One person’s rusted old bicycle is another’s treasured antique. Illinois State Redbird Tom Irwin discovered that last summer when he and his twin brother, Jim, invited the crew from American Pickers to rummage around their family’s 183-year-old farm in Michigan.
American Pickers is a reality TV show on the History channel starring Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, a pair of antique hunters who travel the country searching through people’s basements, cellars, and barns for valuable items. Fritz and Wolfe’s brother, Robbie, visited the Irwins’ 174-acre farm last August for an episode that aired March 4.
The show culminates with a negotiation over the sale of the Irwins’ great-great-grandfather’s high-wheel bicycle. The 1880s Springfield Roadster fetched $3,000.
“We were floored by the value of it and what they offered because it needed so much work,” Tom said. “That was really, really pleasing.”
The American Pickers also bought a 1936 John Deere Model B tractor and a few other items that helped raise $5,000 for the farm, Tom said. The money will go to help restore the many aging buildings on the property, including a beautiful gambrel-style barn.
“It’s a work of art,” Tom said.
Tom, 41, co-owns the farm with his brother and makes the six-hour drive once a month to help with their cattle business. Jim represented the Irwins on American Pickers, as Tom was mentioned only as his brother in the episode.
“He said it was the most fun two days of his life,” Tom said.
Tom lived on the farm until he was 25. He moved to Bloomington about 12 years ago with his wife, who is from the area. Since 2009 he has worked as a refrigeration pipe fitter in Illinois State’s Office of Energy Management and is pursuing a degree in renewable energy. The couple’s two daughters attend Metcalf School. “I love ISU,” he said.
The farm, which is located less than an hour west of Ann Arbor, has been in his family for six generations. The brothers’ great-great-great-grandfather James Irwin emigrated from Ireland and bought the first 80 acres for $1.25 per acre. The original deed was signed on sheepskin by United States President Martin Van Buren, Tom said.
“That farm has passed directly father to son, father to son,” Tom said.
The show’s cast had planned to visit the farm in 2017 when they were scouting for locations in Michigan, but the Irwins’ father, Dick, fell fatally ill at that time. The show returned last summer with an eye on the bicycle and other items scattered around the property.
“We just couldn’t be more pleased,” said Tom, who has watched the show for years. “It’s exciting to see that those items will be restored back to their original state.”
One day, Tom would like to return to the farm full time and raise his family there. “That’s the long-term plan.”
To watch the American Pickers episode featuring the Irwins’ family farm, visit the show’s website.
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.