral to keeping Columbia moving along on two wheels.

Interior of Original Building from 1857
Interior of Original Building from 1857

“Many of the boys stayed with me until they went off to college,” says AC. “Now they walk in as dads with their own kids to pick out a bike. Even the head of the Columbia Water Department started working in my shop when he was a young man!”

AC still continued to give back to the community. Each year at Christmas, he would donate 30 or 40 used bikes to the local church group that cleaned them up, put bows on them and delivered them to folks who could use them. His generosity helped provide transportation and enjoyment to people in town who otherwise may never have had a bike.

By 2016, AC was ready to retire but unsure what that would mean for the shop that had become so much a part of the town. It was an opportune moment for Mike — the historian, preservationist, and bike enthusiast — a chance to become part of the active Main Street of the small town he had long admired.

HANDING OFF THE BUSINESS

“One day Mike wandered into the shop and asked me if I was really interested in selling the building,” says AC. “At that point, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to sell or not, but eventually I told him I would sell it on one condition: the bike shop had to stay.”

After kicking the idea around for a year, Mike called AC and the deal was made.

“I had been in the bike business since 1988,” says Mike. “I eventually opened a bike shop in an 1860s building in the historic district of Davenport, Iowa. Even after I closed that shop in 2000, I never lost my passion for bikes. To this day, I can’t walk past a shop without stopping, which is how I met AC. Learning the history of his building and the legacy of his business made me eager to be part of its story.”

Timothy Standing Inside Original Bicycle Shop
Timothy Standing Inside Original Bicycle Shop

Soon after the handshake deal with AC was concluded, Mike got to work on renovations and meeting with Trek bike reps. It was about then that Mike realized his eyes may have been bigger than his stomach.

“I was ready to go waist deep into this, ” explains Mike. “But after laying out all my projects and budgeting my time between LeClaire, Nashville, filming American Pickers, and my family, I quickly realized I couldn’t give the proper attention to the bike shop. During a meeting with a Trek rep, I asked if they knew anyone who’d want to run the shop. It was really important for me to find the right person to take over for AC. That’s when they sent me Tim and his wife from Alabama. He instantly fell in love with Columbia, and I trusted his experience and passion to successfully steer AC’s legacy in the right direction.”

How does AC feel about how everything turned out?

Interior of Renovated Trek Bicycle Shop
Interior of Renovated Trek Bicycle Shop

“Timothy knows what’s he’s doing. The only advice I passed on to him when he opened was to be sure to take care of the customers. That was the way I operated and it always served me well.”

As it stands now, AC sold the building to Mike, and the bike business to Timothy. They are now three generations of bicycle passion existing in one historic building.

WHY COLUMBIA?

Timothy and his wife manage three bike shops.  The other two are in Alabama and were both built from scratch. When they became the new owners of The Wheel (now called Trek Bicycle Shop), they were excited about the beautiful historic building that houses their new business.

“My wife is an interior designer so you can picture the glee on her face when we first walked into the large mid-1800s building with tall windows, tin ceilings, and aged wooden floors,” says Timothy.

Interior of TreK Bicycle Shop
Interior of TreK Bicycle Shop

While their two Alabama shops were busy servicing college students’ bikes as well as the bicycle needs of a city of more than 100,000 people, they were up for the challenge of impressing a small town that grew up with AC.

“This location was special because people had been coming to The Wheel for more than 40 years,” says Tim. “There was certainly a reputation to live up to. I’ve had so many returning customers walk in and share stories with me of how they got their first bike here with AC. We’re looking forward to creating lasting memories like that with the community for years to come.”

REINVENTING THE WHEEL 

Inside the 160-year-old building, Tim is selling state-of-the-art bikes and accessories from Trek, a one-family lineage business out of Wisconsin that makes more bikes in America than any other bike retailer in the country. The family business itself is almost as old as The Wheel!

The town’s reliance on bikes for daily transportation may have altered since the 1970s, but what’s unchanged is the fact that the town’s kids are still learning a trade at the shop. Currently, Timothy has five young people under his wing, learning bike maintenance and customer service.

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Timothy Checking Out the Progress with Ben Black of Rafter B Construction

“A common occurrence is having customers who purchased parts online come in for help installing them,” says Timothy.

“That’s how I met my wife!” interjects Mike. “Jodi came into my shop looking for help installing her pedals!”

“You see?” says Timothy. “Now Mike could’ve shunned her away because she didn’t buy those pedals from him.  You have to embrace it instead, because the end result is to get folks to walk in the door, like your future wife! Proof that you shouldn’t go to bars to meet someone, you should go hangout your local bike shop instead!

