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First started as "My 2 Cents" in 1997, I have written posts numbering into the hundreds. It will take some time to resurrect the older posts, so keep checking back. They will include meet reports, travelogues, and news of interest to Ontario licence plate collectors.

Collectin' one plate at a time

Updated: Oct 3, 2020

I was waiting at the curb with my overnight bag and a small cardboard box. My skinny house stood warmly behind me, its light shining out onto the dark street. My wife waved goodbye as she was pulling down the blind. I could see the silhouetted figures of her and my son in the living room as he told her all about the school Halloween party to which I had just taken him. He was over the moon. He had been wanting desperately to go to his school party, which didn’t take that long and ended close to eight o’clock. I couldn’t say no to that. I would have to leave for the Grimsby swap meet immediately afterward, and it would mean that I wouldn’t arrive at our hotel until well after midnight, but sometimes, a dad’s gotta do what a dad’s gotta do.

Eric Vettoretti and I had planned to carpool to the meet, with him behind the wheel. We had hoped to leave earlier. But he graciously offered to stick around until 8, so we could ride together to Grimsby, which, of course, was not only awesome for me, but extremely kind on his part. His lights darted quickly from around the corner and closed in on me.

As we departed Ottawa, we planned a detour for the following afternoon. A fella in Haliburton County with plates to sell had posted them on Kijiji. We had made contact and offered to buy them on our way home Saturday afternoon. He agreed and fed us his details. It had been a very long time since either of us had found anything good on Kijiji. These plates had just been posted that afternoon, and it was a stroke of luck that they were within our reach on the last road-tripping weekend of the year.

The GPS confirmed that we wouldn’t get to our hotel until the wee hours, so we flew down the 401, with the oblique half-moon keeping watch as we gabbed about collectors, collecting, and restoring plates. There was no rain, but the clouds were building, and the stars would sometimes go into hiding, only to reveal themselves again, one star at a time. My carefully-curated playlist provided the soundtrack, and before long, Bob Seger was shaming both the moon and midnight, both of which featured prominently on our evening journey. We whipped through the sprawling express lanes right at twelve o’clock as Gord Downie stepped to the mic and sang his now-memorable “double suicide” rant. That night in Toronto, Gord slowed things down and crooned dreamily about every irrelevance, with the plinking piano seeming to echo off the walls of the condominium towers as we passed effortlessly and unnoticed through the sleeping heart of city and past the blue, steadily-pulsing glow of the Tower.

We arrived in Grimsby at nearly one o’clock. We managed to sleep for five hours and change, except for a brief interruption because of a yelling voice down the hall. We emerged to the lobby, bleary-eyed, to check out about six hours later. Dave Grant and Mike & Alannah Franks were there. They were clearly more rested than we were... I could barely grunt a hello! Then again, I had been ill earlier in the week and hadn’t fully recovered, so I wasn’t quite feeling myself.

After a fast breakfast, Eric and I arrived at the meet hall. Don Goodfellow had posted the roadside sign out on Main Street. It was close to 7:30. The meet hadn’t yet started, but we certainly weren’t the first to arrive, and the doors were already wide open. I hopped out to take a picture of the sign, and happened to capture the oncoming headlights of Alan Bones as he was arriving.

Don had placed an interesting display of plates in the lobby of the hall, which included an amazing 1939 Ontario doctor plate, and a short one, too! Most of its reflective beading was intact—it sure would have been an upgrader to mine, but obviously this one was just for show.

I had talked to a few collectors, in the weeks leading up to Grimsby, about their chances of finding a 1911 Ontario porcelain plate. It's not far-fetched that such a creature could found for sale at the Grimsby meet. Sure enough, I saw one displayed on a table, but only for a short time. It was snapped up quickly for $500, which is a fair price for a four-digit single plate with minor chipping. I saw another similar-looking item, but I would call it more of a painting than a plate. It was a slab of sheet metal, cut to be the same size as a porcelain plate, with holes drilled in the correct places, and it was painted to resemble a 1911 porcelain plate, number 555. It looked attractive, but it was clearly not a real plate, and not close enough to the real thing to be worrisome.

