When Mercury Pro Team member and Bassmaster Elite Series pro Buddy Gross drives through America, going from lake to lake to compete in bass tournaments, he is always on the lookout for something more than just big fish. Gross also scans the countryside for antique stores, rural flea markets, small-town swap shops and junkyards. He might be best known as a professional angler, but Gross also has a strong penchant for “picking.”
Not the kind of picking done on a banjo or on a farm in the fall of the year, but the kind of picking made famous by the hit reality show “American Pickers.” The show features two guys traveling across America, exploring old barns, garages, warehouses and shops in search of rare memorabilia and collectibles.
“Oh man, I love it. Picking is in my blood,” Gross admitted. “When I was young, I used to ride around with an older friend who was a true picker. He used to go to auctions, estate sales, old junkyards and shops, finding some incredible historic treasures. He taught me a lot about the picking game.”
Whether you call it picking or collecting, Gross says it’s a thrill akin to fishing.
“They’re all basically a form of treasure hunting,” he said. “Whether you are casting a lure in a lake or perusing a flea market, you are hoping to hook into something big or find something rare.”
A tour of Gross’ home in Tennessee reveals his passion for picking. The walls and shelves in his shop and garage are a shrine to a different time in the outdoors. From old wood duck box covers and antique gas station signs to old outboards and fishing lures, every piece of memorabilia on display has a story behind it. Collectors often have a specialty or theme that they relish, such as a particular era or motif. With that, Gross has a discerning eye for marine memorabilia made 70 to 90 years ago.
“I love the water,” he said. “So anything that has to do with boating or fishing that was made in that 1930s-to-1950s time frame fascinates me. Old signs, outboard motor oil cans, old outboard gas tanks, minnow buckets – anything from that time period that has marine graphics or retro insignia with a lot of color and flair is really cool.”
He also looks for old boat parts such as boat cleats or chrome navigation items, or the old battery casings that were made from glass. In particular, Gross has a fervor for vintage Mercury Marine pieces. His obsession with Mercury goes all the way back to the late Carl Kiekhaefer, the legendary founder of Mercury Marine, who also owned cars raced in the early days of NASCAR.®
“Kiekhaefer was my hero. He was a brilliant engineer who knew how to make things go fast. And I like things that go fast,” Gross said. “Years ago, we used to race boats up and down the river. We would get racing hulls and put the Mercury 2.5 Offshore racing motors on them, but that was a long time ago.”
This explains why Gross’ favorite pieces in his mini maritime museum are anything from the Kiekhaefer era at Mercury. If the name Kiekhaefer is on it, Gross wants it. He has a few antique Kiekhaefer Mercury dealer signs. He also has a rare gas can bearing the founder’s name. The towel hangers in his bathroom are antique boat cleats with Mercury/Kiekhaefer insignia stamped into the metal. He owns two vintage Kiekhaefer Mercury motors from the 1940s. Yet, his most prized pieces are a trio of Kiekhaefer outboard motor stands, all picked from the same location at different times.
“The thing about picking is it’s not always about the piece itself, but how you came into finding the pieces that makes them special,” Gross explained. “Some of my items I bought in an antique store, where anyone could have bought them. But the outboard motor stands were a very special find with a cool story.”
Gross was fishing a tournament at Lake Seminole and staying with a friend in rural southwest Georgia. Next door to the friend’s house was an old shop and barn that belonged to a man whose family owned a Mercury dealership back in the 1950s.
“I went over to his shop to ask him about some boat batteries and instantly noticed he had a bunch of old Mercury motors and parts lying around,” Gross recalled. “I started kicking around in the weeds and ran across a beautiful Kiekhaefer Mercury outboard motor stand, and I nearly passed out.
“I mean, what are the chances? The Kiekhaefer stuff from that era are my absolute favorite things to collect, and I literally hit the mother lode in the middle of nowhere. I visit that place every time I go to Lake Seminole, and the owner lets me buy one or two items at a time and that’s it, until I come back again.”
Gross said some of his most treasured items have come from that “undisclosed location” in south Georgia, including two other Kiekhaefer motor stands and an antique Mercury outboard made in the early ’40s.
As far as the method to his picking madness, Gross said he does not hunt specific pieces, but rather enjoys the process of just checking out rural junkyards, antique shops or – if he’s lucky – a private barn or shop where outboard motors and marine hardware have been housed for years.
“The thrill is just looking around, then suddenly something just catches my eye and jumps out at me,” he said. “Then it’s like, this is exactly what I was looking for, even though I didn’t walk in here looking for it. And you can bet, if it’s Mercury and has Kiekhaefer or the ‘K’ on it, it’s going home with me.”
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