Growing up the youngest of three children raised by a single mother in the Mississippi River town of Bettendorf, Iowa, Robbie Wolfe dreamed of being Huck Finn. Today, at age 57, he has much in common with Mark Twain’s famous fictional character. But instead of escapades on the Mississippi, Wolfe seeks adventure traveling the country’s back roads, rummaging through garages and old barns, scouring for “unknown treasures.” Wolfe stars with his brother, Mike, and Danielle Colby in the History Channel’s long-running hit reality show, “American Pickers.” We caught up with Robbie recently to discuss the show, his influences, and the secret to being a successful picker.
The freedom to explore
“I was one of those kids that didn’t really pay attention in school a lot. If you saw me when I was 14, 15, 16 years old, you’d think, there’s no way in heck that kid’s ever going to amount to anything. My mother was one of those people that would literally allow your imagination to run wild. She gave us freedom to explore. My mom gave up so many things for my brother and I and my sister to have this great life. And I have to say that it’s because of her that we turned out the way we did. I was always wanting to be Huck Finn because we lived by the Mississippi River, and I always dreamed about being that guy riding my raft down the river. And that sense of discovery led to my obsession with junkyards. If you can imagine, back in the early days, junkyards were just a trove of treasures, especially when you’re a kid.”
A grandfather’s lesson
“My grandfather [William Wolfe] was a junker on the South Side of Chicago. He had toilets, he had doors, he had everything, you name it, in his front yard. People knew him from everywhere. My grandfather told me no matter what you’re buying or what’s given to you, always appreciate it. You’ll never know how long you’re going to have it. Meaning a lot of people in today’s world, even antique dealers, look at things in a different light. They buy stuff thinking of the resale value of it. I’ve never really done that. Even since I was little, if I liked something and it intrigued me, then I bought it. I didn’t care how long I had it. Besides, I figured if I liked it, somebody else out there was like me and if they liked it just a little bit more than I did, I could move it on down the road.”
Time changes everything
“As I got older, I started appreciating the history of what we have in the United States, of my family, of hearing people’s stories about their family history. That history is found in the antiques and collectibles people hold onto. Those stories are what keep me going to this day.”
What makes a good picker?
“You have to be a people person. If you’re not, there’s just no way you’re going to become a good picker. You have to be able to listen. You have to listen to the story people will tell you about their things. I like to relate to their stories. You have to understand them. You have to understand their history and appreciate that. People want their items to go to the people who care about them. That’s the key. I see people all the time that are just money driven on this, that they don’t end up with the same stuff. For my brother and me, I think one of the reasons that we became successful was because we appreciate the story, we appreciate the people, and that’s a key. Always listen to the stories, always.”
What’s it like working with your brother?
“I love it. He’s hard-nosed, and I’m hard-nosed. He gets his way sometimes, and I get my way sometimes. There are times he wants things differently than I do, but at the end of the day, it’s about making the best TV show we can. The last two years have been absolutely tremendous for him and me and for our crew. Our crew is absolutely tremendous. Our camera guy has been with us since season one. We started in 2010. We’re in Season 24 right now. That’s unheard of. Our sound guy has been with us since day one. Most of the crew have been around for 10 years. We’re a great big family, and that’s how we treat each other.
“Typically, I’m on the road 10 days out of every month. But I still go to all the shows, the Fall Hershey Car Show [Pennsylvania), Brimfield [Massachusetts], Iola [Wisconsin]. Outside the show, I’ll put in another 50,000 miles traveling on the road by himself. I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s peaceful and it gives you time to figure out how things are going.”
TV sounds fun. It’s Really Hard Word.
“Somedays, I say to myself, damn, I wish this camera wasn’t here because this is going to take all day long. I’m in the trenches for 12 hours and could have gotten out in six. The camera adds a lot of time. People don’t realize it, but 300 hours of filming go into 42 minutes of television. We just got off the road. We did six different filmings in 100-degree heat. Six different filmings with different people at each one. You have to adapt and understand; that’s where your instincts come in. We’re still in the trenches. We’re still digging the stuff out of barns, garages, and basements. Wherever.
“I have really good friends who are in the trenches every day. I buy from them, and they buy from me. I’m four miles off the interstate [Wolfe has a shop in Davenport, Iowa]. Anyone traveling the interstate will stop off and sell me their goods and I may sell something to them. They travel throughout the United States, buying and selling. They get after it. They’re constantly moving things around. And I think that’s what keeps the antiques world moving at such a high pace. There’s a lot of us, such as me and my brother, who are doing it. They might not be filmed, but they’re out there.”
Robbie Wolfe’s best find
“One of my favorite experiences involved buying a 1941 Indian [motorcycle] out of a basement in Michigan from this long-ago retired gentleman who was an Air Force pilot in the war. Turns out, he built an airplane in the basement of his two-bedroom house. So, when I go there, I meet him and his daughter. He’s in his 90s, and he hadn’t been in the basement for like 10 years. His daughter tells me, ‘I haven’t been down there, I don’t even know what’s down there.’ So I check it out, and I come back up, and my eyes are as big as King Kong’s. They’re huge. So, I say, ‘You know, there’s an airplane down there.” And she’s like, ‘Oh yeah, he built that in ’86.’
“A guy from Texas supposedly bought the airplane, getting it out by taking the back wall of the house out. I got the motorcycle; it was in pieces. The guy couldn’t afford to finish it. He had seven kids. He was a plumber. Over the years he bought parts and stockpiled them. The stockpile grew and grew and grew, but his age caught up to him, and the parts just sat there. So, I got the motorcycle, but better yet, I got to hear his story. He had flown like 42 missions. I’ll never forget that. He was sitting there, proud as can be, in his Air Force flight jacket with all the bomb stuff on it, telling me about his life.”
One simple rule to live by
“My shop [in Davenport] is filled with advertising signs, photos, gas pumps, cars, motorcycles, basically anything with an engine on it, and I’m intrigued. It’s a working shop.
“My wife and I have a house outside of town on 10 acres. There’s a pole building 120 feet long and 60 feet wide. The only thing in it is a lawn mower. Here’s my wife’s philosophy: You can fill up as many buildings as you want. Just don’t bring that stuff home.”