'American Pickers' sort through northwestern Minn. collector's museum of treasures
CLIMAX, Minn. — He isn't sure exactly when it started, but John Vraa says it seems he's been collecting curious things for a lifetime.
He started out small. First, it probably was interesting rocks. Then later, tools and books that once belonged to his great-grandfather's brother who shared his name.
"I'd find things with my name on it. Maybe that's what got me interested in old stuff. When you grow up on an old farm, there's all kinds of odds and ends, tools and gadgets and other things you can find in the woods or an old shed. There's always something," Vraa said. "When I was a little boy, my mom told me I would always come home with rocks and different things I'd picked up in my pockets. She told me one time she got me a pair of pants with no pockets and she felt so bad for me because I had no place to put my stuff. I always had to have pockets."
And when his collections outgrew his pockets and every other ordinary cubby a boy could find, his mother told him the summer kitchen next to the house could be his to store his treasures.
Years later, the 58-year-old farmer and rural mail carrier still needs pockets. He has amassed enough "stuff" to fill a two-story workshop, two houses, several outbuildings, grain bins and a supersized machine shed — and this fall, enough to draw the attention of the History Channel's "American Pickers."
It was brother Paul Vraa, Grand Forks, who had noticed the newspaper ad announcing the show was coming to Minnesota, and he was certain its hosts would want to make a swing by Climax.
"I didn't tell John right away because I was waiting to see if they would even respond," Paul said. "It wasn't very long though, a week maybe, and I got a call from a producer."
When he finally broke the news to his brother, John didn't get very excited.
"He didn't believe it. He thought, nah, they'll never come," Paul recalled. "I said, 'Well they want me to take pictures, and I know as soon as they see the pictures, they're going to be coming, John. Nobody has this much stuff.' And he just kept saying, 'No, no, no, they won't come.'"
But one day in early November, they did come.
And Vraa let them "do their thing" as they made their way around his vintage 1897 workshop — also once home to the town's first drugstore and post office.
"They kind of wing it, so I had no idea what they were going to grab or talk about or what kind of offer they'd make. And that really is real," he said. "They were very generous with their offers and very nice about things."
Vraa had seen the show only a few times, so he was taken by surprise after he had shaken hands on a few deals and the crew headed to the next building without taking anything.
He had to ask: "Is this whole buying thing kind of fake for the show?"
The reply was quick: "Oh no, our guys are going to come get that stuff. We made a deal."
Vraa couldn't reveal much, but suffice to say, the pickers didn't clean him out. In the end, Vraa went home with two itemized bills of sale and a check for $3,200.
Vraa said the show won't air for a few months, but it was a couple of weeks after the whirlwind day when he opened his doors again for this story.
Wearing overalls (with pockets, of course) and a winter-warm Carhartt jacket, Vraa invited his guests to gather around the Round Oak wood stove he plucked from an old country school.
And he admits he prefers a bit of the old-school life himself. He types meeting notes on a 1909 Oliver typewriter. He doesn't own a cellphone, doesn't do computers and doesn't have much time for TV.
Lost in history
Sheepishly, Vraa apologizes for the mess, but his guests don't see it. They see a museum with original beadboard walls covered floor to ceiling with historical photos.
Seventeen lanterns hang from the ceiling in one corner. Antique oil cans line a shelf in another. Vintage metal signs are everywhere. Hanging light fixtures. Radios and lamps. Cameras and clocks. There's the gaudy Florence Jenkins record and the 1909 moosehead mount the blacksmith's wife booted from the house.
And where there isn't a recognizable relic, there are dozens of cabinets with hundreds of drawers holding millions of parts.
"Most old things I get, they need some fixing," Vraa explains. "Something doesn't get to be 100 years old without needing some attention. I like fixing old stuff. Like phonographs, I like to get them working again."
Love might be more accurate. Vraa owns more than 50.
"They're kind of neat-looking. You can hear music from 80, 90 years ago and it's like listening to the past," he says.
A knowledgeable and articulate curator, Vraa pulls out a Bessie Smith record as he attaches a brand-new needle. Quality records can be worth hundreds of dollars, but needles cost a penny.
The room falls silent to make room for the crystal-clear crooning of the Empress of the Blues.
With every collectible, there is a story.
"That's the whole reason to have them," Vraa says.
For instance, everyone knows Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, but few know the backstory.
Edison thought it had a future as a dictation machine for business. He never imagined its use for music. When the era's most famous female blues singer gave him a test pressing, Vraa said Edison wrote "no good" across it. And when another artist approached him with an image of a dog peering into a phonograph horn, Edison said "I don't want that old thing."
The Victor Talking Machine Co. bought it instead, and it became the most well-known trademark for 50 years.
Rules of picking
Vraa believes everyone has an innate urge to collect.
"Even the guy who says he doesn't want to collect anything, he's got his little collection, something that means something to him," Vraa says.
But whether it's phonographs or pianos, furniture or Model T's, Vraa offers this advice: "You have to collect something you like. If you go to a sale and think I'm going to buy something to make a lot of money on it, that almost never works. But if you buy something you like and down the road decide to part with it, you're probably OK. You enjoyed it."