I made it to this year’s Acton swap meet, having missed the 2006 edition because of an imminently-arriving baby. The baby did arrive, and now requires constant supervision, but my wife is very understanding of my compulsion to chase after old license plates, so she graciously gave me her blessing to go. Eric Vettoretti’s wife seems to be equally understanding, and thus, the two of us embarked on the journey to Acton 2007: the 5th anniversary edition of the swap meet.
Eric and I left Ottawa at the crack of dawn on Saturday in the hope that our tin-chasing strategy of 2005 would work once again. Back then, we passed through a small town and scored a pair of 1939 doctor’s plates… a rare and significant find, since they’re the first known license plate issue to feature a reflective treatment. This year, it was a sunny, warm weekend, the first of the season, and we were hoping to run into garage sales, flea markets, or antique shops that might supply us with some plates. We decided to take old Highway 16 south from Ottawa and then old Highway 2 west toward Kingston.
We hit paydirt relatively early. We spotted a promising garage sale in Kemptville by noticing a couple of 1960s Chevys in mid-restoration on the front lawn. Grease monkeys often have license plates lying around, so we stopped. Eric found a pile of plates and attracted my attention by clattering them together, producing the distinct sound that is instantly recognizable by any plate collector. The guy showed us some other plates screwed to a board around back, and said they were also available if we wanted. Eric came away with a nice pair of 1960s and a really nice 1950, and a few others. I picked up a 1947, and a 1963 with a cool number (E-99998). The plates were quite inexpensive, which one might expect from a garage sale.
We motored on to old Highway 2, which is full of sights for guys like us. I get a kick out of the older traffic lights that can be seen on the older highways. Eric likes to spot old highway alignments and bridges. While passing through Brockville, we encountered an ancient set of signals with small 8-8-8 lights exclusively, suspended from old mast arms.
For a sunny spring Saturday, there were scant garage sales to be seen. We decided to take a detour from Highway 2 and take the Loyalist Parkway, which would take us down to the Glenora Ferry, and beyond the channel, Prince Edward County. The ferry ride was short and smooth—we were in the car, waiting for what I assumed were some final safety checks before our un-docking, when I asked Eric, “I wonder how long until we leave?” Eric beckoned out the rear window and showed me we were already halfway across!
Prince Edward county was pretty much a bust, except for one remote shop called The Sword which had some plates at reasonable prices. It was all run-of-the-mill, but I did pick out a pair that I knew would clear for YOM.
That was the extent of our luck—we hit the 401 shortly after and stayed in a motel that evening, a short distance from Acton. Bright and early the next morning, we descended upon Acton and began unloading our plates. As usual, we were greeted by the Three Kings of Acton: Gary, Dave and Paul. We set up tables in the hall. I decided to get one opposite the door, to attract the walk-ins first. Eric took up a spot in a corner because he had a bunch of large signs to display against the wall.
I’ve become picky about what I buy over the years and I made my only purchase fairly early, in the form of a recent passenger, as well as a recent vanity plate with a die variation (an embossed crown with the middle strut intact)—both from Jim Becksted. I couldn’t entice him into a trade, and I had no choice but to let him lighten my wallet by quite a bit (the crook). Jim now knows my weakness—impulse buying for the recent stuff.
There were about five regular sellers who weren’t there this year, so for a collector, the buying aspect of the meet wasn’t quite up to par. However, it was a seller’s market in Acton this year. The Three Kings have been advertising in Old Autos, a classic car tabloid based in Ontario, and every year, there seems to be more walk-in traffic from Old Autos subscribers. Folks look for YOM pairs, or just anything they find interesting. My own trade stock isn’t that extensive, but I made about half my sales to that crowd, which lightened my load considerably for the trip back home. I got rid of many plates that I had for years and thought would never move.
Eric managed to sell a couple of signs, much to his relief. A speed limit sign made of galvanized steel is rather cumbersome to store at home, let alone lug around to a swap meet. Eric has seen my trade stock many times and understandably didn’t give it a close look. But he saw an old truck plate that I recently declared surplus to my collection—- he was very quick to track me down and add it to his growing run.
I did a couple of trades— and received some good stuff in return, such as some nice Ontario pairs, and a 59 Delaware tab (traded for a 76 Ontario moped, which is a good deal, but I wanted a better tab for my mid-50s Delaware plate, which I found serendipitously at Barrie a few years ago for $5).
Most of my time at Acton is spent gabbing with people. I almost gabbed my way into buying a really nice Ivory Coast diplomat from Will Loftus, but I held back because these days I consider what the chances are that I’ll actually display a cool-looking plate that is outside my formal collecting interests. I concluded it would probably be bagged and boxed. Maybe, in another few months, I’ll have more display space at home. We’ll see.
Noon struck, and most people had left or were leaving. Too bad, too: We missed the find of the day (this writer included). At nearly 1 o’clock, a gentleman drove up and had with him a 1913 three-digit Quebec plate in very good condition. Dave’s eyes popped out (from what he told me) and he admitted he couldn’t make an on-the-spot assessment as to its value, and the gentleman was also, understandably, not in a position to agree to a quick offer. They exchanged contact info and Dave will undoubtedly provide them with accurate info with respect to the plate’s rarity, manufacture, and maybe, if he’s lucky, its provenance. The gentleman mentioned that some time before, a “bookish” man expressed an urgent interest in the plate… apparently, this man “needed” it so he could Kerplunk it into his collection. Fortunately, no deal was made, and Dave now has the privilege of having seen a very rare plate.
By the time Dave was having this conversation, Eric and I were already on the road. We decided to take Highways 10 and 9 and 48 to bypass Toronto, in the hope that we’d find a good flea market. We found a few, all right, but none had any plates. We entered a few barn-style markets with rustic items, but old furniture seemed to be the catch of the day. One place in downtown Newmarket looked promising from the outside, but on the inside, it was almost entirely dollar-store-type trash and cheap jewelry… kind of like what the Pickering Market morphed into when it moved south of the 401.
The afternoon wore on, and the farms on rolling hills gradually turned into trees, cliffs and lakes as we made for home along Highway 7, passing by such places as Marmora, Actinolite, Kaladar and Perth. Going to Acton is a win-win situation, because even if you don’t make that big find, it’s great to chat with the guys who attend. If you’re a regular reader of this column, and have never been, then make a point of coming along. It’s a lot of fun!