I grew up in the small city of Sault Ste. Marie, in northeastern Ontario. “The Sault” is actually situated further west than any city in the southern half of the province, but by virtue of Ontario’s large size and unusual geography, it’s considered a northeastern city. It’s not terribly far north, but it’s a fairly isolated place. Immediately to its south is the Canada-US border, and immediately to the west are the vast, cold waters of Lake Superior. Thus, the only available Canadian directions in which one can leave town are north and east, along Highway 17, the only road into or out of town. Interestingly, there's a monument nearby commemorating motoring pioneer Dr. Perry Doolittle and the completion of the Trans-Canada Highway. The rugged and remote territory of Algoma was where the final section of Highway 17 was constructed.
The Sault's peak population was about 82 thousand in the early 1980s, but it has dwindled to the mid-70 thousand mark since. I visit the area each summer, but I don’t get a lot of time to spend in the city proper because I’m usually camping. This year was somewhat different, though: I stayed in town for several days and got to do some plate spotting. I managed to find a few minor things for my collection, too!
My first spotting came in the most unlikely of places: Goulais River, which is a half-hour drive north of town. I entered the Timberland General Store, where I’ve been many times before, but only for groceries or to return liquor bottles. This time, I wandered into the “gift shop” section, and I spied a four-digit 1970 Ontario passenger plate. It had been repurposed as part of a storage box. Aside from a couple of nail holes in the corners, it was in reasonably good shape. But I couldn’t help but wonder: How did that plate get to Goulais River? Goulais is nowhere near Toronto, which is where this four-digit plate would have been issued. The only passenger plates issued in this remote area were the late series with a middle-alphabet letter like L or N.
While I was in Timberland, I noticed a series of back-and-white pictures on the wall. Old-time images of this area are somewhat hard to come by, so I looked among them for scenes of interest. I found a cool picture of an old Texaco station, dating from the 1940s or 50s. The station was at the junction of what I presumed was Highway 17 to the right, and the local road out to the communities of Goulais Mission and Goulais River to the left. The oblique angle of the intersection leads me to believe that this corner is the same one that would become the junction of Highway 552 (left) and 552A (right) through the 1960s, after Highway 17 was rebuilt along a more westerly route. Highway 552A was downgraded to local-road status in the 1970s. So if my theory is correct, this spot is now the intersection of present-day Post Office Road and Highway 552. Unfortunately, there is no Google Street View along Highway 552, so I’ll have to wait until next summer before I can try to take a “then and now” image from the same viewpoint.
The Timberland General Store revealed another historic gem on the wall: a picture of a driver posing with a big tractor truck. The grille of the truck was adorned with two plates. First, there was a September ‘68 quarterly, with a nifty repeating number. That plate would have looked cool, back in the day, with its shiny dark green finish. Below the quarterly plate was a smaller F-class PCV plate dated 1967. And to make the picture even more interesting, there was a municipal plate fixed to the front bumper: “CARTAGE,” dated 1967, from Sault Ste. Marie. My guess is that the picture might have been taken sometime in the fall of ‘67— just after the installation of the then-new quarterly plate with the September ‘68 expiry — but with the ‘67 permit plates still in use. I tried to imagine what these plates would have looked like in living colour: A green quarterly, a blue PCV, and a smaller blue cartage plate, all on the same truck. Sault Ste. Marie is the only city that I collect in terms of municipal plates. I have a ‘67 cartage plate from the Sault, although mine is pretty rough and I would love to upgrade it someday.
Sault Ste. Marie offers very little in terms of “junk” stores that sell smaller old and used things, which I find odd. There are only three that I know of, yet the city is loaded with old houses and buildings that no doubt contain many relics in their basements or attics. Licence plates are rather difficult to find in places where you can buy them. I scored at one store a few years ago, but the building was soon condemned and razed.
I tried a different store called “Stuff” in the far west end… I had discovered its existence online since my last visit, and added it to my “to-do” list. It’s very dense and was just teeming with local signage and orphaned artifacts from businesses long gone. I asked from the get-go if they had any plates, and the lady said they didn’t. But I spent over an hour in the store, leaving no stone unturned. Sault Ste. Marie has gone through multiple revisions of its street sign design over the past few decades, and there were a few of them mounted in the store. There were a bunch of crates from the former Doran’s brewery, old street-front signs from defunct restaurants, parts of old traffic signals, milk bags from the former Model Dairy, election signs, and even “Domino” brand pop bottles (the house brand from Dominion grocery stores).
