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The Untold Truth Of Mike Wolfe From American Pickers

For well over a decade now, television audiences have invited Mike Wolfe into their homes as the star of the History Channel's "American Pickers." Together with his longtime partner Frank Fritz — and, more recently, his brother Robbie — Wolfe logs thousands of miles each year behind the wheel of his van, traversing the American countryside in search of what he has famously termed the "rusty gold" in whatever collections, trash heaps, and hoards he can find. Whatever he thinks he can restore and sell, he does — often through his Antique Archaeology stores in Nashville and LeClaire, Iowa.

"Pickers" has become a cultural phenomenon, and as his profile has grown, Wolfe has had his share of not-so-desirable moments in the national spotlight — including very public splits both from Fritz and from his wife Jodi. But a warm personality has endeared him to fans, and his genuine love for what he does is always apparent. Here are a few things you may not know about the man whose mission in life, first and foremost, has always been to tell "the history of America, one piece at a time."

His obsession with turning trash to treasure came from a rough childhood

Growing up as a poor kid in Bettendorf, Iowa and later LeClaire, Wolfe had his share of bullies. 

To avoid them on the way to and from school, he got into the habit of cutting through backyards and back alleys, where the only unpleasantness that awaited him was trash. After a while, the youngster started to find that some of this trash wasn't so unpleasant — in fact, it could be downright intriguing. "The alleys were safe places for me, and that's where the garbage was, too," Wolfe recalled to the Des Moines Register in a 2019 interview. "And so the garbage became my toys and they became part of my imagination and they became part of who I was."

As one of three children being raised by a single mother, Wolfe learned early on to look for the treasure in trash. From early on, he also had a fascination with bicycles — a fascination which fans of "American Pickers" know has persisted to this day, and has grown to include motorcycles as well. According to Wolfe, his first major "pick" was a discarded bike that he found in a trash heap when he was all of six years old. "I sold it in two days for five dollars," he remembered. "I was hooked." 

Later on, he came by his first motorcycle by way of bartering: "I traded a guy a pair of stereo speakers for it," he says. This love of all things two-wheeled could have, and almost did, lead him down a variety of potential career paths.

He's worked as a bicycle messenger and assembler

Even as a kid, Wolfe felt the need for speed. "Those big, fat kids who were six years older than me — I smoked those guys on a bike," he told Bicycling magazine in a 2011 interview. "No one could touch me." 

As a young man, he parlayed that particular quality into a job as a bicycle messenger in Chicago for a short time — but his home state, not to mention his girlfriend at the time, called him home. "I interviewed with Bike 'n Hike in Davenport," Wolfe recalled. "I just told the owner that I loved bicycles — that they're my whole life — and he gave me a job building bicycles in his warehouse."

Wolfe admits that paying the bills was still a bit rough at this point, due to the fact that he couldn't stop blowing his paychecks on more bikes ("They were like freaking crack to me," he recalled). This, however, ended up being a deceptively-wise strategy when a local shop came up for sale. "I traded my old bicycles and everything I had — everything — to get it," Wolfe remembered. "I did $150 the first day and took the store from 75 bikes a year to 500 bikes a year the first year. That's when mountain bikes were taking off. I was the largest Manitou dealer in the country. It was nuts. We were rocking it so hard we opened another store in East Davenport."

He might have been a pro cyclist

Of course, Wolfe wasn't just selling bikes during this time; his love for riding them was as strong as ever, as was his ability to smoke any competition he might encounter. During the late '80s and into the '90s, he was a five-time competitor in Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, which is exactly what it sounds like: a grueling, six-day ride across the entire state in which participants must complete a jaw-dropping 67 miles per day, 468 miles in total.

Such was his prowess as a cyclist that he was able to bring home a trophy or two, finishing first in the Iowa State Time Trial Championships in 1998. While he still harbored a love for picking, he was at this point living his dream — eating, breathing, and sleeping bicycles, and having a great deal of personal and professional success in the process. His twin bike shops might have grown to become more than just a regional success story — until fate intervened. 

A professional tragedy led him to become a picker

A devastating fire, coupled with a lack of proper preparation for such an occurrence, changed Wolfe's life forever. 

