While I was vending at the Merrickville Cruise and Shop in July 2011, a man by the name of Bert dropped by my table to chat. Bert said he lived in the area, and had a barn with license plates hanging from one of the walls. He wrote down his contact info on one of my cards, and I told him I’d give him a call in the next couple of days.
As a collector of license plates, I’ve read the tales of collectors who locate plates in a barn and are astounded to find a treasure trove dating back nearly a hundred years. One Ontario collector located a complete run of Ontario plates in a barn somewhere around Gravenhurst. They’re out there to find—just hanging silently in the rafters, waiting to be discovered.
Of course, while it’s fun to imagine finding a stack of porcelains or unusual plates that weren’t previously known by collectors to exist, it’s more likely that the plates to be found are either common, badly rusted, or have unnecessary nail holes in them. I just don’t get that—license plates are already made with holes. Why not just use them, instead of pounding new ones into them with nails? To many collectors, that’s the kiss of death. I once had a guy who was desperately looking for as nice set of 1929 Ontario plates. I had a set—really nice ones, too, with great gloss and striking original colour that was free of any rust. He didn’t want them because each plate had a single nail hole along the top edge.
In any case, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Bert is a senior and lives on an old farm, with his brother. I imagined that there could be some pretty old plates. Of course, with this calendar year being 2011, any plate that’s 50 years old would be from 1961—and in the grand scheme of things, that’s not really considered to be “old” to license plate collectors.
I called Bert and made arrangements to visit him. On a sunny Wednesday, I drove south to Oxford Station and found my way down an old concession road lined with mature trees all the way. Bert’s farmstead was at the end of the road. I ran into Bert’s brother Henry, who had just fixed the motor on their tractor. Henry led me into a very old barn—the type with timber support beams and ground walls made of cut logs and cement—and showed me where the plates were. He then went off to find Bert.
One look at the plates told me that they’d be fun to acquire and clean up, but this clearly wasn’t the Holy Grail, nor would there be any YOM possibilities in this lot. Of particular interest was a 1970 NWT bear, a weird Canadian National Exhibition plate topper for a 1965 rally, some 1950s Quebec plates in nice shape, and an official Quebec booster plate with a big maple leaf flanked by two Fleurs-de-Lis. The rest of the plates were run-of-the-mill Canada and US plates from the 1960s on up.
The rest of the barn contained a large number of car parts, an old Yamaha motorcycle, auto name badges, manuals, and many other unidentified things. Bert came in with Henry and chatted with me about the admittedly large amount of general barn contents. I suggested that they have a garage sale. Bert said they tried that, but hardly anyone came. Maybe they need to specify what they’ve got—I know lots of car guys who would enjoy a chance to pick through a place like this.
“Do you need any hay?” Henry asked. He had been out cutting some in the fields— but it was out of season and most folks had no need for any. They were hoping to sell some of it before it would spoil and rot. Being a suburbanite dad, I wasn’t really in a position to help them. Henry headed out to the tractor to resume cutting.
I discussed the plates with Bert and made an offer. Being an honest guy, I explained exactly why the plates were nothing especially valuable overall. After the drive and the adventure, I would rather come home with something than nothing. I made him a fair offer, and then topped it off with a twist-my-arm maximum figure that I couldn’t go beyond. Usually when buying lots, I can be more flexible if there are YOM possibilities that might allow me to make back what I pay, but in this case, there were none.
Bert and I hopped into his pickup and he took me for a little drive around the property, which amounted to about 300 acres. It was a labyrinth of mature trees, meadows, and overgrown roads. Knowing that I was a car guy, Bert showed me some of the “collection” of derelict autos he had acquired—he once wanted to get into the wrecking business with his brother, but Henry wasn’t interested. By this year, most of the autos were gone, but there was a ’67 Galaxie, a ’78 F150, and a few other vehicles. Earlier, I had let it slip that I was a VW Beetle owner, which is why Bert brought me to the back fields—there was something he wanted to show me, he said, that I would find interesting.
Bert drove along some invisible roads—invisible because they were overgrown with grass that was about 5 feet high, and I couldn’t tell the packed, drivable surface from the rest of the meadows. Just then, in the middle of the grass jungle where I couldn't see anything else, he unceremoniously stopped the truck and quit the engine.
“Right here,” he said. We hopped out of the truck and he pointed to our left. I couldn’t help but smile.
About thirty feet away, almost hidden in the overgrowth, was a yellow VW Beetle with a medium-sized birch tree that had grown through the sunroof and the passenger window. It was a standard Beetle, not a Super—as denoted by the flat windshield. I took a look at the interior and it had the padded dash and plastic steering wheel of mid-70s era bugs. The birch tree had grown through the rotted floorpans under the missing driver’s seat, and extended skyward with vigor. I looked at the rear and noted that, although there was no engine, the “FUEL INJECTION” badge remained on the deck lid. This bug was either a ’75 or a ’76, having originally been sold at Eastway VW in Brockville, not far from its gravesite.
Bert explained how he submitted a photograph of this Beetle to contest held by the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. They enjoyed the picture, but feared the tree may have been doctored. Bert called them up and invited them down to look at it in person, but they didn’t take him up on his offer.
Bert and I hopped back in the truck and drove up the remains of an ancient concession road, now reduced to an overgrown pathway, which had been annexed into the property. There were large trees on either side of us, with meadows beyond. It was here that Henry was driving the tractor and cutting the hay, which remained on the ground, unbaled. We met up with Henry and chatted about the plates. Henry suggested that they accept my here-and-now cash offer—a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, after all.
Bert and I took the truck down to the barn and located a box to put the plates in, plus a few more plates that had been stashed in other spots. Among them were some 1960 – 65 dealer plates, which included a 1963 with the letter M as a prefix, not a suffix. I hadn’t seen that before. All the rest of the dealer plates had M suffixes, and they all had an extra rectangular hole in the top to accommodate something back in the day. While I’m not a fan of extra holes, it provided enough evidence to satisfy me that this oddball 1963 plate was used as a dealer plate. Not only that, but it turns out that my loot included a 1958 Ontario error plate—the corners weren’t rounded off on the left side. Some new information to add to the encyclopedia, I guess.
I paid Bert and shook hands, and then departed. I had whiled away the morning hours at Bert’s place, so I picked a random town I’d never been to before and let the GPS lead me there on the back roads (I love my GPS for that). I arrived in Athens, Ontario and had some lunch at a quiet joint called the Peacock, as served by Delilah. The car radio fought against the clatter of license plates with every bump in the road on the drive home. It was a fun little adventure that I hadn’t expected, and enjoyed immensely.