Timothy and His Family
Timothy, his wife Katie, and their daughter Ruthie

Trek Bicycle Shop will work on any bike you bring in because the end goal is to keep people riding them.

“This is more than a retail business, it’s a trade,” explains Mike. “Like a butcher, baker, tailor, people who specialize in what they do, so does a bike shop owner. With any trade nowadays, navigating social media and online sales it can be difficult to capture someones attention. Trek is great shop because you can come over and physically touch a bike you’re interested in. That might sound weird, but imagine everything you buy online that you can’t do that with. This is a major purchase for people. It’s a lifestyle”

Being a small business, Timothy understands the importance small town living. That’s why he actively holds community events to support other small businesses.  Like partnering with Muletown, the local coffee house, for a Coffee Cruise every Saturday. It’s a family-friendly 30-minute bike ride along the riverwalk and that ends with coffee and breakfast at Muletown.

Muletown Coffee Cruise
Muletown Coffee Cruise

“There are little girls on tricycles, high schoolers on mountain bikes, and their parents. It’s awesome to see a parade of bike-riding onto Main Street and through the square,” explains Timothy.

“We want to let everyone know that it doesn’t matter how nice your bike is, how many miles you ride a day, or even if you haven’t been on a bike since Bush was in office. We just want to help folks get out and ride!” says Timothy.

As a way to serve tourists and even the people who may not be interested in buying a bike, Timothy and his local crew offer rentals at the shop. They’ll hook you up with the proper gear and transport your bikes to the best place in town to ride, the Chickasaw Trace.

HOW TO RENT A BIKE

People come from all over the state to explore the Trace.  What’s better, it’s only a 10-minute ride from the shop.  And there’s no better time to be on two wheels than autumn – with leaves crunching under your tires and brisk air in your face.

Located on 300 acres, the Trace offers 8.5 miles of mountain bike trails suitable for all ages and skill levels. Weave around giant cedar trees and along the Duck River and Knob Creek tributary. Bring the dogs and the family and enjoy a well-deserved picnic along the bank after your ride . . . maybe even a refreshing dip in the river if the spirits moves you.

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Unloading Bikes At Chickasaw Trace

There are trails to explore and rivers to race in Columbia, Tennessee. Experience it all while holding on to the handlebars of an American made bike from Trek Bicycle Shop.

“Your first sense of independence is on a bicycle. I truly believe that. I see it with my daughter as she learns how her bike is capable of taking her anywhere. That’s your independence, so I don’t think the love of bikes will ever go away completely.” – Mike Wolfe

Photography by Meghan Aileen

 

Inspired by the hand-painted window signs of America’s Main Streets and 20% OFF while supplies lasts! 

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Front gate of Forest Gully Farms
Front gate of Forest Gully Farms

A tasty Tennessee hideaway where you can hang your hat when you hop off the Two Lanes.

Fly Hollow Road is incredibly narrow as it cuts through a two-mile stretch of Tennessee back country about an hour south of Nashville. It’s just wide enough for a car to squeak through the thick cedar and oak trees, but if you make your way through, you’ll find yourself at a field gate with a wood sign which reads “Appointment Only” and just inside and at the end of a dirt road is a giant metal bell. If you’re a Two Lanes traveler who made reservations, give it a ring and soon you’ll see Jon and Mandy Giffin riding down the hill on their ATV to welcome you to Forest Gully Farms.

Entrance to the farm
Entrance to the farm

This incredible 29-acre organic, self-reliant permaculture farm and homestead in Santa Fe, Tennessee is sure to be one of the most unique finds on your travels. After a day of active exploring or quiet escape,  you’re certain to find solace and simplicity at Forest Gully. Unlike other getaway rentals, which give you just a room, an overpriced minibar, and squeaky pull-out sofa, Jon and Mandy offer you 15 of those acres full of u-pick produce, a waterfall, and the opportunity to sleep in your choice of three underground hobbit houses or “Gully Huts”. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Forest Gully Farms was conceived as a place where travelers, locals, and families could stay for a weekend, learn about the food on the farm, and detach – no hotspots or wifi needed or wanted. Disconnect from the digital world and re-connect to the real world at a bed and breakfast where you pick and cook breakfast yourself.

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Jon picks elderberry in the Fire Garden

Established in 2013 by  Jon and his wife Mandy, the farm is an honest offering to anyone who wants to experience the natural and edible beauty around them. It all fell into place once they quit their traditional 9 to 5 jobs.

