Passion for the past: Tolna, N.D., antiques collector featured on 'American Pickers'
Brian Nelson's secret may be well-hidden—but not for long.
For 10 years, the antique collector in Tolna, N.D., has been buying old things and squirreling them away—with no particular plan.
Nelson is scheduled to appear on the History Channel's "American Pickers" at 8 p.m. Monday. He is the first North Dakotan to be featured on the show about avid collectors from around the country.
An "American Pickers" crew visited Tolna in July to film and interview Nelson, he said.
"Thirteen people came in six vehicles. It's a big deal. I would say the first part of the crew got to my building at 8:30 a.m., and I did not get back to my house in Tolna until 9 o'clock that night," he said.
"We dug and picked and talked and laughed all day. It was a long day."
They sifted through antiques Nelson has collected over the past 10 years—most of which he hasn't seen since he put them in storage.
"I would literally go out and find a treasure, buy it, take it to my depot, throw it in there and go out and look for more," he said. "So when the pickers came, it was fun for all of us.
When filming wrapped, they told him "this is the best pick of the year," Nelson said.
Over the years, he's had to acquire additional storage space.
"I have a 1906 railroad depot where I keep all my stuff," he said. "Well, you've got to have something old to keep old stuff."
It's on a farmstead, he revealed with some hesitancy.
"That's another problem with this whole deal. No one knew my little secret, you know what I mean?" he said. "I just didn't really tell anyone; I just kept filling it full of stuff."
Nelson collects a wide variety of things, especially items that reflect North Dakota's history, and goes to "hundreds" of rummage and auction sales, he said. "I just love them."
"I became a picker before it became cool; I was doing it before it became such a known thing."
As a crop adjuster and owner of a septic pumping business, he meets many people and has become known as someone who is interested in buying antiques.
"Once you do it long enough—and you treat people right—then people get ahold of you," he said.
Ell-Piret Multer, who who runs Plain and Fancy Antiques Mall in Grand Forks, said Nelson probably caught the attention of "American Pickers" after a Herald article last spring alerted anyone with interesting collections to contact its producers.
"There must have been people who came forward and said, 'Here's a guy you should check out,' " Multer said.
For four months, Nelson has been selling collectibles at her store, as one of 14 vendors who have booth space there.
His items "could loosely be categorized as 'man-cave' things," said Multer, "like old signage from motor oil, and feed and seed businesses."
More unusual items include a large rural mailbox dating to 1894; a cherub weathervane; and Beatles figures from the '60s.
A better life
Nelson's love of antiquing led to a major change in his life, he said.
As a veteran who served for 14 years in the U.S. Army's First Infantry Division, "I had a hard time after the Gulf War. I didn't make all the right choices. I was a heavy drinker. And I just decided I had to change my life one day."
He quit drinking and found positive alternatives, he said. "I went to a rummage sale and bought an antique, and that's really the history.
"I love antiques and I love finding them. I've spent the past 10 years tracking down every antique within 100 miles of Tolna that I could find—with no plan. I wasn't buying them to make money. I was just collecting them."
After that, "everything changed for the good," he said.
When he returned to Tolna 12 years ago, "I was a mess. I don't know if I had $100 in my pocket," he said. "Now I'm driving a nice truck. I take care of the town's water. I have my own business. I have a great relationship.
"Antiques changed my life."
He appreciates the support he's received from people in the area who have heard about his upcoming appearance on "American Pickers," he said. "Facebook just blew up."
Being featured on the show is icing on the cake.
"It was humbling," he said. "It's like a big 'thank you' for becoming a good guy."