I picked up some plates from Matt Embro early on. He is downsizing his collection, and I upgraded a couple of non-passenger plates for my own runs. As I was flipping through his sale box, I came upon a plate that I recognized immediately. It was in mid-1980s personalized plate with the letters GKG. I sold it off a few years earlier, but it is interesting plate, and I decided to buy it back. I also picked up some 1973 Ontario passenger plates at the urging of my inner Dave-Grant-conscience. I didn’t buy them for Dave though... I am quite certain that he had already seen these, anyway. All of them were alpha series that were issued in Sault Ste. Marie, where I grew up. They were collected in November 1996 by my old departed friend Ernie Wilson, as evidenced by markings on the rear sides. Every time Ernie went to a local scrap yard and found plates, he would use a marker to indicate the date he acquired it and he would always write his number, 361. Now, when I see Sault Ste. Marie plates with his number on them, I collect them. November 1996 was within the time that we were writing letters back and forth. I went to visit him that Christmas. Those plates were probably piled nearby as I sat in Ernie’s kitchen and had a cup of tea.

Many Ontario collectors are well aware of the unique die variation that happened within the Ontario passenger series between WEJ and WJJ. These plates came out around 1984, and they were punched with strange J dies with a unique serif that has not been used before or since. These plates are very hard to find, and I myself have been actively searching for one for over 20 years without success. Strangely enough, three of these plates made an appearance at the Grimsby swap meet this year. Joe Sallmen found one somewhere in the US, and Jim Becksted found a pair of them on home soil. I was not chosen to become a recipient of either one, but I'm not particularly worried about that. Dave Steckley, as well as Eric, were the lucky trade recipients. They’ll give these plates a good home.

American collector Andrew Turnbull, formerly of West Virginia, has moved to Ontario to study at Western University. I kept him in the loop about the Grimsby meet when I emailed the reminders to the usual suspects, and he was able to make the trip to trade with us. Hopefully, Andrew’s stay in Ontario is not a short one. The more folks we can have at our meets, the better they are for everyone. Welcome, Andrew!

Mike Franks put together a stunning display featuring his Alberta passenger collection. It starts at 1917 and has every plate all the way up to the present-day natural sticker issues. He has included many of the interesting die variations that Alberta tried in the 1990s. The display included a highway sign, as well as a comprehensive write-up. The best displays are the ones that are self-explanatory like Mike's.

Ten o’clock came, and Don helped me do the drawing for door prizes. Jacques Allen contributed an arm load of plates for us, and the always-generous John Powers donated couple of new booster cables. During the swap meet announcements, Bernie Angi was sad to inform us that our collector friend Louis Balogh had passed away a couple of months prior. We observed a minute of silence in Louis’ memory. I remember chatting with Lou at our meets and emailing back and forth about plates. He began attending the swap meets in Grimsby and Acton about four years ago. He’d make his way around the hall slowly, leaning on his cane, while taking a very thorough look at each table. He’d often email me to ask if I had anything unusual that I’d be bringing to an upcoming meet. I often did, and I’d happily show him what I’d brought. Sometimes he’d buy, and other times we’d just share info or swap stories. A very nice fellow. I regret not having had more time to know him better. Like many of us, Louis was a life-long classic car fan. I learned that he was a past-President of Oshawa’s Motor City Car Club, having been a member continuously for over fifty years. Louis was a retiree who had worked at all three Ontario nuclear power stations under Ontario Hydro (later Ontario Power Generation). I talked to Bernie later on about Louis, who seemed his usual self last spring in Acton. His passing was unexpected and I understand that he was in the hospital for a short time only.

The hall was jammed with people before and after we took the group photo. Don later told me that we had 70 attendees, which means the hall paid for itself, in spite of a recent rental increase, and we can afford to pick up more door prizes for next year. I did notice, however, that there were fewer tables in use as compared to past years. It meant that the shopping was clustered around fewer vendors, and once the shopping’s done, people start leaving. I know that the Grimsby show is lower-key than its Acton counterpart, but I really would like to see more people bringing plates to swap and sell. It gives everyone more to see and less of a reason to depart the hall early.

