A shout out to all of the past members of my pandemic interrupted “Collectible automobiles as a passion” class who donned masks and gathered at Paul’s Motors in Hawthorne, New Jersey last Thursday. An eclectic collection of superior classic automobiles together with a stack of pizzas made for a great night and reminded all, how much we miss getting together. And now on to this week’s story.
Elaine and I take great pleasure in avoiding major interstates when travelling through unfamiliar territory. The rewards of the “road not taken” memorialized by poet Robert Frost have been reinforced time and again in our travels. A few years ago seeking a back way to Charlotte, North Carolina put us on a wonderful well paved two-lane that meandered through rolling farmland and woods. While the road merits inclusion in “Roads We Remember,” the man we met at the end of the road makes this story a “Conversation With People We Value.”
American Pickers meets Hunger Games on a country road
A picturesque ribbon of highway, Route 742 weaved through the rural Piedmont region of North Carolina. My personal directional instincts fortified by happenstance, hope and blind luck (We don’t need no stinkin’ GPS) had once again struck pay dirt.
Route 742 would be transporting us on a picturesque and untroubled journey to my favorite destination, “somewhere else.” Encouraged by Elaine’s child-like delight in the joys of being hopelessly lost, we reveled in this open expanse of rural America dotted with healthy farms and infrequent villages that populated this handsome country road.
The striking pristine cleanliness and order of one small community we passed through piqued our interest. We were later told that a local son who had gone off to make his fortune had done just that. The story went that with gratitude for his upbringing he returned to invest in revitalizing his home town. Whether true or not, I had chosen to believe.
Slowing to the end of this idyllic blue highway and poised to leave behind this land of lovely hamlets, an amazing sight entered our view. Before our wondering eyes should appear (Yes, I know, I stole the line but it just fit so well) what could only be described as the land of Oz for pickers and automobilia enthusiasts. And, we were about to meet a real wizard.
Locked gates barred access to acres of open land filled with an incredible array of tangible relics saved from long ago. Affixed to the gate a large “For Sale” sign offered a number for anyone interested. Driving on with this treasure trove of who-knows-what disappearing behind us, we both looked at each other and said, “Let’s call.” By the time we got back to the gate it was open.
A breathtaking and eclectic array of stuff, great, rare, fun stuff laid strewn about, sequestered in trailers, displayed in open barns and housed in closed buildings. Signage dating back as far as 80 years displayed iconic brands with names that now recede into history. Standard Oil, ESSO, Texaco, Sinclair, Gulf signs and more populated walls and hung from original poles just as they did many decades ago. WWII fighter drop tanks, post war cars and trucks, a cluster of Volkswagens, Air Stream trailers, phone booths, motorcycles and farm combines all of various vintages and states of condition filled our field of vision.
Approaching us with an easy gate, a full bodied man, an avuncular sort greeted us with a friendly welcome delivered with that unhurried regional tone of the Southeast that reminds one that it’s not New Jersey. He introduced himself as Mike Hinson. With a neatly trimmed beard, and a neighborly smile, Mike with his wide brimmed hat and clean bib overalls presented an image of a proprietor rather than a laborer.
While everything was for sale, Mike walked us around projecting the unhurried air of a docent rather than a salesman. Indeed, his demeanor perfectly matched the extraordinary collection amassed in his near forty years of running a business from the store his grandfather built in the early 1900s. With family roots that traced back over a century, Mike’s business in this little town of Red Cross, North Carolina with its 742 residents brimmed not only with artifacts but history as well.
Though soft spoken and deliberate in speech and manner, one suspected that Mike had a keen country mind when conducting business. Walking through the acres of breathtaking remnants from times gone by, Mike explained how he conducted most of his business at major antique and collectibles shows down the eastern seaboard from Pennsylvania to Florida.
He possessed a fondness for Hershey in the fall that did not extend to Carlisle in any season. “I stopped going to Carlisle some years ago. It just seems that Hershey offers a far greater opportunity to sell items to buyers interested in the unusual or rare,” said Mike.
For this article I took the opportunity to attempt to follow-up with Mike. With a twinge of trepidation, I called the number from the sign in a photograph. A lot can happen over a few years. Two rings and Mike answered. We talked. We laughed. Yes, Mike said, the business was pretty much the same. Something inside me felt so deep down good that something so distinctively unique, quirky and vulnerable to “progress” had remained as I had remembered it.
As a purveyor of the rare and unusual, the large and fascinating and the historic and authentic, it should be no surprise that Mike has drawn the attention of both Hollywood and Madison Avenue for movies, commercials and reality programming. “I guess the best known film that they propped from here would be the ‘Hunger Games’,” says Mike. He continues, “They rented a lot of rusty stuff. He does not seem overly interested in the film productions that come to peruse his period correct or unusual items. “Frankly,” Mike says, “My wife Ellen and I don’t go to the movies.” But they do watch television especially when Mike appears, as he did on an episode of “American Pickers.”
Say’s Mike, “They must have spent a full eight hours here to get the 10 minutes of film they ultimately wanted.” Mike really enjoyed working with Mike Wolfe. “Appearing on American Pickers gave me the best advertising in the world and it did not cost me a penny,” says Mike.
When asked what items were purchased for the show, Mike says, “I had a 1930’s Bowlus Road Chief camper that they really, really liked. I had bought it a few weeks earlier and they wanted it very badly.” Mike Wolfe messed around with me all day long about that camper,” says Mike. Finally with the shooting day fast coming to a close Mike Wolfe says, “I know you do not want to sell it, but just give me your price.” “Okay, said Mike, “ I’ll take 75.” Mike Wolfe reached out to shake Mike’s hand as Mike Wolfe said, “I’ll take it for $7,500.” Mike responded, “No Man, It’s $75,000.”
Apparently that exchange provided a highlight for that episode and merits a periodic flashback on the show.
When asked to name his all time favorite item across his acres and through the decades Mike without hesitation identifies his 1930s Bowlus Road Chief camper, the “no sale” item that had so disappointed Mike Wolfe. A gleaming riveted aluminum projectile with the aerodynamics of an airliner, it was the creation of aircraft designer William Hawley Bowlus in the 1930s. Bowlus greatest fame came not from his work with campers but with aircraft. He designed and built the Spirit of St. Louis that carried Charles Lindbergh to eternal fame.
When asked if he still had the Bowlus camper, Mike says no. He sold it to a buyer in the Midwest. When asked if he regretted not taking Mike Wolfe’s offer, Mike provided a polite “not at all” with the quiet confidence of a man who knows everything has a price and the patience to await the buyer who will pay it.
I asked Mike if the “for sale” sign that I had seen years back remained on the gate. “Yes, I probably get a call a week,” Mike says, “When I tell them my price, they don’t want to talk anymore. I’m in no hurry.”
If you found the story of Mr. Mike, as he is known locally, interesting, check the three links below.
Great! You had me at the photo of the Shelby Cobra!
We actually had two at the gathering the other was a 427.
Love this place and Mike is a treasure.
I was thrilled to reconnect with Mike. He and his store are indeed treasures. Thank you for your comments.