Fans flock to Paxton to meet 'American Pickers' co-star Frank Fritz

PAXTON — “American Pickers” co-star Frank Fritz was greeted by a bevy of fans Saturday in downtown Paxton as he stepped out of the driver’s seat of a van splattered with Workshop Hero advertising.

Wearing tinted shades and a black Workshop Hero T-shirt, Fritz stood for a moment on the street in front of Robin McNish’s antique shops.

But Fritz didn’t have time yet to mingle much with the eagerly awaiting contingent. A group of security guards and Paxton police officers kept fans at bay as they quickly escorted him into the front door of McNish’s Country Crossroads shop.

The scene demonstrated Fritz’s new-found celebrity. To think, before January 2010, when Fritz and co-host Mike Wolfe debuted on their popular History Channel television show, the two lifelong friends and antique hunters from Iowa were sleeping in their van as they went on their “picks.”

Today, Fritz — known as “the bearded charmer” — is among cable television’s more recognizable faces.

“Although this is his first trip to Paxton, it seems like he’s already an old friend because we have been welcoming him into our homes for a long time by way of the ‘American Pickers’ show,” said Paxton Mayor Bill Ingold, who regularly watches the show with his wife, Lynn.

Fritz arrived in Paxton around 11:15 a.m., after going “picking” with McNish, the winner of Workshop Hero’s Pick with Frank Fritz Contest. Fritz, a celebrity spokesman for Workshop Hero’s Metal Rescue Rust Remover Bath product, then stayed around for about four more hours as part of Workshop Hero Day, an event that McNish organized for the community. While here, Fritz signed free autographs, chatted with fans and had lunch at the Tin Pan restaurant.

Fritz said having an antique dealer like McNish win the contest was a perfect fit.

“What better person to win? She’s into antiques. I mean, it could have just been a fan, somebody who watches the television show a lot or something,” Fritz said. “But to actually get a contestant who’s into antiques and the stuff we’re into, that’s great.”

McNish and Fritz were joined on their “picking” trip by Workshop Hero camera crews at Earl Rust’s farm north of Buckley. While there, Fritz didn’t buy anything from Rust — as he was a “little picked out” after spending 21 days in Maine searching for antiques — but he did help McNish find some items and make some deals.

“I just came off the road of being on 21 days of buying stuff, so I had to lay off a little bit today,” Fritz said. “But (Rust) was a great guy. He had a lot of interesting items. He didn’t pigeon-hole himself, too. One area was (full of) advertising; the other thing (he had) was primitives; he had cast iron; he had rust; he had steam engines. He had a lot of different stuff. So the guy was great, and it was a good pick, and it was fun doing it with Robin.”

McNish said she came away with some “goodies” that she plans to sell at one of her shops, including her favorite item, a “folk-art popcorn popper that somebody made by hand.” 

“I had a hard time deciding what to get, but I did buy a lot,” McNish said. “I ran out of money, and (Rust) said I could come back.”

McNish said she also “learned so much” from Fritz.

“He knew about everything,” McNish said. “He was so informative. He even told Earl about stuff he had.”

Fritz said it is obvious McNish has a talent for “picking,” which is likely why her business has been growing lately — expanding from one shop to four.

“Following her around, she’s quick. She’s got a good eye. I can tell why she’s got quite a few shops in town,” Fritz said. “When you have a brick-and-mortar store like this, you have to keep up with the trends. You have to keep up with what people are interested in.”

The 79-year-old Rust, an antique collector for 25 years, said the experience of having Fritz come to his farm was “unreal” — a “one-time deal.”

Rust is a fan of “American Pickers” and watched the show’s newest episode Friday night.

“We used to watch it a lot, but in the summer I don’t watch TV as much as I do in the winter,” Rust said.

Rust mainly has been collecting gas pumps and small oil barrels, “but they’re getting scarce,” he said, adding that he can “hardly find them anymore.”

Upon returning to Paxton, McNish gave Fritz a tour of her shops. At the end of the tour, she showed Fritz the newly renovated space on the north side of her Country Crossroads store that she has converted into a satellite store for Fritz’s Savanna-based business, Frank Fritz Finds. She hopes Fritz can use the space to sell some of his items on consignment.

Fritz said the idea might be something he would consider.

“You never know,” Fritz said. “Stranger things have happened. I’m pretty far away from my shop (in Paxton) ... but, hey, you never know. I could drop a few things off here and there.”

