Mike and Frank have nothing on these folks.
Those famous “American Pickers” from LeClaire could perhaps learn a few things from some Fort Dodge residents who were “picking” before picking was cool.
It starts with a box of baseball cards under the bed or a jar of lightning bugs left overnight on the porch. Pickers and collectors see things differently than most people. They notice things that others walk by without a glance.
“I was scrounging around junkyards when I was just a kid, looking for anything I could sell,” recalls Tom Brown.
A child of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma, Brown started picking out of necessity as just a child.
“I’ve always junked. All my life, I’ve been a junker,” Brown says. “My brother used to take me on my bicycle when I was 6 years old, and we’d go to the junkyard and look for aluminum and anything else we could sell. He always said that I have an eye for anything that was worth money.”
That eye has served him, as Brown has spent a lifetime picking and selling from one end of the country to the other. He’s lived in Arizona, California and even done flea markets in Las Vegas, but he’s called Fort Dodge home for about 13 years and says this is the best place he’s ever lived.
Billing himself as a “flea market entrepreneur,” Brown knows the ins and outs of picking and collecting just about better than anyone.
Regardless of what a person collects — milk bottles, milk glass, glass ware, farm tools, stoneware corks, coffee grinders or salt and pepper shakers — there’s a lot of potential “rusty gold” out there, but Brown says the most important thing is to make sure that it’s fun.
“You’ve got to like it. It’s got to be something that you have a passion for, because it’s a lot of work. If you don’t like it, you’ll never make it,” he says.
Brown is a familiar face at the monthly flea markets in Fort Dodge. His stand close to the entrance of the fairgrounds is always filled with antiques and collectibles, a little variety for just about every taste. He’s known for having “the good stuff” and known for always being willing to make a deal.
“It’s difficult to say what’s going to sell. I get something that I think is going to sell right away, and it won’t sell. And then I get something that I think nobody is going to buy, and it sells right away,” he says.
Brown picks garage sales, auctions and just about any place else he can find. His only rule is to pay as little as possible so that he has room to make a profit.
“I paid 75 cents for an old antique transistor radio; I put a battery in it, and I sold it for $5 — that’s a pretty good profit, and everything adds up,” he says with a grin.
Old wood radios are one of his best sellers, as is just about any type of furniture. He particularly enjoys collecting and selling kitchen items and old enamel ware.
“I just buy a variety of different kinds of things, and hopefully it will sell,” he adds.
Brown is also blessed with a knack for fixing things. That’s often why he can buy low and sell for more — because he isn’t afraid to buy something in pretty bad shape if he thinks he can repair it.
He’s currently nursing a 1920 guitar back to health, slowing applying water to it and gently bending the neck back in proper alignment. To most folks, it would be good only for the junk pile, but when Brown is finished with it, this $20 purchase should sell for up to $200.
As a picker, Brown is a patient sort, willing to spend a little time to find just the right item and then give it the care it needs to be a treasure again.
“I don’t know why I do the stuff I do; I just do it because I like it,” he says.
It’s the joy of the hunt
If there’s a difference between pickers and collectors, it may be that for a picker, everything is always for sale.
Pickers hunt, buy, sell, trade and move on to hunt again.
Collectors keep. They savor what they have found and vow to never let it go.
It takes both kinds, and dedicated pickers and collectors probably have a little of each inside them. Jeremy McLaughlin remembers collecting baseball cards as a kid growing up in Fort Dodge. He probably still has a box of them somewhere, but these days he prefers to hunt for things a little more challenging.
If everyone else has it, McLaughlin doesn’t even want it.
“Don’t collect what’s trendy,” he advises. “Buy what you like because you’re the one who has to live with it every day.”
If there’s a point when McLaughlin moved from collector to picker, it’s probably when he started attending weekly auctions at Sparky’s Auction House in Fort Dodge. He was off work for awhile and looking for something to occupy his time.
“I think as a teenager I started to like beer steins and mugs, and my brother saw an ad for an auction, and it had like 50 beer steins for sale,” he recalls. “It was a two-day sale at the fairgrounds. I came back up the next day, bought a few things, and then I noticed that Sparky’s had an auction every Tuesday night. I thought, ‘I’ll go there; that’s something to do.’ ”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
McLaughlin was hooked.
From beer steins, he soon moved on to collecting beer advertising, particularly cartoon advertising pieces for beer. Of course, when it comes to cartoon advertising beer, most folks immediately hear the beat of tom-toms echoing from “the land of sky blue waters,” where the well-known Hamm’s Bear played — but not McLaughlin.
“Anything but Hamm’s; he’s too easy to find. The thrill comes from finding the hard pieces,” McLaughlin says.
Instead, McLaughlin collects the much lesser-known Bevo Fox, which Anheuser Busch used to promote its non-alcoholic beer during Prohibition days, he explains.
While pickers and collectors are often “born that way,” it’s also true that the habit is highly contagious.
McLaughlin’s wife, Laura, wasn’t much of a collector or picker until the two met. Now married for just more than a year, she is building her own collection of baskets and fine glassware.
Laura collects both Millefiori and Latticino glass. Millefiori is an Italian glassware that translates as “thousand flowers,” and Latticino is known for the ribbons of colored glass that run through it.
While Laura says she’s mostly a collector — and tends to hang on to her pieces —her husband notes that in one afternoon the couple sold one of her glass lamps on e-bay, only to turn around and buy another one just like it for half the money, also on e-bay.
But don’t count on using e-bay as a bargaining chip with McLaughlin.
“The most common thing we hear is, ‘This is what it sells for on e-bay.’ I don’t care what it sells for on e-bay. That may be a one-time thing, on either the high end or the low end. If it sold for $100 on e-bay, I don’t want to pay $100,” he says firmly.
Stoneware Society offers wealth of information
McLaughlin encourages new pickers and collectors to learn from those who have been doing it for years. Several years ago, his own love for local stoneware pieces led him to join what was then the Fort Dodge Stoneware Collectors Society.
Studying their own history, and learning that Fort Dodge stoneware has connections to pieces made in several other communities, the group eventually renamed itself the Iowa Stoneware Collectors Society. Today, McLaughlin is president of the group.
His own large collection ranges from crocks of all sizes, to more unusual pieces, such as clay chickens and stoneware dogs, and he can tell visitors a little bit about the history of just about every item.
Being involved in such a group helped him learn as he collected more and more. He has great respect for those folks who have been in the society for many years and notes that they have members from many different communities.
“These guys know so much, not just about Fort Dodge stoneware, but Red Wing, Western, all Iowa pottery. There’s someone in that room that can give you an answer,” he says.
For those wanting to learn more, the group will have its next meeting on Sunday, Oct. 20 with a noon potluck at the Fort Museum Opera House. New members are always welcome.
But whether it’s stoneware, or coffee cans, furniture or tea pots, McLaughlin says the best advice is to always follow your heart when collecting.
“Buy the best of what you like, and buy the best that you can afford,” he concludes.