For the past couple of years, when Eric and I have gone to the Acton swap meet together, we’ve planned out a unique route and left early on Saturday, so we have enough time to stop at junk shops along the way. We’ve done Highway 2 all the way, we’ve taken Highway 7, we’ve done 60 – 11 – 400, and we’ve done some express miles on the 401. This time, we decided to avoid King’s Highways whenever possible and just take sideroads through small towns that we might not otherwise see.
There’s a truck museum in Athens that we were hoping to get to, but it’s privately owned and presumably open by appointment or chance. When we passed through Athens at 8:30 on a Saturday morning, we figured we were too early, so we motored onward. We stopped at a garage sale in Frankford that looked like it might have plates. The guy there said he had none, but his brother ran a shop in Belleville, and he did. Eric followed the directions to Belleville and found a strange antique / memorabilia shop right in the middle of a residential area. The guy did have a few plates, but they were very common and we didn’t take any. We soon wound up in Deseronto, the site of our joint find of a 1939 reflective doctor pair some five years before. We decided to look around. The big flea market on Main Street had closed, but in its stead were a few junk shops around town, presumably with items that had once been at the market. In one such shop, near the front of the store, we found a couple of crates of plates. There wasn’t a lot that was special, but I saw a strange blur of green as I was flipping through them—and I pulled out a pair of volunteer firefighter plates with the green sticker on the bottom. A second pair was right beside the first, so I took those as well. It was a new type for my collection. I figured I’d trade the extra pair in Acton.
We hopped on the 401 and decided to run up to the 400 flea market, just south of Barrie. There was almost nothing there in the line of plates, except for one vendor who had lots of them all over the place—but there were many quarterly trucks, and the price was too high. It was getting late, so we gave up and drove to our hotel in Mississauga, and ate a huge meal at an East Side Mario’s in front of three TVs showing the NHL playoffs.
Eric and I arrived at the Acton arena at about seven o’clock the next morning, figuring that we’d be the first ones there. Not so! A red minivan was parked outside, patiently waiting. Eric and I had our breakfast and coffee yet to consume, so we stayed in the car to eat as Eric quit the engine. As we peered over at the van, I recognized the bespectacled profile of Bill Thoman, who gave us a wave. A few minutes later, a large sedan pulled into the parking lot with the initials GGE on the plate… the one and only Gary Edwards, with Mike Crouch along for the ride. A few minutes later, Pierre Elliott Rondeau showed up in his van. He’s from Montreal and had travelled the night before to attend Acton for the first time. Soon, another vehicle arrived, and another. We all piled out of our vehicles to greet each other and shoot the breeze, in a breeze that happened to be very cold on this particular morning. The time was 7:40, and Dave Steckley, our host, had arrived. Ordinarily, the arena attendant would already be there, but his vehicle, customarily parked out front, was still nowhere to be seen. Dave waited a few minutes before driving off to find a phone book and try and contact the attendant.
Eight o’clock passed, and still, the doors were closed, and we were all still in the parking lot. Dave returned, and as it turned out, the attendant was there the whole time—just sitting in his office, with the doors to the arena already unlocked. He didn’t bother to invite us in, and none of us thought to try the doors. The meet got off to a slightly delayed start, but we were all relieved that we finally had a place to start swapping.
It became quite clear that we’d need more tables than were set up, so I helped Dave roll out some round tables from the storage room to add an extra row. The extra tables filled up quickly. According to Dave, the table sales were way up, but strangely enough, the walk-in attendance was down slightly from 2011.
I rented my usual two tables and devoted one of them to my dollar plates, of which I had around two hundred remaining. They were the remnants of the very large haul Eric and I had picked up the previous December. I had already sold off most of what I didn’t need, and succeeded in attracting some healthy attention to the remaining plates. The table was covered in old dairy crates, with small stacks of plates sprinkled throughout. A dollar per plate is a very attractive prospect for a collector with money to spend… Dozens of plates vanished from the table as the morning went by. I dropped the price to fifty cents each before ten o’clock, when the attendance peaks, and watched many more disappear. My volume of trade stock had diminished by half—it was great.
