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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.

Goodbye Bonfield

Four years ago, Eric Vettoretti and I decided to try the first edition of the Bonfield Automotive Flea

Market. It was a fairly remote location and a pretty small event. We already knew both of those facts, but figured we’d give it a chance—mostly because Bonfield is a sibling event to the Barrie markets, which have been on the decline in recent years. We hoped maybe a restart of sorts was happening, and you have to start somewhere. Four years later, we wanted to see how things were trending.

The good news: The mosquitoes and blackflies from last time were a non-issue. They’re gone. The bad news: The vendors were also a non-issue. They’re also gone. But seeing how this was a road trip, you can read about the whole journey anyway. There were a couple of mildly interesting surprises, but none of them happened in Bonfield.

We left the Ottawa area on Friday after work. I drove; Eric navigated. We decided to follow a map that Eric had made of some former highway alignments through places we’d never been. We started by taking the older roads into Pembroke and Petawawa. We knew of only one antique place along the way. It was still open when we arrived at six o’clock, and it had plates, but nothing quite interesting enough to buy. Eric posed with the ones we found, just in case the rest of the trip proved fruitless. We didn't know how right we would be.

We arrived in Mattawa around eight o’clock. The sun is still in the sky at this time of the year, so we left the main road for another “older road” detour. Eric has a map from the 1930s that indicates the routes assumed by the trunk road system of the Ontario Department of Northern Development. The roads still exist in their entirety between Mattawa and Callender, so we followed the route starting at Mattawa. We passed an unsignalised railway crossing, several century-old bridges, an abandoned service station, and rather shy turtle.

(click any photo to enlarge)

We stayed the night at a hotel in the southern part of North Bay, along what used to be the main drag as Highway 11 entered the city. The following morning, we were on the road by eight o’clock to double-back to Bonfield, which we had passed the previous evening. We knew approximately where to go, since we had been there four years ago. That time, there was a trail of vehicle traffic, and signs marking the turns to get to the event grounds. But this time, there were no signs and no traffic. We trundled over the tracks and into Bonfield, and we were the only signs of life. We didn’t see any other vehicles on the road, and we basically guessed as to where to make our turns. Finally, we encountered an event sign. But the sign was pretty much useless, with a “straight ahead” arrow within sight of the entrance.

We rolled onto the grounds, around the bend, and up the hill. We had to hop out of the car and walk up to the admission booth. It was $15 per person, which is more than we’ve ever paid to enter Barrie ($5 per person and $10 to park). We parked close to the booth. There were about ten other vehicles parked with us. This wasn’t looking good.

The vendor field is the same size as before, which is pretty small. It has space for maybe five rows of vendors, fitting possibly a dozen vendors per row. But half of the field was empty, and the other half had gaps between vendors. My guess is that there were perhaps 25 vendors on the field at most… fewer than half of what we saw last time. This was also not looking good.

That's not just any empty space. That's a field of marked vendor plots... all vacant. That is, except for one, at the upper centre of the image. The other vendors are out-of-frame to the right.

But quantity isn’t necessarily the key. If the quality of the vendors was at least on par with our previous visit, then there’d be stuff for us to find… right? Well, that turned out not to be so. The better vendors from last time hadn’t returned. All that remained was one antique dealer, and a couple of parts and tools dealers. The rest were just yard sales with lawn crafts, Christmas decorations, tired ATV quads, faded helmets to match, and teacups. We did buy some wire wheel brushes from the tool guy. Eric found a Mattawa bicycle plate with the antique dealer. That dealer also had a few War Amps key tags, so I bought one pair with triple-nines in the number; maybe I could flip it to break even on my admission cost.

(click any photo to enlarge)

And that was it. We were done in ten minutes. We tried to extend our visit by looking in all the piles of shop manuals and Farmer’s Almanacs to find old maps or permit books, but of course there were none. Our Mattawa bike plate was the only plate for sale in the whole market. Put another way: Eric and I bought 100% of the licence plates we found at the Bonfield Automotive Flea Market.

Our entire Bonfield haul.

We walked through the vacant half of the market field, covered only in gravel and weeds. There were engines revving up the hill by the drag strip, so we went up the hill and sat on the bleachers to watch a few races. They started punctually at ten o’clock. The races were more entertaining than the market; there were more people racing than shopping.

We relaxed and watched a few races while listening to the tinny bullhorn speakers blaring out the 1980s glam-metal hit “Turn Up the Radio” by Autograph. Then came “Strange” by Miranda Lambert; a bit of the old, and a bit of the new. Kind of like the racers on the strip– One pairing pitted a 1930s Ford coupe against a 1996 Mustang. Of course, it’s all about the crate engine under the hood.

The rising sun was just high enough to start burning us. We realized that the drag races were never going to make our journey to Bonfield worthwhile, so we headed back to the car to see how else we could pass the day before heading home. There were only four classic cars in the field, and the vendor count hadn’t changed. A few queued vehicles paid their admission and headed up to the drag strip, so I guessed that the races were the big draw for the day. The market still had nothing happening. We drove away from the Bonfield event park, never to return.

Fearing that the flea market might be a leave-early bust, we had planned a big circle route around Algonquin Park so that we could try a few shops along the Highway 11 corridor, and drive some roads we'd never seen. On our way out of Bonfield, we took the trunk road and admired the 106-year-old bridge that was built by the Department of Northern Development. The Kaibuskong River is now eroding beneath the underpinnings of the bridge, so it may not be long before the structure is replaced. It's amazing to think about the Model Ts that must have traversed the very same bridge a century before.

The trunk road brought us to our first stop in Callender, which was the most fruitful of the trip. There were no keepers to be found, but we found a few plates to flip. I spotted what I initially thought was a short 1936 truck plate, but soon realized that it was a short passenger, with the C in the leading position.

We hit other shops and yard sales in Powassan, South River, Sundridge, Burk’s Falls, and Emsdale, but we had no luck. The line we got in most places was, “We usually have some, but not right now.” But it was a nice day and we were having a great time travelling on the old alignments of Highway 11. Plates would have been a bonus, but they weren’t essential to enjoy the trip.

When I make plate trips that don't uncover many plates, I tend to take pictures of highway signs along the way. Powassan was strike one, Trout Creek was strike two, and South River was strike three. So I took a picture of the Highway 124 sign. I had driven there previously, but it was 1997 and the road was still Highway 11 at the time.

We tried a few more places in Sundridge, Burk's Falls and Emsdale. Like the previous places, they said they generally had plates, but were sold out at the time we visited. One guy was at an estate auction the day before. He said there were dozens of plates, but he didn't buy them. Just what we wanted to hear!

We gave up around Huntsville, at which point we headed for home. We found some stunning scenery along some pretty crazy winding roads south of Algonquin Park.

We drove along Highway 60 through Algonquin itself, and then took the lightly-travelled Highway 127 south to Maynooth. We might have seen three vehicles along that entire 40-km stretch. It was pretty, but there's nothing going on there.

Once in Maynooth, we found an old distance sign along former Highway 62, which probably dates from the 1970s. The distances are metric, the names are capitalized, and the three features a flat top.

We spotted lots of wildlife along the entire trip. All told, we crossed paths with three turtles, two foxes, a deer, and a bear… and that’s roughly the same amount of plates we came away with. It’s not a waste of time if you’re enjoying yourself. But we won't be returning to "enjoy" Bonfield again.

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David Steckley
David Steckley
Jun 20, 2023

Thanks for sharing this update on Bonfield! Makes Spring Barrie '23 look like a cornucopia of plate splendor! Your efforts may well have saved many wasted trips by the rest of us! Unless of course we go not for the plates but for the scenery!

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