McNish was almost at a loss for words when asked what it meant to have Fritz standing in her store.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s a dream come true. When I started my (first) shop, I called it Robin’s Homespun Dreams. Now, I’m living a dream. I have Frank standing in my shop, in my building.”

This was not Fritz’s first visit to Ford County. He and Wolfe went “picking” at Ray “Beetle” Leisure’s home in Gibson City a couple of years ago and filmed a segment there for “American Pickers.”

Leisure was in attendance Saturday in Paxton.

“He didn’t hardly recognize me until I reminded him what he bought off me,” Leisure said.

Leisure said it was fun to see Fritz again.

“It’s quite a deal getting to see him again,” Leisure said. “I’m glad they got a hold of Earl and picked his (property).”

Leisure said he has seen the “American Pickers” featuring himself about a dozen times since it first aired last September. The episode is called “Deuce Diggin’” — a reference to the 1932 Ford Roadster that Wolfe and Fritz bought from Leisure.

“The 1932 Roadster is called a Deuce, and they had to dig for it, too,” Leisure said.

The antique car has been restored to functionality and has appeared on the show, Leisure said.

“I wish I had it back,” Leisure said. “I had all kinds of people offer me twice what they gave me for it. I said, ‘Where were you at before the show (came to my property)?’ But I was well-satisfied what they gave me for it. I hope they enjoy it.”

After touring McNish’s shops, Fritz was joined on a stage set up in the 200 block of South Market Street by McNish and Paxton Mayor Bill Ingold.

In welcoming Fritz to Paxton, Ingold told of how he has long been a fan of “American Pickers.”

“I’ve been selling John Deere farm machinery for over 30 years, and the part of the show I like best is really after they’ve made the pick,” Ingold said. “I call it ‘the art of bartering’ — when they start haggling over the price and then they bundle some things together and seal the deal. And I think that’s good stuff. I try to pick up a few pointers whenever I can.”

Continued Ingold: “Me and my wife, when we watch the show, we always like the old memorabilia, the advertising things and the steel signs. It brings a lot of things back for us — memories for us when we were younger — and we enjoy that. We also enjoy that someone like the ‘pickers’ will get those things, retrieve them from an old building or a rust pile, and bring new life into it and get it back into circulation so younger generations can enjoy it, as well.”

Ingold then presented a gift to Fritz, but it wasn’t what Ingold originally had planned.

“It was in the paper that I was going to give away a key to the city,” Ingold said. “Well, we don’t have one, and I tried to make one, and I found out that I am better at selling tractors than I am at making wooden keys.”

Instead of a key to the city, Ingold presented Fritz with a plate commemorating the pavilion at Pells Park.

“It’s very appropriate that we do this, because our pavilion was probably one of the first buildings ever recycled,” Ingold said. “In early 1900, the First Lutheran Church in Paxton was taken down and the big wooden beams were set aside and saved, and in 1908 those beams were used to build the pavilion in Pells Park. In 106 years, there’s been a lot of family reunions (there), parties, weddings and concerts, in addition to having some famous people like William Jennings Bryan and former President William Howard Taft give speeches there.”

Ingold invited Fritz to return to Paxton “to eat with us and maybe go do some picking.”

McNish also presented a gift to Fritz on the stage. It was a small antique wagon that was restored by McNish’s friend Amy Kesler to look like an antique car.

“It’s been in Robin’s shop for a long time,” Kesler said in presenting the gift.

Dave Yancho, vice president of Workshop Hero, said the original idea was for the winner of the Pick with Frank Fritz Contest to go “picking” with Fritz closer to the Savanna area where Fritz has his shop.

But McNish wanted to bring the party to Paxton, so the plan changed. Eventually, McNish and Workshop Hero representatives agreed to have the “picking” trip near Paxton and hold Workshop Hero Day as a community celebration.

It was all Robin’s idea.

“She could have had four or five ‘picks’ in a day just with Frank, but she’s sharing him with you,” Yancho said.

Fritz, a Bettendorf, Iowa, resident, said he enjoyed his time in Ford County.

“I live in a little town, and I know what little-town living is like, and I’m really proud of Robin being able to put this back into the community,” Fritz said. “This is a big get-together for the community, and any time my fans come out to see me or Mike, we appreciate that ever so much.”


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