By Eve Becker
As he unearths collectibles crammed among boxes in weather-beaten barns, Mike Wolfe is not just motivated by the thrill of the hunt. Rather, the star of the History channel’s popular series American Pickers is genuinely excited to talk about the backstories of discarded items, giving them a new life and new appreciation. Wolfe, who has lived his life with a dog by his side, has done the same thing for animals: rescuing them from unsafe conditions, and giving them new futures.
On American Pickers, Wolfe ferrets out items from attics and junkyards, relating the stories of the objects he finds and the people he negotiates with. With his partner, Frank Fritz, Wolfe turns forgotten junk into timeless treasures.
Having spent years crisscrossing the country, Wolfe says he has seen too many feral cats prowling around on farms and unwanted dogs left to roam the roads. Touched by these animals, he often helps to give them new lives by working with friends to find them loving homes.
“In my line of work, I’m always on different farms out in very rural communities,” Wolfe says. “I’ve always seen that kind of stuff and it breaks my heart.”
Discovering an item’s inherent value is so important to Wolfe that he pitched American Pickers to networks for five years until the History channel launched the series in January 2010.
“On my show, the most important thing to me—why I pitched it for so long—is I wanted to give items a voice and I wanted to give the people a voice,” he says. “To me there’s no such thing as a nobody. I look at animals that way, too. There’s no such thing as a nobody when it comes to an animal.”
“I find items, but it’s not so much that I find them. All of a sudden, we make people understand the importance of it, that if you can pick it up and you can use it again, then it’s not junk. That’s the way people need to look at animals, too. If they could talk, they would say, ‘Take me home and I will love you forever. I’m the sweetest thing in the world. I’ll protect you. I’ll care for you. I’ll love you unconditionally.’”
Wolfe has looked for treasures in the trash ever since he was waist high. He’d amble around his neighborhood on trash day to see what people set out along with the garbage—one day rescuing a bicycle and selling it to another kid for $5. From then on, he was hooked on the thrill of the find.
He’s also totally hooked on dogs. Growing up, Wolfe lived in a duplex with his mother, brother, and sister. Brandy, “a Benji-type dog,” lived with the upstairs neighbors but would come down every morning to have pancakes with Wolfe and his family. When the neighbors wanted to give Brandy away, Wolfe’s mother took in the dog.
“[Brandy] was very important to me when I was a little boy. I was like the Stand By Me kid walking the railroad tracks and digging in junkyards. Brandy was always there. I’ve always had a dog by my side, no matter what I’ve done.”
Now Wolfe lives outside of Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, Jodi; their young daughter, Charlie; 5-year-old Australian Blue Heeler, Ruby; and 13-year-old Border Collie, Scout.
“Ruby’s been on the road quite a bit with me,” he says. “Way before the show, I would take her. She’s been on trips to upstate New York and all over the East Coast.” Before Ruby there was Patches, a “once in a lifetime” dog, who used to be Wolfe’s companion until it was no longer comfortable for the aging Blue Heeler to travel in Wolfe’s white cargo van.
Wolfe found Ruby in Iowa when a farmer placed an ad selling puppies in a local newspaper.
“When I got Ruby, I got her on a farm—oh my God, you should have seen the conditions. Her dad was chained up because the farmer was afraid that he was going to kill all the pups. When I was there, he was using the dogs to train horses. [Ruby’s] mom was missing her front leg because it got stomped off by a horse and she was still running with [them]. When we were there, the puppies got out of the barn and were running in the horse pen, and the horses were trying to kick them aside. The bucket that they were all drinking out of was [filled with] green water.”
He and Jodi are moved by the animals they encounter. They’ve found homes for feral cats, flown with a rescued Pit Bull puppy on their laps, donated collectibles to Emmylou Harris to auction off for her canine rescue Bonaparte’s Retreat, and filmed a public service announcement for Last Chance for Animals.
Yet, with an American Pickers filming schedule of two weeks on and two weeks off, Wolfe would like to get a road dog who can serve as the show’s mascot and the 11-person crew’s best friend.
“I want to get a little road dog—a little Jack Russell or something. We can have him as the show’s dog, the crew’s dog,” Wolfe says. “So we’re in the process of trying to find a little road crew dog. We want someone small and scrappy who’s got a little attitude [but] is just a little lover and wants to cuddle.”
Back home in Nashville, Wolfe’s two dogs enjoy 33 acres on which to roam. He and his wife are dedicated to giving other animals that freedom, too.
“It’s very important to both of us to give animals a voice,” he says. “I have [a voice] now, [and] I want to make a difference and pay things forward. So that’s what we try to do all the time.”
Mike shares his passion for turning junk into treasure in his new book Kid Pickers (Macmillan), out April 16.