An Interview with Mike Wolfe about Barn Diving for Bikes & Booty
As we roll around this wandering and beautiful country, riding hill and dale and every wavy road we can find, it’s inevitable that at one time or another curiosity will get the best of our good sense, if we ever had any.
Being an adventurous, motorcycling soul comes with a little derring-do, so it’s not unnatural to answer the irresistible beckoning of a dilapidated barn, or a field overgrown with rust, or even a suspicious yet somehow inviting basement. This sinister urge, more of a psychotic compulsion really, to forage for lost or forgotten treasure is somehow built into biker DNA.
Somewhere in the dark garage of our motoring minds is the enduring idea that tucked behind one of those clapboard walls and buried under decades of dust and neglect, is an ancient motorcycle of great worth. All it needs is a fresh battery, maybe a little oil and a good, solid kick and it will roar back to life.
The Pickers Crew- Mike Wolfe, Danielle Colby, Frank Fritz (L-R)
Some even make a living at it. The History Channel’s hit show, American Pickers, now in its 22nd season, stars zealous motorcyclists Mike Wolfe and his picking partner, Frank Fritz, as well as charismatic shop manager and part-time burlesque dancer, Danielle Colby. Their mission: find junk no matter where it is, how well it’s hidden, or how rat poop-encrusted it might be without regard to life, limb or mental health.
“I’ll buy anything I can sell,” Wolfe confided in our interview, an engaging kind of guy who bubbles with enthusiasm for the quest. “The treasure hunt only begins with uncovering what we call ‘rusty gold.’ I’ve been doing this a long time, long before it became a TV show, and before Frank joined me and there was a camera crew following around,” added Wolfe. “I’ve found it’s not so much about the rare pieces we return to the light of day as it is about the people.”
To Wolfe, each dig reveals a precious piece of Americana and an untold story. He and Fritz are spreading the word one tale at a time, creating a tangible chronicle of how we lived and who we are, a kind of Mark Twain meets Antiques Road Show.
An antique Indian the boys found in Season 1.
Crawling through creepy barns, basements, underground bunkers and bat caves, Wolfe and Fritz cross the nation, plucking booty from the grasp of oblivion. From old steel signs to Depression-era soda fountains and glass gas pumps to rare and endangered motorcycle parts and unidentifiable bits, they climb up and over heaps of discarded history, and sometimes when they’re really lucky, they unearth the proverbial bike in a barn, complete and rusted solid.
“Our biggest passion is old motorcycles,” said Wolfe, whose daily ride is a 1934 Harley-Davidson VL. His garage is also home to a 1913 Indian Twin, a ’41 Knucklehead and a ’48 Chief, among other bikes most of us would sell our mothers for. But he looks to his barn diving partner for real hardcore: “Frank, man, he had a full beard and a Harley by the time he was in the 9th grade.”
Wolfe restores motorcycles and other recovered relics and bric-a-brac from sleepy LeClaire, Iowa, operating Antique Archeology out of a two-story building that serves as office, warehouse, and strategic command center. A Nashville location was later added. He was born to pick, having bought his first motorcycle at the age of 13, a deal that involved barter and secrets.
One of several times Mike and Frank visited their friend, the late Dale Walksler of Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, NC.
“My mother would not have let me live to tell the tale if she found out I bought a bike,” laughed Wolfe, “I had a few other motorcycles after that, but didn’t bother to get my license until I was 18. Collected a lot of tickets during that spell.”
Wolfe caught the bug, stockpiling rocks, beer cans, tin signs and whatever caught his eye, later spending two years working for the National Motorcycle Museum, hunting for early American motorcycles. He would go on to barnstorm the nation’s countryside, searching for his own crusty Eldorado, and the unexpected pleasure of meeting some very peculiar people.
“Once, a guy led me down into his basement—cobwebs, stairs creaking, the whole Stephen King deal—and introduced me to a real human skeleton,” said Wolfe. “Yeah, that was creepy. It was a medical piece, of course, at least I think it was.”
Wolfe said people who watch the show, which he estimates at nearly five million viewers, don’t know about the years he spent picking alone, no crew, no Frank, and no way out. “Dueling Banjos” was his theme song.
A scene from the “Escape to Motor Mountain” episode, Season 12.
“Descending some 23 feet underground into somebody’s rickety burrow just to check out what he might have squirreled away down there could be considered a little unwell,” said Wolfe, “but that’s where you sometimes find the good stuff.”
“Man, I was out there, you know, where nobody could hear you scream, with no backup. It’s scary and sketchy, but most of the time these guys are just happy to meet someone who gets it, who appreciates collecting as much as they do.” To be sure, friends, families and sometimes the local constabulary often don’t consider barns, basements, forests and fields of iron, glass and porcelain toilets a healthy hobby. They’re cast as mad hoarders, stacking up eyesores that are fire and environmental hazards, while creating cozy nests for new breeds of bug and rodent life.
“Most of the time, they don’t have anybody in their lives who thinks this is cool. And then I come along, and I love it.” Wolfe offers acceptance in an outcast world and trades, quite fairly, in its unique currency. Among the museum, interior decorator and private collectors he deals with, Wolfe has sold moto artifacts to the likes of Billy Lane, Jesse James, a famed NASCAR driver and other celebrities who wish to remain nameless.
The boys at home in their Antique Archeology shop, LeClaire, Iowa.
“We’re recyclers, really,” said Wolfe, “some of the things we see and some of the things we buy are almost an art form. We are not antique experts, but I can tell you why it’s important and if there’s a market for it.” Wolfe is still searching for his Holy Grail, a pre-1915 Blackhawk or Hornecker Torpedo motorcycle.
If you will sell it, he will come.
J. Joshua Placa
For more information:
*All photos by History Channel of Antique Archeology