"My shop in Eldridge burned down. There was a fire in the apartment above me, and it all collapsed down into my store," he explained to Bicycling in 2011. "The dips**t I bought the shop from had gone on to sell insurance and sold me some crappy commercial policy ... It took me three years to get any money." During that time, Wolfe did the math, and the numbers weren't promising. "I could never recover financially," he said. "Even though the second shop was doing well, I could never get back what I lost. I was always behind. Then cha-ching, eBay came along and that changed my life forever."

With that new avenue for sales in play, Wolfe realized that the time just might be right to turn his lifelong passion for picking into a career — but only if he were to make a clean break from his previous vocation. 

"If you would have told me that I would close my shop back when I was selling 400 bikes a year, I would have said, 'No way, I'll be doing this forever,'" he said. "It was my lifelong dream ... But it didn't make sense anymore, so I had a going-out of-business sale, got a cargo van, a cell phone and a website and started Antique Archaeology." It turned out to be a pretty good move. Wolfe hit the road in his new van in 2000 and never looked back — and while he had the idea fairly early on to pitch a television show centered on his travels, it took a while before that would come to fruition.

He had an unlikely inspiration for American Pickers

For about five years, Wolfe slowly built a living doing essentially the same thing he does now on "American Pickers": Driving all over the place, knocking on doors, talking to collectors, scouring their collections for anything that he might find interesting. During this time, he would often shoot selfie videos chronicling his time on the road, and he says that he began to hear a common refrain from his friends and acquaintances — that his life was so unusual it would make for a good TV show.

He began to take this at face value, and the idea for "American Pickers" was born: A show Wolfe says he envisioned as being similar to Anthony Bourdain's travelogue-style culinary shows, but focused on collectibles instead of food. While Bourdain's shows served as a vehicle to shine light on different regions and cultures through the lens of food, so Wolfe hoped to explore Americana through the lens of... well, junk. 

After five years of pitching this idea to any network that would listen, Wolfe finally found a receptive pair of ears in History Channel executive Mary Donohue. "History Channel has never been just about the past," Donohue explained to the Des Moines Register in 2019, discussing the series. "It's also about the present and, more importantly, the living, breathing, exciting reminders of our past in our present day ... What we really enjoyed [about the "American Pickers" pitch] was that it was outside of the shop, and that Mike and Frank were traveling through parts of America that felt really fresh to us."

He's an aspiring songwriter

The original Antique Archaeology store is located in Le Claire, with the Nashville location opening soon after "American Pickers" debuted and was met with swift success. Wolfe also owns a home in the area, and as one might imagine, he's a fan of country music. Here's what you might not realize, however: Even with all of those endless hours spent on the road, picking through vast collections of antiques and memorabilia, and tending to his two shops, he has somehow found the time to pursue songwriting as a hobby. If one legendary record producer's opinion is to be trusted, Wolfe is pretty good.

We refer to Brian Ahern, whose career stretches all the way back to the early sixties, and who has produced platters for the likes of Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Emmylou Harris, and Glen Campbell, to name just a few. Wolfe was introduced to Ahern in 2011, and the producer — who just happened to be an "American Pickers" fan — pitched Wolfe a compilation project entitled "Music to Pick By." Of course, Wolfe was into it, and when he suggested a few choice cuts by country legend Dale Watson for inclusion, Ahern just went ahead and got Watson on the horn, and then into his studio. One marathon songwriting session later, Watson and Wolfe had penned three new songs for the compilation, and Wolfe soon thereafter became a newly-minted member of the songwriters' organization BMI.

His pet charity is for a cause close to his heart

Once "American Pickers" and the rest of his endeavors were gaining steady momentum, Wolfe and his wife Jodi decided that the time was right to become parents; in 2012, they welcomed their daughter Charlie. Unfortunately, the occasion was cause for apprehension as well as joy; Charlie was born with a cleft lip and palate, conditions which afflict millions of children worldwide, and which can lead to lifelong speech, eating, and psychological problems if not treated early in life.

Fortunately, Charlie received corrective surgery, which was performed promptly and successfully. But, realizing that not every parent is fortunate enough to pay for such an operation, Wolfe sought out Operation Smile, a global outreach organization with the goal of providing treatment for the condition to those unable to afford or access it. Operation Smile bills itself as one of the largest organizations of its type in the world, and thanks to Wolfe's sponsorship, its profile has since grown significantly. Wolfe has even worked to draw others into Operation Smile's orbit: In 2015, he collaborated with artist Isabel Bloom to create a series of sculptures, entitled "Charlie's Smile," to benefit the organization.