Speaking of departing the hall—that’s what Eric and I had to do. We already had an appointment to keep in Haliburton County later that afternoon, but Eric was being called home early, so if we were to make our detour, we would have to leave a little before 11. We made the rounds to shake some hands. I confirmed with Don that the 2018 meet will be on the same Saturday, which will fall on the 27th. And with that, I jogged out to Eric’s idling car. We drove out of town that morning, with eating on our minds.

We fought against some aggressive drive-through traffic at a Burlington McDonald’s before plugging in the GPS to see how long our detour would take. We had no time to waste, so we drove the entire length of the near-empty 407 toll highway, thereby guaranteeing an easy escape from the clutches of the GTA. They’re building the eastern leg of the highway to meet up with Highway 115 to Peterborough. We would have continued driving the route, if it were ready.

We cut through Lindsay, where off in the distance to our left, we could see the fairgrounds, which were just as muddy and wet as they were when we tried to find plates there last May. I consulted the map. Our destination was to the northeast, but there were several routes that we could take. I looked outside. The sky was dull, and hypothetical, and falling one cloud at a time. I knew where we should go.

We’d lost Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip the previous week. The man sang the soundtrack to both my and Eric’s formative years of college life. We had been listening to my 20-hour playlist, 31% of which consisted of Gord Downie’s work, and we’d been singing along every time a Hip song started. It was too rainy and too early in the day to see any constellations, but it was in Bobcaygeon where we stopped just long enough to photograph the town limit sign with some poignant graffiti on it. Rather than clean it off, I hope they just order a new one and find a museum to display the old sign.

We had no time to spare, so we thought of maybe quitting Bobcaygeon—thought of leaving it behind—which we ultimately did. We’d have to wait for another time to explore the town. We continued northward, out of Kawartha Lakes, and into Haliburton County at Furnace Falls, where I had just been seven weeks earlier on my way to and from the Barrie Automotive Flea market. Our detour destination was the isolated town of Wilberforce. The residence where we were headed was on the outskirts, in an area that had a different name on the map, so we had to be careful that we were on the right track. We found the house with no problem, and were greeted by a large, hairy dog that barked at first, and then whined at us to play.

The seller was a pleasant, straightforward fellow who lived in a well-kept, spacious home on the edge of a small lake. He led us into the garage and invited us to flip through the plates, which went back to the forties. Apparently, he once had a second box of older ones, but those had been sold much earlier. Everything we had wanted was there, so we handed the man a wad of cash in the agreed amount, and when all was counted, we thanked him and headed on our way. It was an irony that after attending a plate swap meet in Grimsby, we drove all the way up to Wilberforce to get 95% of what we would buy on the weekend.

It was 4:30 and the daylight wouldn’t be lasting much longer. Too far from the 401 to double back, our most direct route home was my normal Ottawa-Barrie route along some twisted two-lane highways. We stopped for fuel in Bancroft, but the pump’s automatic shut-off didn’t work properly, and a litre of gasoline dribbled down the side of Eric’s car. We were worried about the fumes—the car stank for a while—but it aired out soon enough. The rain continued to dump, as it had been doing the whole day. The baring yellow forest around us became dimmer, and before long we were fighting the glare of the oncoming headlights. Traffic was light in this remote territory, and with few vehicles to pass, we made good time. We even stopped in Renfrew so I could scarf a totally unnecessary burger. But this would be our final trip of the year—no McFood or meandering in the car until next April—so I indulged.

As we entered Ottawa, I texted Dave Grant to see where he and his wife were. He had a leisurely lunch with Mike, Alannah, Xavier, Emilie, Chuck, Cyndi, and Andrew. Dave didn’t leave Hamilton until mid-afternoon. He was at a rest stop on the 401, and wouldn’t be home in Ottawa for another couple of hours. Eric dropped me off at home, right at the same curb where he’d collected me, exactly 23 hours and 40 minutes earlier. That makes Grimsby 2017 our shortest overnight plate trip to date!


Further reading:

Louis' biographical profile (as published on the Motor City Car Club web site)

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