“I’m a self-taught plant man who went to school for photojournalism, a wedding photographer who recently hung up his camera,” chuckles Jon. “But I am proud of the way I am learning to make use of the land and work with it instead of against it. You won’t see anything on the property growing in beautifully manicured rows. Mandy and I see this farm as a laboratory for alternative farming where we don’t fight nature, but rather allow nature to tell us where plants should grow. In doing this, we are finding new foods all the time. Most recently we had elderberries pop up!”

And plants are definitely popping. The property is abundant with intentional and unintentional fruits, veggies and herbs. Paw Paw trees (the largest native fruit-bearing trees) grow wild in the company of persimmons, mulberries, and magnolias (an homage to Mandy’s Mississippi roots).

Peanuts and peas
Peanuts and peas

Other produce abounds: cilantro, parsley, basil, carrots, red onions, peanuts, English peas, celery, Brussels sprouts, watermelons, field peas, beets, muscadine grapes, radishes, hazelnuts, turnips, tomatoes, habaneros, cayenne, and jalapeños. There are also two bee hives on the property – admire but do not disturb!

Walk over the hill a little ways and you’ll find a picnic table under a tree with a large red cedar chicken coop beside it. Jon built the coop to house the 16 chickens Mandy calls her “golden girls.” On the way over to collect your eggs for breakfast, pick some clover and dandelions for the “girls.” They will love you forever.

Ethan and Mandy feed the chickens clover in the coop
Ethan and Mandy feed the chickens clover in the coop
Chickens sitting pretty
Chickens sitting pretty

“Jon and I wanted to give to others in a more fulfilling way,” explains Mandy. “We’re so proud of the food we grow and what’s already growing. What’s important to us is to educate. We want to help families and explorers alike successfully identify edible plants in the woods on their adventures. Things you think are weeds, like oxalis, are actually tasty sour snacks! That’s why we had the Gully Huts built. We want folks to saturate themselves on the farm. Take a grazing tour of the land: walk, eat berries, smell the fresh herbs, and let your mind wander . . . it will help you decide what type of meal you’d like to prepare for the day.”

Which brings us to the place to prepare your bounty . . . meet us at the bottom of the wood staircase.

The Gully Huts
The Gully Huts

At a first glance, these the Gully Huts look strikingly similar to the ones in the hills of the shire in Lord of the RingsIt’s all part of the appealing plan. Tucked into hills of oregano and thyme, the huts stay cool year ‘round. They were built by Wooden Wonders, a company out of Maine, and collectively, they sleep up to eight people, with plenty of room for everyone’straveling gear.

“The best part is our ‘rent one, get two free’ policy,” explains Jon. “That’s so you can freely come and go around the grounds without having to share them with others. After living in the red hut for eight months while our house was being built, we feel like we have a great idea of everything you need to enjoy your visit and the space you need to fully relax.”

Hut interior
Hut interior

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Walk inside to drop your bags and you’ll immediately smell the fragrant white cedar that the houses are built from. Old burlap coffee bags hang in the windows as curtains, and colorful quilted blankets cover the beds. And yes, there’s also a copy of The Hobbit on the nightstand, respectfully.

On the kitchen counter, you’ll find some of Mandy’s favorite recipes that feature produce from the garden. The most popular and delicious one we tried was the wild sumac lemonade. (Yes, sumac!)  Also included in the welcome kit are a suggested tour of the grounds, some facts about the chickens, and a scavenger hunt around the farm to help you get familiar with the plants. Just outside the front door is a large fire pit where you can practice your cast-iron cooking!

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LEFT: Ethan Giffin and the family dog play in the red hut. RIGHT: Mandy’s famous sumac lemonade and jam

“What makes the huts so appealing is that they allow you to disconnect and get back to nature,” says Mandy. “Not only that but you get to see how your favorite foods grow. It’s a healthy way to remind yourself that dinner doesn’t need to happen by popping open a bag. Head over to collect your choice of eggs for breakfast. You can’t beat a fresh organic egg in cast-iron skillet!”

After your meal, slip your boots on and hike about 200 yards down the trail to the freshwater spring and waterfall below. The path is littered with wild ginger! Jon and Mandy did a great job of building some wood steps to help steady your descent, but there are still a few little spots where you’ll want to watch your step! The water below is ice cold and the fog lays thick on the moss, logs, and rocks.

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Waterfall Trail

Escaping to places like Forest Gully is an important reminder that we need to think about how we spend the hours in our day. When we’re at home it’s easy to load Netflix and rewatch The Office while you crunch on Cheetos and simultaneously update your Facebook status. Studies have proven time and time again that our brains and bodies are most happy when we’re out in nature. So why not feed that happiness?  Go out for an adventure, learn something cool, and then use what you’ve learned to improve the quality of your life. That’s what Jon and Mandy want you to take with you when you leave Forest Gully Farms, and it seems to be working.

