By RACHEL C. DOVE
WILLIAMSON - Whenever a known celebrity visits Williamson, a crowd is sure to follow. When it’s two well-known television personalities whose show is a local favorite, it clearly doubles the excitement.
The History Channel reality show “American Pickers” had expressed interest in visiting the “Land of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s” approximately 2 ½ months ago, and Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce
Executive Director Natalie Young quickly began formulating a plan of action and recruited Bill Richardson, Extension Professor for the West Virginia University to assist her in these endeavors.
The hard work paid off for the entire county of Mingo, as Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz rolled into the Town of Matewan on Thursday and the City of Williamson on Friday.
“We didn’t have a lot of time to search for potential “picking” sites, but we were successful in planning an agenda for the show that focused on antiques and mementos that were specifically related to the history of the Hatfield and McCoy legend,” commented Richardson.
“We’ve been working on this for about two months, and we got the call last Friday evening telling us we had the green light for a visit from the pickers,” said the extension professor. “It was stressful to try to bring everything together in seven days but thankfully, everything pulled together and worked wonderfully.”
Although the set for the episode of the pick in Matewan was closed to the public, the popular duo still spent some time mingling with locals, signing autographs and posing for pictures. Friday morning when the well-known Mercedes Antique Archeology Cargo-Van drove up 2nd Avenue in downtown Williamson, the word spread like wildfire that Mike and Frank were in town.
A large crowd quickly formed, and as Mike and a member of their production crew walked to The Righteous Brew Coffeehouse to try out the local coffee and pastries, business owners and patrons were swarming the streets, voicing their likes of the show and asking to take photos with him. He graciously obliged, and remarked that everyone here was friendly and very welcoming, saying that this was” true southern hospitality.”
In an exclusive interview with the Daily News, Mike talked of how he and Frank began this journey that has snowballed into something larger than they could ever have imagined.
“I’ve always been a history nut, I’m what one might describe as bring obsessed with the past,” Mike said as he began the interview. “Frank and I have been buddies since we were in the 8th grade, and he’s as passionate about it as I am. We’ve been pickin’ for 25 years, and doing business under the “Antique Archeology” name since 2001.”
Mike stated that he and Frank had plugged their idea for American Pickers for five years before the History Channel decided to see if the show could prove successful and they quickly seen their decision was a very wise one. The Monday evening show (that can also be seen in other time slots) is extremely popular with people of all ages.
“There’s a tremendous amount of people that love what we do,” Mike said. “They anxiously await the next week’s show to see what we unearth and discover. I can’t tell you how many times that someone has come up to me and commented on one of our finds, saying they hadn’t seen one of those items in years, or they’ll comment that an item brought back childhood memories that they hadn’t thought about in years.”
“They get to sit in their recliners and treasure hunt right along with us. When we get excited, so do they.”
“We love telling stories,” commented the picker. “The legend of the Hatfield-McCoy feud has been told many times, by many people, but it’s never been told by us.”
“When the show airs, we’ll change that fact. We’ll tell the story in our own unique way, and I promise we’ll do it justice.”
“Frank and I are the Flintstone vitamins of history,” said Mike with a laugh.
The pickers and their crew travel for two weeks at a time, and then are home in their native state of Iowa for a two week period. The two men hail from the town of LeClaire, Iowa, which boasts a population of approximately 3,000 residents.
“LeClair is similar in size to Williamson,” said Mike. “We’ve suffered economic loss like so many other cities and towns across the United States. I served as a town council member for 6 years and also on the board of directors for the chamber of commerce and the city tourism board.”
“I know exactly what it feels like to see business close their doors because they can’t make enough profit to stay open, and to see a lack of funding prevent the town from being able to advertise and promote fairs and festivals, tourist sites and other events that would draw in crowds and bring much needed revenue that could and would boost the local economy.”
“It sucks – but with the right plan of action and the desire to follow it through, tough times can be turned around.”
