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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.

Barrie, Orillia, and the Midland of Nowhere

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

I decided to go to the #Barrie Automotive Flea Market again this spring after a three-year hiatus. I've always gone to the fall edition whenever possible, because it’s the bigger of the two events, and it's the ultimate place to find plates. The spring Barrie was always a competitive second, before the land changed hands. But since then, the market had been smaller, disorganized, with lower-quality vendors, so I stopped going to the spring edition.

This year, the BAFM group has announced that they’ve bought a tract of land in Bonfield (between North Bay and Mattawa) and they’re debuting an event there at the end of June. I looked briefly on their site, but the info was minimal and it was basically an empty field with no apparent infrastructure visible from Google Street View. When I emailed about accommodations, it was suggested that I could just squat there in a tent, and I could call to make arrangements. Rather than travel to a marshy field in the middle of nowhere and pitch a tent, I decided to give the spring Barrie market another try… possibly one last try. I have heard that Bonfield may be the new location of the market in coming years, with Barrie being quit altogether. I have a lot of good memories going to Barrie, so I figured that if it’s the last year, I may as well enjoy it while I can, although it’s still a shadow of its former self.

After work on Friday, I loaded my son Greg into the car with a couple of overnight bags. Every time I make the quiet drive through the Kawarthas, I seem to notice something new. I really enjoy the drive and I find myself making more stops to take pictures of curiosities along the way. I won’t have reason to come this way again next year if the BAFM moves. I usually camp across the highway from the market, but there’d be no camping this time… the weather was too cold for that, so we stayed at a hotel in Orillia.

We got to the market at about eight o’clock on Saturday morning. I’d been warned by friends over the previous two days that there wouldn’t be a lot to find, but I was still up for it. There are very few better ways to spend a morning than walking around outside looking for plates with the full day ahead and lots of sunshine.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve rediscovered my love and talent for playing pinball, and one of the first things I found was an old pinball table… “Kickoff”, from 1967, made by Williams. I have enough trouble storing my licence plate collection at my house, so a pinball table collection, sadly, won’t be happening until the kids have moved out!

I combed the fields in the way that I’ve done before, but the grounds are smaller… about half the size of the old fields, so it took a lot less time to cover each row. The fields weren’t even full… one quadrant of the field had a large empty space, which I found disappointing, given the already-smaller layout. I did struggle to find plates at various points, but my interests are more diverse now than they were before. I found a bunch of traffic lights for cheaper than I’m used to seeing, but like pinball tables, I don’t really have the space for those (three is enough).

Early in the day, I stopped at the Solmes bus to check out his plates. Mostly repaints, which isn’t what I want, but sometimes he has some unexpected goodies. There was a bucket of plates, all 1972 and in bags. I’m not a big fan of 1972, but I looked through the pail, and was lucky to find a red quarterly pair that also happened to be an embossing / paint roller error. The die strikes were too soft and shallow, and the white paint missed the border on part of one plate, and had splotched the face in another spot, which was covered up on the factory line by a hand-applied dab of red paint. I like error plates, regardless of the number, and it was nice to have a set like that in unused condition. I also picked out a couple of pairs of doctor plates.

As the morning wore on, I found a few plates here and there. I’ve been looking for my initials (JFU) on a 1973 Ontario “Keep It Beautiful” base for many years, and I’ve still never found one. On this Barrie morning, I came as close as I’ve ever been to finding one, but the F and U were transposed. Close, but not what I wanted. I left it behind. I found a couple of interesting New York singles from 1933 and 34, both with the same short number: VV-80. They were cool, but New York is an easy state, and the seller wanted $80 for both singles, so I left them on the ground where I found them. Nearby, I found a pair of well-worn porcelain Ontario Hydro voltage warning signs, which were made by the same company that produced Ontario’s 1911 porcelain plates. They were priced right, so I bought them to see if I could breathe some life into them.

End-of-day shot of all Barrie finds. Note the red '72 truck pair with the paint roller error, the white '72 passenger single with the die embossing error, and the "four wheel brakes" warning triangle.

Greg and I were nearly finished the fields by about 12:30, with only a couple of rows to go. I was walking by one vendor who had a single strip of tables up front, all loaded with non-antique auto service items. A familiar white and blue object caught my eye. It was an Ontario plate with the year “73” stamped in the corner, but the letters were wrong… there were more than three of them. It was MOD-something, but next to the “D” was a fourth letter, and not the usual crown. I went over to have a look. The plates were clearly 1973 issues, but they said “MODEL-A,” which should be impossible. Between 1973 and 1978, the only personalized option in Ontario was an own-choice plate, which was strictly limited to the three-letter, three-number format of the day. How this “MODEL-A” plate was ordered, I had no idea. The seller said that the plates had come from a prominent car collector in Belleville, and surely, he must have had friends in the upper echelons of the Ministry of Transportation. The plates weren’t cheap, and the seller wouldn’t haggle, but I bit anyway. These plates are true oddities, which is what I collect! Even if I found nothing else, finding these made the trip worthwhile!