“My favorite thing about this entire experience has been the surprises,” explains Mandy. “A lot of people after their stay have told us that they’ve decided to grow something and ask for help on how to begin their own garden. I always recommend that they start with tomatoes or cucumbers because they’re easy maintenance for beginners. It’s a rewarding feeling when people come out here and then keep the experience alive in their own corner of the world.”

Forest Gully Farms is open year-round, offering fresh fruits in summer, golden leaves in the fall, and the quintessential backdrop for a shire-worthy campfire when the snow falls. They’re already booked up every weekend for the rest of 2017, so make it your Two Lanes mission to visit them in the new year. No special equipment needed . . .  just water shoes, an empty belly, and an open mind ready to be filled with the wonders of real life.

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Jon and Mandy Giffin

Follow Forest Gully Farms on Facebook and Instagram

Make a reservation

Photos by Meghan Aileen

 

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On June 7th, 2017 Mike Wolfe traveled to Cleveland, Ohio where he visited the winners of his “This Place Matters” contest, the Historic Variety Theatre.

In partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the “This Place Matters” campaign invited Mike’s friends, fans and followers across the country to submit photos of buildings significant to them and their communities and in need of life-saving repair and restoration. The campaign generated a wide and enthusiastic response, with submissions  ranging from old private homesteads to dilapidated public spaces, and after careful consideration of the many #placestosave, the Variety Theatre was chosen to win a visit from Mike.

Variety Theatre Cleveland, Ohio.
Variety Theatre Cleveland, Ohio. All photos by Ruggero Fatic

Mike was welcomed to Cleveland by an enthusiastic crowd and a group of city officials who took him on a private tour of the theater and the city block-sized complex that will soon house restaurants, retail spaces, and offices. Shortly after, he spoke for about 10 minutes to the crowd and to his millions of followers through LIVE videos and photos, expressing his appreciation for the community’s support for the ongoing project. he also talked about his own passion for preserving America’s history and the buildings that tell the stories.

“Heritage tourism is one of the important things we can all lean into nowadays. This isn’t just a project for the neighborhood. It’s a project for the entire city of Cleveland,” he said. “When you walk into an old building like the Variety Theatre it’s something that never leaves you. You become a child all over again. You want to touch and explore everything. There’s so much of that wonder here. That experience is going to be had again thanks to the heartfelt commitment of this community.”

Mike Wolfe speaks outside the Variety Theatre
Mike Wolfe speaks outside the Variety Theatre

As a thank you, the Variety Theatre board named him the honorary chairman for the capital campaign to raise the remaining amount needed for the eight-figure restoration of the early 1900s theater.

“No one has ever given up on this theater,” said Mike. “You have one or two people who truly believed in this and everyone around them said ‘ I want to be a part of that.’ That’s what ‘This Place Matters’ was about and that’s why this place matters.”

The Variety Theatre’s anticipated completion date is 2019.

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All photos courtesy of Camp Wandawega

Remember what camping was like before glamping? We didn’t care about mud on our shoes, bug bites, or cell reception. The food wasn’t in the fridge, it was in the water, and after we cooked it, we’d eat it around the campfire – watching for hours as flames turn to coals and embers floated skyward was all the television we needed. 

These days, technology has overtaken us. Where we once asked a stranger for directions and perhaps wound up having a conversation with someone interesting who maybe sent us the long way that took as through a treasure of a small town, now we plug an address into our GPS and take the biggest, fastest highway to our destination. No muss, no fuss, no wasted time . . . no unforgettable characters, no unexpected experiences, no precious memories of the time we took all day to get there and discovered a piece of America on the way.   

All summer long, folks across the country pile into campers with their friends and families for a weekend camping trip that now means $200,000 trailers with full kitchens, living rooms adorned with electric fireplaces, and flat screens fitted for a next-level Netflix binge-a-thon where afterward they’ll slumber soundly on a queen sized bed to the hum of their AC unit. Nice for a hotel room, but camping? Not so much. 

So let’s ditch the luxury, pick up a bottle of bug spray, and head out for a real all-American camping trip. And we know just where to go:Elkhorn, Wisconsin.

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Since 1925, Camp Wandawega, a one-time speakeasy turned nostalgic campground, has been the destination for campers willing to manage with the bare necessities as they retreat and reconnect with nature. The camp rests on 25 acres of clearings, woods, overlooks, and the shores of Wandawega Lake, fresh waters teeming with smallmouth bass and a collection of car keys left behind by generations of eager campers who forgot to empty their pockets before cannonballing off the dock or catapulting off the rope swing.

