"Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to the American Pickers' shop?" I asked of the first person we saw on a side street in Le Claire, Iowa. Since he was wearing a Cubs' cap, I felt confident we would get our answer.
"Two left turns, turn right at the first gas station, and go a half a block," was his quick, clear response. Obviously, he had done this before.
And moments later, there we were. The "American Archeology"-emblazoned auto body marked the entrance to this modest "home" of two guys and a gal who have elevated the term "picker" from a description of a trash collector to the designation of one who dis-covers history under layers of collections and grime.
Or, in the words of Frank Fritz, "A picker is someone who finds good stuff among the rust. It was invented a long time ago when a picker was thought of the low guy, the dumpster driver, the trash digger. Now it's a term that has been brought up."
Frank and his partner, Mike Wolfe, are the stars of the History Channels hit show "American Pickers," which chronicles their weeks on the backroads of rural America, often crawling over years of collected items in barns, sheds, and shops to find that an old Schwinn or a porcelain Texaco sign.
Wolfe, who spent his early childhood in Joliet (near my childhood hometown of Plainfield, Illinois), is responsible for bringing his "picking" into the homes of over five million viewers each week, making the show a "Top 10" show on cable. He tried to pitch the idea for this show for four years, shooting homemade episodes using a small video camera. When he showed his "pilots" to executives at History Channel, Wolfe says they knew they had a hit. Now "picking" has turned Wolfe and Fritz, a couple of mid-40s, blue collar antiques collectors from Iowa into overnight sensations.
Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Stan Laurel (Mike) and Oliver Hardy (Frank), the duo have known each other since childhood.
At age six, Mike came across a number of bikes that were being thrown out. He cleaned one and sold it. Later, he raced bikes, worked as a sales rep for a bike company, and owned a bike shop for about 10 years. Thus began his search for old bikes.
Fritz, a longtime fire inspector, has a penchant for antique fire extinguishers and a soft spot, it seems, for advertising signs and oil cans.
Both men are lifelong pickers: Wolfe began hitting the road full time about 10 years ago, and Fritz joined him four years later. In the show’s first season, the pair traversed 22 states and more than 50,000 miles.
On the day of our visit, neither the pickers nor their office manager/salesforce/ resource-finder, Danielle Colby-Cushman, were in the office. But Becca greeted us and the other visitors from a second-story work station.
We learned that the second "American Pickers Weekend" was scheduled in three days. All hotels for miles around had been booked, and the town was preparing for a crowd of 20,000.
Le Claire, IA, has been known as the birthplace of Buffalo Bill.
It may soon become known as the Home of American Pickers.
Information obtained from "Pick of the Litter," by Laura Kiniry, American Way, June 15, 2010 and "America's Trash is TV's Treasure," by Gary Strauss, USA Today, February 19, 2010.