Backmarker: My “American Pickers” Moment

March 20, 2014
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

How often have you driven past a barn this innocuous  out in the countryside  Ever wonder what might be hidden away inside
How often have you driven past a barn this innocuous, out in the countryside? Ever wonder what might be hidden away inside?

My friend and I came to a stop in front of a large-but-otherwise-anonymous barn on the main street of Burr Oak, Kansas. Well… maybe not completely anonymous. A super-observant picker might notice that there was a shed off to the side of the barn. And that shed had a window. And in that window, there was a little sign; it read, “Be Aware. Motorcycles are Everywhere.”

Hmm…That was a clue, alright. But I’m already getting ahead of myself. Where to begin..?

Last fall, I went to a local Kansas City barbecue joint to catch a popular blues act. It was packed, but I found one empty chair. I asked the guy next to it if I could sit down.

“Sure,” the stranger told me. “My friend was sitting there, but he’s gone out to buy an old motorcycle. I doubt if he’ll be back any time soon.”

I ordered a beer and some ribs, and listened to the band. Other people came and went and then the guy who’d been out buying the old bike—it was, as it turned out, a sweet Honda CL350 Scrambler—returned. We struck up a conversation; he told me his name was Rohn; he was an architect. When he learned that I was more than normally interested in motorcycles, he pulled out his cell phone and showed me a picture of a huge, dark, dusty barn that was packed with old motorcycles and parts. It was a scene right out of American Pickers.

As the story goes, a year or two earlier, he’d followed up some obscure Craigslist ad and driven to Burr Oak, Kansas—smack dab in the middle of nowhere. He was only looking for one bike, but the owner of the hoard offered to sell him the entire contents of the barn for $12,000. My new friend’s problem was that he had no means of transporting 30 tons of bikes and parts, and nowhere to store such a trove. Some of the bikes, he said, turned over and had compression, but others were decaying under another ton or so of pigeon shit. And the barn was not nearly weather tight; in some places water poured in when it rained.

Although it had been a while my source wanted to go take a more detailed look, and possibly make an offer on the lot. I told him that if he took me along for the ride, I’d pay for gas. In a sort of #FirstWorldProblems kind of way, though, months went past before we got around to lining up our schedules. He has a family and responsibilities; kids to take to soccer practice or whatever and I’ve got, well, I don’t know what I’ve got, but there’s always something.

I couldn’t resist telling a few other motorcycle nuts about my ‘find’. I restricted those conversations to people I was pretty sure wouldn’t jump my claim. One of those guys did a Google Maps search and came up with a satellite photo of the town that seemed to show a bunch of old motorcycles sitting out exposed to the weather behind the barn; that leant a little urgency to the planned visit; who knew what might just be rusting away up there?

I went down to Cafe Racer, in KC’s West Bottoms district; the owner didn’t know anything about it, but another of our motorcycle cronies said, “I think he had an auction and sold it all.”

For a moment, I was crestfallen. I tried to tell myself that the guy who talked about the auction was often misinformed, and that he was probably conflating the story with a highly publicized car auction that had recently taken place. Still, it made me call Rohn up again to say, “Hey, if we’re going to go, let’s go soon.”

Luckily, we picked an unseasonably warm January day.

Burr Oak is four hours out on the Kansas plains, just south of the Nebraska border. The only surviving business is the Post Office. When I stood in the middle of the intersection to photograph the barn, I looked up and down both streets, which extended all the way to the horizon north & south, east & west; not a car moved, anywhere.

It took a moment for my eyes to adjust as I stepped into the barn to meet the owner, Doug Frasier. Dust swirled where shafts of sunlight penetrated. A plastic owl had been set on a barrel, in the forlorn hope that it would scare off the pigeons roosting in the rafters.

I asked Frasier how he’d amassed so many bikes, and he told me that his dad had been a mechanic, there in Burr Oak, in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Doug, then 15, had a Motobecane moped but wanted a real motorcycle. He read magazines and decided he wanted a Ducati. Most kids’ parents would’ve probably said, “No, motorcycles are too dangerous” but his dad said, “Why not just become a dealer?”

For a while, Frasier raced a Ducati 450 at the Burr Oak
Sprockets MC’s motocross track.

In 1964, Ducati’s U.S. distributor was Bernliner Motor Corporation. Berliner would sell anyone—even a teenager in Burr Oak—a Ducati franchise. As Frasier recalled, he borrowed $3500 to buy six bikes and spares. He and his dad came to Kansas City to attend a two-day training session, and he was in business.

“In my best year,” he told me, “I sold 16 bikes. Mostly 100s and 125s, and some 160s.” His customers were farm kids who used the bikes to ride into school. They drag-raced on Saturday nights. Frasier organized the Burr Oak Sprockets, a motocross club, and raced a 450 for a while. Eventually, although it took almost ten years, someone came and told him that if he wanted to keep his dealership he was going to have to build a showroom, and that was the end of it.

For the next 40 years, he continued to trade in bikes; obviously, judging from the barn, buying more than he sold. Every now and then he found a Ducati Single and restored it; he still has some NOS parts from his days as a dealer. The only reason it’s not a great American Pickers story is he’s aware of what he’s got and, if anything, has an inflated idea of what it’s worth. The guy who told me about the barn in the first place said that from the first time he’d seen it ‘til now, a lot of really interesting stuff had been sold off.

Still, I saw a couple of Bultaco Alpinas that were almost all there; a ’66 Bridgestone 175 Twin with two closely related basket cases, probably almost enough to make one runner; and a Premier enduro, which was a brand I had never even heard of. (Moto Beta made them exclusively for Berliner.) There was most of a Yamaha R5, and a Suzuki GT750 that looked as if it would run. And dozens and dozens of bikes that someone would love, just not me.

In the cold light of day my new friend decided against a mass purchase. We headed back to Kansas City, but I had an image stuck in my head… It was of a Saturday night in 1969. Farm kids ride into town to drag race their 98cc Gran Sports. One busted some part, but it was no problem; there was a Ducati dealer—another teenager just like them—right there in Burr Oak. 

Backmarker “American Pickers” Photos 

Theres lots of 70s aftermarket dirt bike love to be found here. Bassani  Preston Petty... Doug Frasier was a Ducati dealer at 14. Wards Riverside motorcycles were bikes that the Montgomery-Ward department store chain imported from Italy. Lots of them were made by Benelli.