Nothing fancy about Wandawega. You should know right now that your sleep might be interrupted by the tickle of ladybugs creeping across your pillow, spiders may join you in the well water shower, and it might take a few minutes to get used to the creak of an 80-year-old bed frame topped with less-than-luxe 10-thread-count-sheets. The showers, baths, and kitchens are all authentic to the camp’s Prohibition roots, they’re all 100% communal, and they haven’t been updated since the Hoover administration.

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But you should also know that many celebrities have retreated here and had the best time. If Cardinal Archbishop Meyer can do this, you can too.

Nervous about roughing it without your blow dryer? Don’t be. The moment you turn the corner to camp, you’ll be met with a sloppy kiss from Wandawega’s official welcome committee: furry, four-legged Frankie and owners/camp rangers David Hernandez and Tereasa Surratt. They’re always close by to help you ease into the classic camping experience. They’ll help you find a pizza place in case you burn your hotdogs, take you on a beer run in case you need distraction from those itchy bug bites and direct you to the closest Piggly Wiggly in case you forget your toothbrush. David knows what you need because he’s seen it all . . . he and his family were regulars at Camp Wandawega from 1960 right up into the ‘80s.

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Though occupied with restoring the property since 2004, David and Tereasa haven’t done much to the lodge, cottages, or the three-story hotel on the property. They’ve pretty much left the old buildings alone except for enhancing the décor with historic memorabilia and adding amusements like books and puzzles. Yes, we said puzzles – they’re part of the secret plan to lure you in and get you to turn off your phone.

Walking about the grounds, you’ll discover places to hang your hat the old motorcycle garage, an A-frame overlooking the lake, a cabin, traditional teepees tucked away in clearings, and a decked-out treehouse that’s just the place for reconnecting with the robins and bluejays.  All equally perfect for optimal sunrise/sunset observations, no extra charge!  They operate on a “trust thy neighbor or go get a room at The Holiday Inn” policy. Embrace it or fear it, but we think that’s pretty cool.

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You’ll also find a plethora of activities. Try your hand at archery, shuffleboard, canoeing, fishing, hatchet throwing and much more! You’ll surely walk away with some stories to share around the campfire later that night. Which will be great because we still haven’t gotten over last night’s ghost story.

And speaking of things in the dark, we know nature can be a bit intimidating but the sooner you respect the coyotes, deer, and scurrying squirrels, the more you’ll enjoy yourself. If you don’t want to meet the camp’s live-in clean-up crew, be sure to clean up your area. Raccoons are little party crashers who always show up hungry and with friends. Don’t leave them an open invitation at your cabin.

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What a comfort to know that there are still places in the world that remind you that life can be easy and simple without all the commotion and clutter. That unplugging for a bit allows you to notice the goodness of life around you and to be present in the moment, and it gives you time to try baiting a hook or building a fire.

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It’s places like Camp Wandawega that engage our minds, feed our souls and remind us of the joy that comes from reconnecting with simpler joys. Make a reservation and you’ll have a great story for your friends. While they’re complaining about the service Saturday night at the restaurant of the moment, you can talk about your glorious weekend jumping off docks, hooking your own dinner and catching lightning bugs. Grizzly Adams would be proud to shake your hand.

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Pack one of our potbelly mugs for your trip! Hand-thrown in Wisconsin, just for us.

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We’ve heard the saying before, “Everything is bigger in Texas.” Hats, homes, and hair all get the special treatment in the Lone Star State, so it’s no surprise that when it comes to how they throw a party, bigger is likely to be better.

In Southern cities, there’s no shortage of options for a good time: In Nashville, you can honkytonk your way around Broadway and in New Orleans, you can hear jazz up and down Bourbon Street. But in Texas, you can let loose at any of 400 different dance halls across the state, none of which feature disorderly tourists trying to sing “Don’t Stop Believin” after a few too many PBRs and Sazeracs.

Going to a dance hall is a soulful, family-friendly experience intended to encourage community interaction and even more important, to celebrate history. It’s part of the allure of the South to honor its past and its traditional values, values that go way deeper than biscuits and barbecue. As you see when you step foot in a dance hall, it’s those traditions, like the “come on in, y’all” hospitality of the South, that we all truly crave. 

All across Texas, communities are tending the flame of Southern tradition, including making sure these halls last another century to welcome future generations. Locals happily throw open the doors to travelers who hop off the highway to experience these authentic cultural spots. Come as you are. No need to RSVP.

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Here’s what keeps Texans showing up to these hallowed halls night after night.

