MILTON, W.Va. -- Any good picker needs to be able to spot a unique relic, and Caleb Clark knew he had found one.
"We were on the second to last row when I saw it ... ," Clark wrote in an essay he submitted to the History Channel's "Pick & Tell" contest in May. "It was a coal miners' canary cage."
Inspired by the hit show "American Pickers," the contest asked kids to find an item and write an essay about it. Clark, 14, of Milton, won second place out of about 2,000 entries.
To find something to write about, Clark, along with his father and great-grandmother, both avid antique collectors, went to Swap Days in Lucasville, Ohio.
"I knew when I found it, it was something that had saved a life," the eighth-grader at Milton Middle School said.
Clark, who loves reading and studying history, knew immediately what the cage had been used for.
Coal miners would keep a canary, which has sensitive lungs, in the cage and take it with them underground. If the bird died, they'd know there was a buildup of methane gas and they would need to get out fast.
"I examined it carefully and looked at its ingenious design. It was made out of poplar and had metal bars to keep the canary in, yet still let it get fresh air. It had a little trough in the front for feed and pull-up bars to put the bird in and take the bird out. The wood had an aged patina on it telling me it was old," Clark wrote.
The father of the man who sold Clark the cage had been a miner who was in charge of handling the canary. Clark was able to get him to drop the price of the cage from $65 to $45.
"He gave me the whole story about how it was used," Clark recalled.
The show "American Pickers" follows two professional pickers, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, around the country as they search for antiques to restore and sell.
"Each and every treasure they uncover is a new history lesson, providing a glimpse at American life in the recent and distant past," according to the show's website.
The story behind historical pieces is what Clark loves, so writing his essay was easy. He submitted it at about the end of May and figured he hadn't won after several weeks passed without hearing from the History Channel.
Just back from vacation with his family, Clark realized he had a voicemail message on his cellphone.
"I didn't recognize the number so I didn't answer," he said. "When I listened to the voicemail about seven days later it said, "Congratulations! You've won second place."
Clark was awarded a $3,500 scholarship and a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet Mike Wolfe.
The top three essay winners were taken to museums and received an Apple iPad, among other things.
"[Wolfe] talked about how much he liked kids being pickers. He said he had been to West Virginia and had a good time at Heritage Farm [in Huntington]," Clark said.
"I think it's awesome he took the initiative to do it over the summer," Lisa Clark said about her son's essay. "He's only in middle school and already making history."
Clark has no plans of selling the canary cage he discovered. Instead, he's adding it to his collection of antique Coca-Cola bottles, war memorabilia, coins and anything else he can find.
For Clark, uncovering the past is like a "giant puzzle."
Reach Kate White at kate.wh...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.