I was nearly on my way out of “Stuff” when I found a city bus destination roll sign. I collect those, and I was ecstatic to have found one! Actually, I found it in two places, because the roll was cut. I reunited the two halves and paid $20 for it. It’s missing a few readings, including the “Eastside” route that I always used as a kid, but it has some newer routes that didn’t exist when I was still living in town (such as People’s Road, Korah Road and Algoma University). This roll came from a GM Classic bus, which was the Sault’s bus mainstay for a few years after the older fishbowl-style buses were retired (I pulled a roll from a junked Sault fishbowl bus about 20 years ago).
I had previously connected online with a local fellow named Bob, who had some Ontario plates to sell. A quick look at a couple of pictures told me that these plates were originally issued in Sault Ste. Marie. That caught my interest, as I’m now trying to piece together a run of Ontario plates issued in or around Sault Ste. Marie. I made arrangements with Bob to come by and have a look. He had a few plates in a box, but then revealed that he had many more nailed to shed in the backyard. Would I be interested in seeing them?
The plates were faded from facing the sun for a couple of decades, but I found a few of interest anyway. We had to break out a screwdriver and a pair of pliers to pull the nails from the wall, but I came away with an armload of plates for a reasonable price. I found a 1957 truck with an uncommon D suffix (a typically high issue for a place like the Sault). I also landed 1962 and 1966 singles that matched what I had noted in old photos. These plates weren’t in great shape, but would clean up with an acid bath.
The Sault was issued passenger plates ending with the letter L from 1968 through 1970, and I was pleased to find a few to buy from Bob. The conditions varied, but the price was reasonable, so I bought a few 1969s to see which ones might shine up.
In a northern town like Sault Ste. Marie, every second vehicle is a pickup truck. That’s the way it was, even when I was a kid. When quarterly truck plates were replaced with renewable white plates in 1980, the Sault received the series from approximately HH7 to HK1. That meant the vast majority of pickups in town sported plates beginning with HJ. I was able to get a nice one from Bob’s shed. Bob also had a low-numbered June ‘74 quarterly plate, but I don’t think it was issued locally. There were never many June plates to find in the area. It seems likely that the 304th one with a ‘74 expiry would have been issued much closer to Toronto!
Another time during my hometown visit, I was checking out the used record store when I saw a 1969 Dodge GT Sport parked across the street, wearing a set of registered ‘69 Year of Manufacture plates. I didn’t recognize the number off-hand. The plates were all-numeric, so they weren’t a local issue. Where would a Soo guy get a clean pair of plates that came from the GTA? Possibly from my YOM plate business! I have access to my sales records on my phone, but this plate number wasn’t in my spreadsheet. I’ve always wanted to spot one of my own plates “in the wild” in my hometown of old, so I was a little bummed that this set of plates didn’t come from me.
I spotted another uncommon car while in town, but not as old. It was a 1988 Mercury Cougar… the kind of boxy, two-door coupe that was common on the roads during my high school days. These cars aren’t exactly revered as being classics. I myself drove a tired 1988 Mercury Topaz through my university years. Anyway, this Cougar was still wearing its original Sault-issued plates. The reverse CZC series was issued in late 1987, and I actually had a CZC plate in my collection at one time. But in my early collecting days, it would never have occurred to me to save plates from my hometown, because they’re all I ever had. My CZC plate went to Australia in a parcel with nine others in trade for nine Aussie plates. I lost interest in the Aussie plates, and they’re all gone now, save for one.
One morning, I went to visit a friend of my mom’s, who happens to own a 1958 Meteor Rideau (a Ford product with a special name meant to cater to the Canadian market). He doesn’t have a set of YOM licence plates on his car, but I’ll eventually try and get him fixed up through my business. We were just there to say hello, so it wasn’t the time for a sales pitch. He let me take the car for a little spin while he tagged along in the passenger seat, and my 11-year-old son practically swam in the rear seat because it was so huge. That breaks the record for “oldest car Jon has ever driven.” Here’s a list of the top five oldest vehicles I’ve driven:
1958 Meteor Rideau
1970 VW Beetle
1971 VW Super Beetle
1975 GMC Sierra
1982 Chevrolet Custom Deluxe
The oldest car I’ve ridden in as a passenger is a 1939 Rolls-Royce Wraith.
My trips to the Sault area are usually not so plate-centric. I normally spend much more time in a beach cabin, and there's hardly any time to spend in town sniffing out collectibles, but this year’s vacation was a bit anomalous. I split my time between the city proper and my mom's trailer in Batchawana, about 60 km north of town. The trailer is in a quiet spot on a meandering river that passes beneath Highway 17. Not much goes on there, but it's nice and relaxing, especially in the evening. Occasionally, a truck passed by, headed into the night along the highway as I cast my fishing rod from the dock. It's a nice way to spend a few days, whether or not there's any hobby activity on the side.