 A WALTZ THROUGH HISTORY

Desperate to escape oppression in the mid-1800s through the early 1900s, many Germans, Czechs, Polish fled to America. Having heard tales of Texas and its size they figured it was a big enough place that they could exist peacefully without consequence. When they arrived in Galveston or Indianola, they loaded up ox carts and followed the rivers North and West to settle. They quickly got to work creating a new life as farmers, business owners, and ranch hands. Homes and crops were popping up as communities began to grow, but they realized they were missing their homelands. As a way to honor their roots they began building social centers, known today as dance halls.

Without the help of power tools, Central and Eastern European immigrants used their skills and craftsmanship to construct these centers for the benefit of their communities. In

side these walls, they discussed agriculture, traded livestock, attended school, worshiped, cooked, and visited with each other. They were free to celebrate their cultural heritage without judgment. This included beer-making, singing in their native languages, playing the instruments they brought with them, and dancing.

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As more Europeans began settling in Texas, more multicultural friendships formed and the sharing of traditions spread and new sounds were discovered. Germans were playing accordions in their fields, Irish immigrants picked their fiddles while working on the railroad, Creole trumpets sounded triumphantly on porches while the Mexicans strummed the 12 strings of their baja sextos. People of different backgrounds would teach each other songs, and perform for the community as the music blurred the lines of any differences between the collection of cultures. Music was at the heart of it all and the instrument integration enticed people to stay for days enjoying food, beer and fellowship. These centers transformed into places where all were welcome to come dance and play music together. That’s how they got to be called dance halls.

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PRESENT DAY DANCE HALLS 

Now, more than a century later, that same desire to share and exchange traditions still prevails. While it may be unfamiliar to tourists from north of the Mason-Dixon line, it’s the same tradition of hospitality that’s been here for generations and is found in today’s Texans, many of whom are descendants of the original settlers. 

Folks of all ages, generations and skill levels have polished the wooden floors of Texas dance halls since 1878 when the one of the oldest halls – Gruene Hall – opened.  Gathering has always been a family affair; it’s very common to have folks arrive at 10 pm on a Saturdaynight with kids perched on parents’ shoulders.

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Do you hear that? The house band is warming up, and so is the weather. Time to pop open the windows, and put on your dancing boots!

Y’ALL COME IN!

When the sun goes down, you’ll know it’s time to head over to the hall. These events have been known to carry on well into the early hours of the morning, so pace yourself. And remember to take along a little cash for the cover at the door and the band’s tip jar!

Pull up. You’ll know you’re there by the sound of the gravel crunching under your wheels. Hop out and while you’re getting your sea legs under you on the uneven turf, take in the fragrant smoke from the nearby barbecue pit as it wafts through the groups of people cooling off in the shade of the century-old oaks that surround the building. Liquid encouragement is always available … grab a Shiner Bock in the beer hut out back before letting the music from inside lure you onto the front porch.

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Walk in and listen to your boots connect with the wood floor. As you practice your spins, observe the wood-clad interiors and high ceilings. No air conditioning folks! So pick a spot by a fan. Scan the walls for early hand-painted tool advertisements offering tractor repair and pointing out the local grocery store. Some of them even still have their original three-digit phone numbers! Intertwined initials carved decades ago by young lovers still adorn the wooden benches and ceiling beams, and some of those couples may be on the dance floor as you watch, waltzing together still.  Fathers hold onto young daughters who are dancing on their toes, parents polka on date night, and friends celebrate a birthday with the chicken dance. All is well.

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While each hall has its own charm and story, a few do require a little more love and care than others. Round Top Dance Hall is one example of a building that was nearly lost to disrepair, but under the new ownership of Jon Perez and after a little Junk Gypsy-style makeover by Amie and Joilie Sikes, it has a second life.

ROUND TOP ON TOP

The Airway Dancehall (now called the Round Top Dance Hall) had been welcoming the townspeople of Wesley, Texas since 1907, but after 90 years of hard dancing and crowded Saturday nights, it was drooping. Slated for demolition, it won a last-minute reprieve in 1995 when it was purchased, disassembled and moved to Fayette County’s own Round Top, Texas where it was reassembled and reopened. It now stands proudly among the largest concentration of dance halls in the state, enjoyed once again by the Czech community for meals and dancing.

“We helped with some of the final restoration of the Round Top Dance Hall by building a stage made out of salvaged materials and a huge chandelier rehabbed from an irrigation wheel with over 24 porcelain light sockets wired in place,” explains Junk Gypsy Amie Sikes. “We reached out to our picker friends to find some vintage stage curtains and we found the perfect ones. They were 1960s, authentic blue velvet stage curtains that had been saved from a school auditorium in Michigan. They found the perfect home in Round Top.”

