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GIBSON CITY — Ray Leisure started looking for old, one-of-a-kind items when he was 12 years old. Six decades later, the man many around Gibson City know only as “Beetle” has built a massive collection of pickings crammed into five buildings.
“I guess it’s a disease,” Leisure said. “I don’t know. I just hate to see old stuff destroyed.”
Leisure is a huge fan of the show “American Pickers,” in its fourth season on the History Channel. And he has always wanted to appear on the documentary series, which is looking all across Illinois, in all 102 counties, to find the perfect collections to “pick.”
Leisure, 73, still dwells on how he missed out on a chance to show off his collection a couple of years ago, when the show’s hosts, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz — two of the most skilled pickers in the antique business — were at the Gibson City Dairy Queen. They were standing in line directly in front of Leisure’s brother, who relayed the news to Leisure shortly after.
“I said (to my brother), ‘Why didn’t you tell them they was just a half-mile from paydirt?’” Leisure recalled. “A lot of things they show on (American Pickers) I’ve got. I see them looking through buildings (on TV) and I say, ‘I’ve got that! And I’ve got that!’”
Leisure thinks his sizeable collection of antiques would make for some ideal “picking” for the show. His collection certainly appears to fit what the show is looking for.
“In terms of criteria, we are looking for colorful characters with great stories, unique items and lots of ‘em! Our favorite and most successful picks feature multiple buildings crammed with lots of cool and interesting stuff. We really love for Mike and Frank to work for what they find, digging through piles to come up with treasures,” Jake Bandman of American Pickers wrote in an email.
“Right now we are looking all over the state of Illinois and in every county. We’ll go where the great picks are.”
Wolfe and Fritz plan to be in Illinois in early September, and the show is asking that people who would like to be considered for the show send in their contact information and photos of their collections as soon as possible. The show is only looking for people with large private collections, not folks with just a few items; also, the show does not visit shops, antiques malls, auctions or flea markets.
“Email us your name, number, town, state and the items along with pictures you think Mike and Frank will be interested in at AmericanPickers@Cineflix.com,” Bandman said. “Or call and leave a message at 646-493-2184.”
Prime for the picking
Leisure said he plans to apply to be on the show — if for no other reason, just to get rid of some stuff.
“I have five buildings full of stuff,” Leisure said. “My garage I can’t hardly walk in right now. My building across the street (from my house) is 5,000 square feet, and it’s full. Then the other (building) right beside it, it’s about 1,200 to 1,500 square feet. It’s loaded. And then I bought a firehouse over in Saybrook, and I’ve just about got it full, too.”
Leisure said he probably has some items that Wolfe and Fritz have never seen.
“I’m sure I do,” he said.
Some of the rarer items in his collection include a wicker basket wheelchair from the mid-1800s; an old spinning wheel; old telephone booths dating back to the 1930s and 1940s; antique baseball gloves and softball mitts; many old signs, including one for the Western Auto shop that closed in Gibson City several decades ago; gas pumps from the 1950s or 1960s; and a 1932 Ford pickup truck.
That’s the short list.
The old phone booths are quite unique, said Leisure, who is retired from a 30-year career at Illinois Bell in Gibson City.
“One is wooden; it’s probably from back in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” he said. “And then I have a couple outside aluminum ones. One came from our office right up town here, and I got two that came out of a Greyhound bus station up in Chicago.”
Leisure said he has been collecting since age 12 and his interest only continued to grow in the antique business as an adult. For 25 years, he would go to auctions and community sales and sell his items with fellow antique dealers Phil Stagen and Elwood Stagen.
At one point, Leisure was planning to open his own museum. He jokingly said that he had enough stuff to open “everything from an old antique blacksmith shop to a woodworking shop to a tinsmith’s shop and barber shop.”
Other area pickers
Brad Strebeck of Paxton also is an avid “picker.” He routinely drives country roads to find those out-of-the-way places with lots of cool stuff.
Strebeck said he has amassed quite a collection of antiques, but he does not think he has what the show is looking for.
, he said he would love to get a phone call from the show.
“I would try to steer them in the right direction to places I’ve seen,” Strebeck said.
Strebeck said he goes to about 20 to 25 antique shows a year on weekends. He goes there to sell his stuff, “but I end up always buying something,” he said with a laugh.
Strebeck started his hobby by collecting baseball cards and now collects toy trucks from the 1950s and 1960s as well as primitive furniture from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“I got my garage full. And I got a trailer that I pull to go to the shows that’s full, and our house is full of it,” Strebeck said. “If you ask me, everything’s for sale. But if you ask my wife (Christine), she’d probably give you a different answer.”
Strebeck said he thinks there is a lot of local interest in the antique business in Ford County. Not only are there several antique shops, but there is also an annual community sale in Paxton that earlier this year Strebeck helped revive after a 10-year hiatus.
Strebeck said it “would be great” for the show to feature Ford County.
“I think it would be really neat and maybe would help some of the antique businesses in town, and put us on the map or whatever,” he said.
Debbie Chapman-Hermann, owner of Mena’s Mercantile in downtown Paxton, said antiques are “huge here.”
“I didn’t realize when I opened this shop how many people would come in to sell me things, and actually I’ve got a couple people who go out picking just to bring stuff to me (to buy),” she said. “So there’s a huge interest.
“It’s the thrill of the hunt, trying to find a bargain, wanting to know the history behind an item,” she continued. “It’s just fun. It’s kind of like a little rush.”
Chapman-Hermann said she wants American Pickers to come to Ford County “just to look at our shops and to pick their brains.”
About the show
The Paxton Area Chamber of Commerce was contacted by American Pickers’ Bandman last week about helping find candidates for the show.
The show follows the pickers in their truck as they go on a mission in search of America’s most fascinating and valuable antiques — treasures that have been long forgotten in junkyards and barns across the country.
“The show examines how determination and amazing instincts drive the pickers to salvage the good junk from the bad junk,” a History Channel news release said. “On the adventure our team meets fascinating characters along the way, each with a story to tell about the history of their collection and their own lives.”
WHAT THEY NEED ....
For the show’s upcoming third season, someone in Illinois will be featured. The list of items Wolfe and Fritz want to find are: motor scooters (Vespas, Lambretta, Cushman), old advertising signage, motorcycles, bicycles (pre-1960s to 1900), unusual radios (transistor/tabletop), old toys (tin, wind-up, cast iron), pre-1950s vending machines, pinball and slot machines, old movie posters, antique casino/gaming machines, vintage movie memorabilia, vintage advertising items, taxidermy, vintage concert posters and T-shirts, early Boy Scout items pre-1960s vintage diner collectibles, pre-1960s TV merchandise, pre-1950s western/equestrian gear, classic motorcycle memorabilia, old rodeo items, airline collectibles (Pan-Am, TWA, etc.), late-1970s and earlier military items, extraordinary mobster memorabilia, vintage police officer collectibles, firefighter collectibles, pre-1940s telephones, folk art, vintage BB guns/cap guns, early Halloween items, pre-1940s Christmas items, Hawaiian/tiki collectibles, vintage sports collectibles, vintage election memorabilia, musical instruments, Civil War antiques, vintage gas pumps, pre-1970s neon signs, strange woodcarvings, vintage collegiate collectibles and casino tables.
“We’re also looking for movie and music memorabilia, sports memorabilia, items from Illinois history, and basically any other oddball, one-of-a-kind, or interesting historical items you can think of,” American Pickers’ Jake Bandman said. “Items they are not looking for include: fine furniture, agricultural or farming items/equipment, depression glass, appliances, or pottery.”