We finished shopping with the vendors, and headed to the car show field. There were a lot of nice machines to see. None were YOM-registered, though. Car shows are extra-cool when I can find some same-year classic plates in use, but the MTO has never advertised the program, and lots of classic car guys still don’t know about it.

Greg and I still had our hotel room for that evening, and we’d be going home Sunday. It was 1 pm, and there was plenty of time for us to find something else to do, so I drove into Barrie proper to show him some of our family history.

In the summer of 1977, my family was unexpectedly homeless for about a month. My father had been transferred to Barrie, so he had sold the previous family home and bought one in the north end of town near Georgian College. When we arrived in Barrie, we found that our new home was still occupied by the previous person, who offered excuses and said they’d vacate as soon as possible. In the meantime, my family had to store our belongings and find a place to stay. We rented a room at the Brookfield motel at 150 Dunlop Street West. My parents shielded my sister and I from the true nature of our situation by telling us that we were on “holiday” and were staying in the “holiday room,” where we remained for the next four weeks. Our house was eventually vacated, and we were able to move in. Rather than litigate over costs incurred with motel rental and storage, we just got on with our lives. The house is still there, although it looks quite different now. The "holiday room" eventually operated as a Knights Inn, and has since closed. Our time in Barrie was short. We lived there for less than a year before returning to Sault Ste. Marie for good.

Above: The now-closed motel where my family was forced to live in the summer of '77. We had one of the upper rooms. Below left: My mother and uncle outside our eventual home at 14 College Crescent. Note our GMC Jimmy, plate number J28-119, with March '78 expiry. Lower right: Similar view of the same house in 2019, with my son in the foreground.

The afternoon wore on, but we had the energy to do a bit of antiquing, so we went to the Barrie Antiques Centre, which is a huge multi-vendor operator, and the best thing going in the area for finding cool stuff. Unfortunately, it’s closing down at the end of this month. I’ve found a few good plates there over the years, and even when I haven’t, it’s always been a great way to spend an hour to explore my other interests, like pinball, records, and highway signs. I didn’t find any plates of interest, and the German pinball machine that I found was buried in small items, and a bit too bulky for me. However, I found a clean vinyl copy of Glenn Gould’s 1981 re-recording of the Goldberg Variations, and a great King’s Highway 140 shield sign for 30% off. Highway 140 is just over 10 km long and runs parallel to the Welland Canal. Short highway, and a tough sign to find.

Greg and I retired to the hotel pool, where he could swim, and I could plan an excursion for Sunday. I wanted to go someplace where I’d never been. I had never been to Midland or Penetanguishene before, and a cursory look on Google found a few junk store possibilities, so I wrote them all down. I figured that, with them being on the shore of Georgian Bay, where land value was high, there might be enough money there to support a shop with higher-end collectibles.

Hooboy… I needn’t have bothered. What an absolute waste of time. One shop downtown, probably my best bet, was locked up tight during its regular hours. I called the owner, who said that there was a big festival the night before and the store employee might not have gotten around to coming to work. Strike one. I walked across the street to another place that was on the antique radar, but it was mostly barn board crafts. Strike two. Then I found a place next to a weird theme park with a cheesy castle. The guy said he had plates, but they were at home and not at the store, which contained mostly figurines and quilts. Strike three. Then, I couldn’t find the “Midland Antique Centre” because the building that housed it had probably been demolished and there wasn’t even an address number tag out by the road. Strike four. I was pretty sick of Midland by this time, so I drove southwest to Elmvale to check an outdoor multi-vendor market, but it was all either trashy garage sale throwaways, homeopathic remedies, or cheap leather of questionable origin. Strike five. In all of those stops, I didn’t encounter a single item of interest.

It was getting close to lunchtime on Sunday, and we had to be heading home. I made a couple of short detours on the way, including one through Coldwater. The downtown strip is well-preserved, with a lot of two-storey century buildings that have coffee shops as tenants. There were a couple of antique places, but the storefronts were a little misleading. The plates at one place were oversprayed into “art,” thus killing any real value the plates may have had. The exterior of the store was really cool, though, with a lot of vintage advertising signs and a healthy assortment of old plates. They were all fastened to the second storey of the building, so obviously, they weren’t for sale.

The drive home through the Kawarthas was really relaxing. Even if I don’t find much of anything in Barrie, or come up empty in a frustrating side trip, the overall journey is something I really enjoy, and Greg seems to like it, too.

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