I’m finding less and less to buy for my own collection when I’m at Acton. That’s not because there aren’t any good plates to find—there certainly are—it’s more that my collecting interests are very specific, as my runs are fairly complete, and I’m missing mostly the less common plates. The table next to mine had a lot of eye candy—a three-digit rubber plate from ’05 or ’06, two 1911 porcelains, a 1918 dealer (why do so many survive from 1918?) and an interesting run of short numbered plates (A-69) through the 1930s. The only plate I found myself considering was the rubber plate. I have one already, and it’s a little rough on the top edge. The short plate didn’t have the roughness that mine has, but it did have the same discolouration. I would have to hold them side-by-side to see which one I like better, but if I were to do that, would I really be upgrading my run? No. I won’t upgrade a higher-end plate in my collection unless the difference is obvious.
Bob Cornelius brought a couple of 1940s St. Catharines bicycle plates for me to photograph. The 1942 is black on orange-yellow, just like passenger plates of the same year. The 1943 has a reverse colour scheme from 1942. Strangely, Bob’s 1943 bike plate is made of fibreboard. I have a 1943 bike plate from Sault Ste. Marie of the same colours, but it’s made of metal. You would think that they might have interrupted the metal manufacture mid-way through ’43 to save metal for the war, but that would imply that 1944 bicycle plates should be made of fibre as well—and yet, I have a 1944 Sault Ste. Marie bike plate that’s made of metal. I wonder if the municipality was given an option as to whether their plates would be made of metal or fibre, or maybe the fibre plates came from a different manufacturer. The metal bike plates of this era seem to come from the same source, as evidenced by the recurring fonts of the characters, location and size of holes, and paint colours. Bob said he regretted not bringing anything more interesting, but his ’43 fibre plate gave me a lot of questions to think about.
My favourite display at Acton this year was provided by Norm Ratcliffe, who put a lot of work into an OPP 100th anniversary display. Norm is an OPP officer out of the Aurora detachment, and while the plates were in use, he decided to pose for photographs in full uniform, with his two favourite cruisers from the Aurora detachment, with the plates clearly visible. When the 100th anniversary plates were pulled from the OPP cruisers after the all-too-short anniversary period, the front plates were retained and auctioned off internally for charity. At auction time, he bid heavily on the plates from these cruisers, and won. The result? A professional-calibre display that marries the plates to the representative photos of Norm’s tireless work as an OPP officer.
I brought a video-capable camera to the meet this year. I wanted to shoot a general video of what happens at a small plate meet like Acton, so I found the centre of the room, stood on a chair, and filmed a slow 360-degree pan around the room of about one minute’s duration. I captured just what I wanted—general candid activity around the hive with no one hamming for the camera.
We headed outside for the group shot, but I suggested a new angle for the picture this year. When the weather has been sunny in previous years, we’ve stood against the south wall facing the parking lot, but the sun blasts us with light and most of us wind up squinting in anguish. I brought the group around to the east side of the hall, where there were some trees in the background, and the sun was coming in from the side. A small ditch provided a slope that allowed for a few rows and a better view of everyone. Too bad I had my camera on the wrong setting—the group pic (scroll to bottom) is courtesy of Dave Steckley.
Later in the meet, it occurred to me that I still had my extra set of volunteer firefighter plates that I had picked up in Deseronto the previous day. Dave Steckley collects the same arcane types as I do, so I showed them to him. It just so happened that Dave had procured a scarce pair of December 1976 bus plates over the winter, and he knew I needed one for my bus run. We made it easy on ourselves and just did a pair-for-pair swap. Now, I only need June ’79 and December ’79 to have a full run of bus plates.
Noon hour was coming, and the hall was thinning out. I still had a pile of fifty-cent plates on my table. There was a family who had dropped in on the plate meet, and they were looking for run-of-the-mill plates to use in the decoration of their cottage near Marmora. It had been destroyed by fire the previous week, and after the rebuild, they planned to use the plates for that perfect rustic look. I already didn’t want to take my fifty-cent plates home, and I’m a sucker for children and their causes, so I passed the table of plates onto them for pretty much nothing. They had three boys—a toddler, one was about four, and one was seven. I pulled a couple of the better plates from the pile and asked them if they would like a license plate for their very own. They said “Yes, please!” It was a big deal to them to have their own plates, and if I was a boy again, something like this would have made my day. As an afterthought, I pulled out a marker, got their names, and wrote “to / from” on the back from me to them, and I wrote the date. Maybe one day, when they’re old enough, one of them will read my writing and remember the day he was given his first license plate. Every collector I know experienced a magical moment when the collecting bug first bit them. It may be the same with these boys— who knows?