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Mike Wolfe

Week 9 - June 16, 2011

Leiper’s Fork is full of fun people doing fascinating things, which means our dear friend Mike Wolfe fits right in.

Last summer, the Iowa native and star of the History Channel show American Pickers purchased a vacation home in the tiny Tennessee burg, located about a half-hour south of Nashville. Besides having a place for he and his longtime ladylove, Jodi Faeth, to come to escape the harsh Midwestern winters, Leiper’s has become a sort of spiritual home away from home for Mike.

“I like small towns. In Iowa, I live in a really small town,” he says of Le Claire, a city on the Mississippi River with a population of about 3,000. “I could have bought a house in some other city; I mean, I love Savannah, I love Charleston, South Carolina. But Leiper’s is special. This place just oozes Americana.

“Out here, heritage isn’t some kind of trend: it’s a lifestyle,” he said during a breakfast chat on Memorial Day at The Country Boy, a restaurant just around the corner from his renovated 1901 house. “There is a sense of pride in this community like none I’ve ever seen.”

And that’s really saying something, considering that traveling, the country in search of secondhand treasures is Mike’s day job (and – lucky guy – his favorite pastime as well). He’s visited a lot of small towns, but says none of them have the vitality and civic pride of Leiper’s Fork. “People here have such a strong sense of wanting to help out their neighbors,” he said. “When there’s an event going on in town – and that happens all the time – people line up, asking to help. And everyone has a role.

One of the ringleaders of these celebrations is Marty Hunt, who Mike and pretty much everyone else you talk to in Leiper’s consider to be the town matriarch. (Some of the photos here were taken at her stately white farmhouse with a wraparound porch and a clear view of the tiny stretch of downtown.) What some of them might not know is that Marty is the reason Mike ended up semi-settling down in “The Fork.”

Over coffee refills and second helpings of amazing hash brown casserole dotted with crispy corn flakes, Mike shared the story of how he discovered Leiper’s Fork, and offered up some of his favorite things about the special place he can now call home:

The first time I came to Leiper’s Fork was about eight of nine years ago. I was on my bike: I had come down to drive the Natchez Trace, which is really popular route for motorcycle riders. I found my way onto Old Hillsboro Road, which brought me right into Leiper’s. I remember that I was, like, ‘Wow!’

I saw a sign for Leiper’s Fork Antiques, and, of course, I went in. I thought was the coolest antique store I’d ever seen. It wasn’t so much the merchandise – obviously, that matters a lot, but what I was really into was how everything was displayed. It looked like it was ready for a Country Living magazine shoot. The attention to detail was amazing.

It was Marty’s store, and she was behind the counter. So we started talking. I liked that she knew where everything came from: like, if she had a desk that was out of an old tobacco barn, she could tell you the county where it was found, the history of the piece, and the day it was picked. She was really interesting, so I sat there for, like, three hours, just getting to know each other.

I found out that Marty and her husband Bruce moved a lot of the old buildings that are on the main drag into town; along with a great guy named Aubrey Preston, they had the vision for what Leiper’s Fork could be and made it happen. Twenty years ago, it didn’t look like this: Puckett’s was here but not much else. Those three are the reason this is all here.

I was impressed by that – and so impressed by Tennessee in general – that I made up my mind on that visit that I’d come back down soon with a truckload of stuff to sell to Marty. I did, and she loved what I bought her. After that, we were friends.

I kept bringing down more and more stuff for her store – too much, it turns out. Marty told me I needed to set up at Nashville’s flea market, so I started doing that; it’s where I met a lot of my Nashville clients and some of my best friends.

Not long after that, Jodi and I started coming down regularly; we’d stay with Marty and Bruce. This town is really welcoming. We weren’t just some Yankees coming in for vacation; no one treated us like out-of-towners. Everyone made us feel like we were welcomed, like this was our home. So last year, we took them up on it: we bought a house.

People in Leiper’s love a good party; they live to celebrate. They’ll have a parade in honor or anything. There’s one that celebrates the septic tank business where all the septic tanks roll through town on parade; Mary and Bruce drive around in the back of a truck that’s been adapted to look like the one on “The Beverly Hillbillies.” They’re like the king and queen of Leiper’s Fork, and their house is a big gathering place. For instance, whenever there’s a tornado warning, everybody goes to Marty and Bruce’s house and gets in the cellar. They bring their animals and their booze and it turns into a good time.

Marty and Bruce used to have a community Fourth of July party at their home. They have a huge yard and would bring in food and crafts vendors and have games for the kids and a different bluegrass band on the hour from nine in the morning until the party ended. I saw Ralph Stanley perform there one year; Wynonna Judd, who lives close by, used to play it, too. (There are a lot of celebrities and musicians here; they get treated just like everyone else, which is cool.) Finally, it just got too big: the last one they had, 20,000 people showed up. The parties around here are just that good!

When it’s warm out, the women in town put on “creek parties,” where they get together down by the Harpeth River to celebrate something or somebody. Our good friend Alex, an interior designer who took over Marty’s space five years ago and opened an antique and gift store called Serenite Maison, decorates the area around the creek with the same kind of attention she would if she were decorating Ashley Judd’s house (which she does, by the way). There are chandeliers, candelabras, and beautiful furniture that they put in the middle of the creek – they like to sit with their feet in the water. When Alex is done, it looks like the set for one of those big photo shoots they do in magazines like Vanity Fair.

Everyone comes wearing ball gowns. Even the animals even get dressed up: they bring in donkeys and put eye shadow and lipstick on them; our friend Butler hot glues jewels to the fur on the heads of her dogs, Bunny Boo Boo and Butterfly. (Editor’s note: We are assured that the glue doesn’t hurt the dogs and it that it washes out easily.)

Jodi went to a few creek parties and was always really impressed by them. So, after we moved here last summer, they gave her one for her birthday. Our neighbor Bryce has a little airplane in his garage, and he flew over the creek while they were partying, pulling a sign made out of a sheet behind him that said “Happy Birthday, Jodi!” She was in tears.

That’s the kind of thing that makes it so special here: people take the time to have fun. It’s a priority – almost a requirement to live here. Everything can be made into a celebration.

The other day, we were at Marty’s and she was telling us that one of our neighbors down the road is having a baby. The way she and her friends were talking about it, it was their baby. They were deciding who was going to get to keep it and what they were going to do with it. It’s the town’s baby now; the mother never stood a chance!

It’s like something you’d see in the movie “Steel Magnolias” – all these women coming together to talk about what they want to do with a baby that’s not even theirs. But it’s not the movies: it’s totally happening here. In Leiper’s Fork, that kind of thing is for real.

-I + W

About our photographer: David McClister is a photographer based in Nashville. He likes extra cheesy nachos almost any day of the week, and deviled eggs on Sundays. His book Rastlin: A Southern Survey will be published this December by Stephen F. Austin University Press. See more of his work at www.davidmcclister.com.