He once ran for political office

Wolfe's passion for restoring that which has been forgotten isn't only limited to motorcycles and knick-knacks. He has a soft spot in his heart for old buildings, which are plentiful in his home town of LeClaire. Speaking to CBS Sunday Morning in 2020, he shared that historic structures have a way of speaking to him, explaining that he has spent millions buying and restoring derelict buildings both in Le Claire and Columbia, Tennessee.

As it turns out, his passion to save such pieces of history didn't simply sprout up once he had the means to actually fund restoration efforts. Way back in 2003, before "American Pickers" was even a gleam in his eye, he ran for a City Council seat in LeClaire for the sole purpose of leading a revitalization effort in the small town. 

"I ran for City Council because I used to walk down these streets at night with my dog, and think about what this place could be," he explained. "I tell people all the time, If you want to see small town America, if you want to see Main Street, get in your car and drive, and go take a trip with your family. Because it is disappearing rapidly." 

Although his political bid was a losing one, his eventual success with "American Pickers" allowed him to largely accomplish the goal of revitalizing LeClaire. One of the restoration efforts he's most proud of: The town's old general store, which he bought and refurbished into an exhibition space for none other than Isabel Bloom.

His non-television endeavors provide a lot of income

Wolfe and his partners do pretty well for themselves with "American Pickers," but the show and his retail locations are far from his only source of income, and it's not just all of those savvy real estate investments and restorations that have yielded returns. In a 2015 conversation with Fast Company, Wolfe related a conversation with History Channel executives that was quite the eye-opener. 

"History [Channel] said something to me about four years ago, and I'll never forget it: 'We're not in the Mike Wolfe business, we're in the 'American Pickers' business,'" he said. "That woke me up. I said to myself, 'You know, that's right, you are in the 'American Pickers' business, and I better get in the Mike Wolfe business real fast.'" 

It's safe to say that he's had some success at that, beginning with an understanding that it was the show that was feeding his business, and not the other way around. "We're on television now 20 hours a week," he said. "Imagine trying to buy 20 hours a week of television, what that would cost you. You couldn't do it ... So for us, being a small business and having that type of exposure is crazy."

It turned out that it wasn't just the lovingly-restored antiques that customers were buying. "Ninety percent of our sales are clothing, so all of a sudden I'm in the clothing business," he said. "I'm looking at what we're making for spring. I'm looking at hard goods, soft goods, how those goods are presented in my store; the function, the flow, the lighting, how it's focused, where it's at, how close is it to the cash register. I'm constantly having meetings with my team to know what's selling and what's not." So successful has this endeavor been that Wolfe has branched out with a new clothing line, Two Lanes, which offers a variety of gear, both in-store and online.

He has an itch to get into scripted entertainment

Wolfe may have a lot on his plate, but if he has his way, it won't be long before you're seeing him on your TV screen doing something other than picking through piles of junk. 

For the last decade or so, he's been flirting with breaking into scripted programming — starting with a 2012 pitch for a workplace comedy based on his experiences and the day-to-day routine at Antique Archaeology, which was for a time in development at CBS. That project might have fallen through, but apparently the acting bug remained. In 2018, Wolfe appeared as himself in an episode of the long-running procedural NCIS; its plot involved Mark Harmon's Leroy Jethro Gibbs and David Keith McCallum, Jr.'s Donald "Ducky" Mallard recognizing a piece featured on "American Pickers" as a potential clue in a cold case murder investigation.

Wolfe hasn't popped up in any films or TV series since, but that doesn't mean he won't. As he explained to Fast Company back in 2015, "Do I know how to pitch a movie? No, I don't. I have an idea, but I surround myself with people that know how to do it. Do I know how to make a house-flipping show? Not really, but I surround myself with people that want to do it. All my ideas are organic, but they come from the same places that my passions are, and I'm smart enough to surround myself with people that understand how those processes need to work." 

Wolfe is nothing if not diligent — and as we've seen for many years now, he has a way of scrubbing the rust from that "rusty gold" in grand fashion.