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Round Top Dance Hall Texas

JUNK GYPSIES HELP THE HALL

“There’s a lot of people in Texas holding on to the history of dance halls, the legend and lore, the grit and the glitter “ explains Jolie Sikes. “ I think people in Texas are trying to save these historic dance halls because, for one, most of them are architecturally beautiful, and they are ‘feel good’ places. Dance halls were part of the Texas culture when family and community were the most important things. These halls were where these communities gathered for dances, weddings, and fried chicken after church on Sundays, back before everyone had access to easily stay home and watch a marathon of Netflix, these halls were hallowed. Today, it’s still where the 85-year-olds and kids gather to dance.”

PRESERVING THE POLKA 

As far as motivating the younger generation to stay on the dance floor, leave it up to Deb Fleming, Executive Director and Past Board President of the Texas Dance Hall Preservation Inc. a ten year old state wide non profit whose mission to help preserve the historic halls of Texas as well as the music and culture found in them.

“We want to help our kids understand the history and heritage of their community,” says Deb. “The folks who supported this culture are aging, so we’re inspired to engage younger musicians and their fanbases to get them out and playing at the dance halls. We want this generation to reconnect live music, the kind that’s meant to be heard and danced to in a dance hall.”

The Texas Dance Hall Preservation Inc established that at one time there were around 1,000 dance halls scattered across Texas. It’s their personal mission to preserve the 400 that are left through local awareness, grants and social media. 

“People want to see these dance halls restored not because they like to dance, though that is part of the traditon, but because they’re part of Texas history,” says Deb. “It’s an honor to keep my Polish/German/Czech heritage alive through through dance hall preservation work and to keep the stories and memories alive as well”

If you’re interested in learning more about dance hall history and music, sign up to take a Texas Dance Hall Tour led by Deb and the Texas Dance Hall Preservation Team along with Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel and others this coming October! 

To close off this Texas piece, let’s let Steinbeck take it away,

“For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America.” Go experience it for yourself and don’t forget your best boots!

Have you ever danced in a dance hall? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Photo/video credits by Amie and Jolie Sikes, Kiki Teague, Deb Fleming, Dave Norris, David Bucek, Patrick Sparks and archival photos from various sources.

 

 

Pack for you trip to Texas with our Weekender Bag. Created by Bradley Mountain, it’s strong enough to hold all your boots and fringe. Get the bag!

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The entire Living Lands & Waters fleet causing the river for their next cleanup location. Photo by @livinglandsandwaters

Cleaning Up the Rivers of America

Life on a two lane road is an unpredictable adventure. We can plan a trip down to the last detail, but there’s no anticipating who we’ll meet along the way or how the road will bend and turn as we go. Not to mention the possibility of running out of gas or cash, or needing to call upon the saving grace of a tow. Something the crew of Living Lands & Waters is hoping for right now.

Why are these people living on a trash barge?

“We are currently floating near St. Louis waiting for cargo barge to cruise by to tow us up the river!” exclaims Chad Pregracke, the founder of Living Lands & Waters, the largest river cleanup project in America. “We are hitchhikers with a big backpack.”

The backpack he is referencing is his fleet of five barges, two towboats, six workboats, two skid steers, and an excavator, all of which carry Chad and his crew of 13 2,300 miles up and down the Mississippi River, year round, where they clean up the litter inside and around the Big Muddy. Something Chad has been doing since he was 15 years old.

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LEFT: Living Lands & Waters founder, Chad Pregracke RIGHT: Crew member, John Bestrom. Photo by @livinglandsandwaters

“I grew up in East Moline, Illinois, spending summers as a commercial mussel diver with my brother. Diving the mighty river, I was surrounded by sand-covered oil drums, tires, refrigerators and other garbage that littered its floor. Once I realized I was swimming in garbage, I decided to rewrite the river’s reputation, and do it alone if I had to.”

Incredibly, he has never needed to. Chad’s one-man mission started a conversation that spread across the country and now includes the helping hands of more than 100,000 volunteers who have donned gloves and boots and joined him on the riverbanks.

“Before paved roads and railroads, goods and people arrived by boat,” explains Chad. “America’s waterways were and are still major transportation hubs building and propelling the country forward. With more than 17,000 miles of rivers weaving across America, every mile of water is worth protecting.”

Litter on the side of the river. Photos by @livinglandsandwaters
Litter on the side of the river. Photos by @livinglandsandwaters

When the crew isn’t busy organizing one of their thousands of river cleanups, they’re on board their 310-foot floating home. Let’s climb on board and show you around!

