Back Story: Mike Wolfe, American Picker
Note: This Place Matters is a campaign that the National Trust started in 2009, before Black Lives Matter had come into being as a movement. Out of respect for Black Lives Matter and the important message behind it, we retired the campaign in June 2020. We encourage National Trust supporters to instead celebrate places that are important to them using the hashtags #SavingPlaces or #TellTheFullStory.
Nobody knows small-town America better than Mike Wolfe, creator and star of American Pickers. The popular History Channel show follows Wolfe and childhood friend Frank Fritz as they travel backcountry roads, looking for antiques and the stories behind them. Many of the items purchased on the show are sold at Wolfe’s store, Antique Archaeology, which has locations in Nashville and Le Claire, Iowa. Wolfe has partnered with the National Trust to promote the Trust’s “This Place Matters” grassroots campaign.
How did you become a picker?
I walked to school, and I didn’t walk on the street. I was always walking in the alleys, because that’s where all the stuff was. That’s where all the garages were open, and you could see people in there, tinkering.
When I was probably in first or second grade, I found this bicycle in the weeds behind this guy’s house. All I did was put air in the tires and wipe it down. This older kid down the street gave me $5 for it and I was hooked.
What’s your best find?
I’m standing in a building right now with probably 75 motorcycles in here, dating from 1902 up to, I think, 1955. I don’t ride my really early stuff, it’s so fragile. But we ride these [other] bikes everywhere. When people see [us] on the road, the first thing they say is, I can’t believe that thing runs!
Have you always lived in historic houses?
Everywhere except my first house. The second house I bought was an 1854 riverboat pilot’s house in Le Claire, Iowa. Everyone in Le Claire thought I was nuts. But you should have seen this thing. It was Italianate style. It had the most amazing staircase. Pine floors.
I sold that one and bought another riverboat pilot’s house, where I lived until I bought this 1860 general store in downtown Le Claire. I rented out the two storefronts and then I did this 2,500-square-foot loft above, and my wife and I lived there.
Why are rural downtowns like Le Claire important?
When people think about main streets and downtowns, they don’t think of the ripple effect. The amenities that are on Main Street, the specialty retail and the architecture and all that, are what drives people wanting to live there and build homes there and move their corporations there.
All of that is the Main Street, the historic part of town—it’s the honey to all the bees. We need to save small-town America, man. Because that’s the roots of our country.
Why did you decide to get involved with “This Place Matters”?
When you talk about historic preservation, everybody thinks it’s about federal buildings and libraries. They don’t realize that it can be a baseball diamond in your town, it can be anything that’s personal to you.
That’s what I love about "This Place Matters" It’s like, hey, this is my story, this is my community story, this is my family story. That’s a really neat thing, because anybody can connect to it on a grassroots level.