Mike met with the Tug valley Chamber Director and her assistant, and outlined some creative ideas that worked for his hometown, that could also benefit the Tug Valley area.
“No one knows about anything going on here, if you can’t advertise in a way that will allow your town to be showcased in the public eye,” Mike remarked. “I understand that you may not have funding to advertise with, but I can tell you what worked for us, and there’s no reason you can’t make it work here.”
The picker spoke of the “Shopkeepers Association” that was created in his hometown, which charged the participating businesses a monthly fee rather than the once a year dues that the chamber has in place.
“At first, we met some resistance from business owners who thought that $50 a month was just way too much, but once they seen the amount of revenue we gathered from everyone working together, they quickly changed their tune,” explained Mike. “In a little over a year, we had $30,000 to spend on advertising. Everything from television ads, radio, newspaper, billboards – and it wasn’t long at all before we started reaping the profits. Our little town was bustling with tourists who would never have give LeClaire a second thought if we hadn’t been able to get the word out to the extent that we did.”
“We went crazy with it, we thought outside the box, and that’s what you have to do.”
“To turn Williamson around, you’re going to have to start from scratch and reinvent the wheel,” Mike said to Young. “It can be done, you just have to grab the ideas and go with them.”
“It all starts right here – with you.”
One topic that Mike shared with the Daily News that he was very excited to make the public aware of is a new book that he and Frank penned that was recently published, entitled “Kid Pickers”. The book encourages the youth of America to explore their roots and their heritage, and to stop and think about what role items that are now considered antiques and relics played in their ancestors’ lives, how much they utilized them, and of what importance they were.
“We need to teach our kids to embrace history, to learn everything they can. They need to have the desire to absorb these details about the past like a sponge soaks up water,” said Frank, as he joined Mike inside the historic coal house.
“We need to make sure the next generation respects what these items represent and stand for, not just what their monetary value is.”
The American Picker’s producers have requested that the media not release the exact location of their picks while they were in Mingo County, or the list of items they purchased until after the show airs on the History Channel.
“We like the element of surprise, of our fans wondering and being curious,” stated a crew member. “This show will more than likely not air for the next 3 to 4 months, but we will issue a press release to the media informing them of the date so that everyone is aware and no one misses it.”
Numerous public officials were among those fortunate enough to meet the pickers face to face in Williamson, and welcomed the duo to the city and also presented them with welcoming gifts that were a token of appreciation for choosing Mingo County as one of the locations to visit.
“We’re all huge fans, and we’re so very pleased you came to Mingo County to share the story of the Hatfield and McCoy feud with the world,” commented WV Delegate Justin Marcum, while speaking to Mike and Frank. “It’s very uplifting to see the Tug Valley area portrayed in a positive manner that highlights such a vital part of our local history.”
“We are ecstatic that the American Pickers came to the coal house,” stated Young. “We’ve been through a lot here. We’ve been flooded more than once, and suffered extensive damage in the 2010 fire. We’re very proud of how wonderfully the building was restored, and it’s exciting to know that when the show airs that was filmed here in Mingo County, the coal house is going to be on national television for everyone to see.”
“Today was a very proud time for all of Mingo County, especially for the Town of Matewan and the City of Williamson. I want to thank everyone who made this possible and that helped us prepare.”
“The Tug Valley area is our home, and to know that we’re going to be on display for millions of people is a definite reason to be proud.”
If you would like to know more about the American Picker’s such as details about Mike and Frank, view a list of items they have picked that are for sale and all other information related to their show, you may access this by visiting their official websites at www.history.com/shows/american-pickers or www.antiquearchaelogy.com.
Mike and Frank said that during their travels in Mingo County, they were constantly receiving leads for other possible location to pick, and would definitely consider returning to the area sometime in the future.
“We hope our fans continue to follow our show for many years to come,” stated Frank while they were loading up their equipment to head to their next destination in Louisville, Ky.
“You keep on watching – and we’ll keep on pickin,’” concluded Mike, as he waved goodbye to the crowd.