Welcome Aboard!

Built in 2011 in Kentucky, the solar-powered house barge has two bathrooms, seven bedrooms, two offices, a galley, a full basement, a classroom, and a 31,000-gallon water tank.

“More than 18 million people a day drink the Mississippi River water, ” shares Chad, “so we make sure that while we’re spending this much time trying to clean up the river, we aren’t  inadvertently adding to the problem. On board, you’ll see we’ve done a great job of recycling and reusing salvaged bits and pieces to build our home.”

Classroom and galley on board
Classroom and galley on board. Photos by @livinglandsandwaters

There’s a cozy, silly, nature theme present throughout the vessel from the warm wooden floors and walls to the four dog dishes in the kitchen!) Photos of past river cleanups form an orderly line around the classroom walls passing under the large cattle horns that hold a very snazzy pair of white leather shoes. Above you, a fierce snapping turtle hangs over the kitchen table, ready to clean your plate for you when you’re done.

The entire barge is a Frankenstein boat with a support structure assembled from a flooded strip club, reclaimed barn tin and wood, recycled license plate awnings, reclaimed rebar, and old bridge girders. Along with the creative use of former river garbage, the barge design includes sustainable materials like the bamboo flooring covering the bathrooms, hallways and classroom, the eco-friendly concrete counter tops throughout, and Energy Star® appliances to handle preparation and clean-up of the most common shipboard meal — frozen pizzas.

“Life on board is fun and exciting,” proclaims Chad. “We have this amazing job that allows us to have a quick commute and lets us work outside at a job that produces immediate results. We love coming together at the end of the day around the kitchen table and talking about the people we met that day or strange things we pulled out of the water and then quickly jump back into our Netflix shows and card games. It’s all about keeping it chill on our unconventional setup.”

The house barge cruising along. Photo by @empoweractive
The house barge cruising along. Photo by @empoweractive

The best part of the house barge is the classroom. Complete with chairs, desks and a projector, the onboard teachers Megan Elgan and Michael Coyne-Logan have taught more than 10,000 students about river ecosystems and ecology restoration. (Michael actually quit his job as an 8th-grade history teacher and swapped a traditional classroom setting for a floating one. He has been on board for the last 10 years!)

“Getting the river clean and keeping it clean are two different things,” explains Chad. “We have to explain this to folks and remind them that their work is not done in a day. It takes a piece at a time, which is how the river got polluted in the first place. Michael and Meghan are education rock stars, teaching this to everyone – young and old – on board.”

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Thousands of tires pulled from below the water fill up the corps barge attached to the house barge. Photo by @livinglandsandwaters

The crew comes from all sorts of different backgrounds— professional disc golfers, college grads, former dental hygienists, handymen, bakers, etc. When united they form the ultimate river cleanup machine, but it never feels like work.

“It’s like living on a cruise ship,” says Chad. “When the boat docks, we jump off and go explore the mainland. We take the time to explore the green spaces and the downtowns, to pick up dog food and toilet paper, to organize local citizens for a river cleanup, and then return to the boat when it’s time to move along to the next port.”

If these folks sound like your kind of company, there are a few ways you can help them reach their goal of recycling one million pounds by the end of 2017.

How can you join the crew? 

Show up!” exclaims Chad. “We keep things light during river cleanups with skits, contests for the strangest thing pulled out of the water, karaoke, loud music, motivational speeches… it’s incredibly entertaining.”

Chad and his crew aren’t just sticking to the Mississippi. Living Lands & Waters has cleaned up 23 rivers in 20 states and they are always looking for volunteers along the way. Everyone from churches, businesses, families, and students looking for an alternative spring break option for next year is encouraged to sign up. More than 100,000 volunteers have helped pull bowling balls, evidence from robberies, sunken boats, and school bus roofs from the water. But there is always a need for more hands, and all ages are welcome!

Mike, volunteers, the Living Lands & Waters crew clean up the Mississippi River
Mike, volunteers, the Living Lands & Waters crew clean up the Mississippi River

“The communities we’ve visited and worked with have done a great job of keeping their section clean long after we’ve gone,” explains Chad. “Because of that, we don’t ever have to visit the same place twice, and that makes it easy to expand our outreach, share our passion, and educate new people every day. We promise you a good time out there while doing a good deed for the environment.”

Get involved with Living Lands & Waters and follow them on Facebook to find out when Chad and the gang will be floating by your town!

 

 

Whether it’s tires from the bottom of a river or a roached Ford uncovered from a pile of junk, we’re all about the salvage game. Support USA made when you order your Nash Salvage tee!

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