It’s the people, picking, and automotive history that draw American Pickers’ Robbie Wolfe to Indiana.
story by GLENDA WINDERS
Before Robbie Wolfe joined his brother, Mike, on the popular television show “American Pickers” he owned a landscaping company for 32 years. Now, with his five children raised and the business behind him, he is free to pursue his favorite pastime — collecting. His passions are vintage cars and advertising memorabilia from the gas and oil industries. He houses his finds in a refurbished 12,000-square-foot former body shop that was built in 1939 in a historic part of Davenport, Iowa.
On most days, however, you’ll find him in his Ford F350 pickup pulling a 38-foot trailer, typically traveling 50,000 and 70,000 miles per year. In 2021 alone he figures the distance he traveled would wrap around the globe 2.6 times. He drives from Florida to Alaska, Connecticut to California, and one of his favorite places to stop is Indiana.
“One of the things I love so much about Indiana is that the state once had more than 32 car manufacturers at one time,” he said. “And we’re not talking just about regular cars. We’re talking about the history of cars — from Studebaker to Marmon to Stutz and Cole. These guys set a precedent across the United States. Ford was chasing them and trying to keep up with them. Indiana also has the most famous race in the world.”
On a recent trip to Auburn, in northern Indiana, he toured the National Automotive and Truck Museum, which made a big impression on him because of its after-school program that teaches children how to rebuild antique cars. It’s important, he believes, that talents and skills such as these, along with the history of the cars, are related to children as older generations pass.
“If I can pull a kid into my collection and intrigue him, I’m all over that,” he said. “Maybe that’s what gets him to think about history and start collecting.”
He said what keeps bringing him back to Indiana, however, are the people.
“I can’t say enough good things about them,” he said. “In the antiquing field they are probably some of the nicest I’ve ever met. They welcome you with open arms, and they are more than happy to tell you the history of what they have. When I’m here I’m searching for automotive history because those cars are still out there in barns.”
Perhaps his most treasured find in the state has been a midget car built on a Knucklehead motorcycle engine that had raced in California in the 1930s. It would have been a proud showpiece in his shop, he said, but he realized it needed to be seen by a wider audience, so today it’s in a Utah museum.
Admittedly not a good student and with no interest in going to college, Wolfe said antiquing has inspired him to study and learn, and now he’s on a mission to capture the history of what he collects and how it was made.
“One thing about the show and my work in general is that sometimes it’s about resurrecting the pieces that we find and then connecting the dots back to where they actually belong,” he said. “The stories intrigue me.”
In seasons to come Wolfe will be taking a bigger role on “American Pickers.” And as much as he loves being on the road and collecting, he’ll also be spending a lot of time in the shop.
“I can build things,” he said. “I can make anything run. I’m the hands-on guy.”
His future also looks to bring him and his wife, Melanie, for frequent visits to the state he likes so much. One of his daughters will be attending a university in Indiana next fall and playing on the soccer team. He said he is an involved dad who has tried never to miss his children’s events.
“We’re going to be spending a lot more time in Indiana,” he said.