I’d been spending the spring being a good husband and father, in order to earn enough brownie points to go to the Barrie Automotive Flea Market, where I ogle the cars, buy plates, try to avoid the junk food, and sleep poorly in a tent. In recent years, my trips to Barrie have been basically 24-hour whirlwinds: Drive there on Friday night and be home for Saturday night… but not this time.
When I know that I have to drive home on a Saturday night, I feel somewhat rushed in the field during the day. You’d think that 9 hours in a field looking at car parts would be enough, but in some ways, it’s not. This year, I wanted to take my time on the Saturday and then drive home Sunday morning. Not only would I get more time in the field, but I’d be better-rested for the drive home. I had an excess of points stored up, so I figured, why not? Luckily, my wife saw it the same way. Happy wife, happy life. That’s what she says. It’s pretty much true.
My pal Eric and I would have driven together, but he couldn’t get similar clearance from his better half, so we drove in two vehicles from Ottawa through Renfrew, Denbigh, Bancroft, Kinmount and Orillia, while stopping for a well-timed coffee along the way. It had been a wet week, and the windshield wipers were flapping away for the first third of our journey. The weather forecast had told us that Saturday was not going to be pleasant, but it was lately revised, and called for a gradual drying out. By the time we reached our campsite at the Oro Family Campground, it was after ten, and the ground was more or less dry, with the most recent rain having fallen earlier in the afternoon. Still, I opted to sleep in the car, just in case. One year prior, I gambled on the weather and woke up in my tent in the middle of a lake.
No rain came that night. Eric slept comfortably in his car, but was awoken by birdsong at about five in the morning. I slept uncomfortably in my considerably smaller car, but my ear plugs spared me from the birds and I slept until a little after six. We drove toward the market, and we got there by seven. Our buddies Norm and Will had attended the market the previous day, and they angrily reported that the market management was now charging five dollars per vehicle for parking. I suppose we’re lucky that they hadn't begun charging for parking years ago. Although really, if someone is going to drive all the way out to Barrie, most will sooner pay an unexpected add-on of five dollars than turn around and drive all the way back home. It’s an irritant. The entrance fee is already ten bucks per day, vendor fees keep going up, food prices keep going up… The maps that they hand out to everyone advertise “FREE ADMISSON," but if you can find your way to the fine print, admission is actually BOGO on Sunday—which is the day all the vendors are basically leaving. I wonder if you’d still have to pay to park on a Sunday. As we were to find out, some vendors are apparently voting with their feet and jumping ship. More on that later.
The sky was overcast; the temperature in the low twenties, there was a comfortable breeze, and no trace of rain. It was a great day to hunt for junk. We were worried that we would have a fourth rainout out of our previous five trips to Barrie, but we actually had what was probably the best condition possible for an outdoor flea market. The conditions were perfect. Of course, people like sunny days, but the overcast skies are ideal for taking pictures of cars.
We split a batch of motorcycle plates early on as we were combing through the blue and red fields. We didn’t really find much else that was interesting, in terms of old plates, until we reached the dead centre of the field, where the green and yellow sections begin. There’s an antique dealer there who sells lots of Ontario highway signs, and he usually has some boxes of plates in better-than-average condition from what we normally find at a flea market. This year, he had a plethora of plates, and we spent a long time browsing through and setting items aside. His prices are on the steep end, so we made a note of what interested us, and continued on our way. We’d come back later if there we no better deals elsewhere.
It turns out that there weren’t as many deals as we expected, mostly because there were many empty vendor spaces where ordinarily, there are full rows. Granted, the spring show is less busy than the fall one, but the rows and rows of empty space in the yellow and green fields were very ominous. The tide may be turning in favour of the new market in Lindsay in early May.
My heart jumped when I spied a box of mint 1966 Ontario plate pairs, all still in the original wax paper wrappers. I have legions of YOM customers looking for any 1966 pairs I can find. Sadly, every single pair of the 50 or so in the box was of the type that starts with a letter, followed by five numbers. That serial pattern was used to make permanent trailer plates in the 1990s. Just for kicks, I got the number range down and checked them all afterward. As I suspected, not a one was YOMable.
Among the coolest finds I ever made at Barrie was a Commodore AL 1000 programmable calculator. It is the size of a large typewriter, has computer-keyboard-style keys, and because they were introduced in 1967, its numeric display was the type that uses glowing overlapping filaments that are bent into the shapes of the numbers. It was in great condition and came with its own dust cover. The vendor only wanted 15 bucks for it, too. I thought about getting it, and indulging my inner science geek, but it was large and heavy, and I was unable to conveniently port it. Something like that would most likely be found in a museum.
There’s a vendor I always see in Barrie—he seems to be in a different spot each year, but always on the south side of the field. I call him the beer vendor. He always has dark, covered tents over his wares to protect them from rain, and he sells beer memorabilia—old stubby bottles, labels, coasters, Brewers’ Retail store items (from the days before they renamed it what everyone always called it—“The Beer Store”). He looks like the type of vendor who should have license plates, but he never does, even though I always look. He did have some old wooden crates—a couple of which originated from the old Doran’s Brewery in Sault Ste. Marie, before it became Northern Breweries, which eventually folded. The brewery building in the Soo, on Bay Street, was burned by an arsonist this past winter. The shell awaits demolition.
As the morning wore on, the vendors had put their coffee and bacon away, and switched to beer. The sight of kids pulling wagons of empties was punctuated by the sound of belching vendors as the clouds began to thin out, unveiling a blue sky above—first a little, and then more, until we had a nice, sunny day by mid-afternoon.
I stopped by the public pay phones, which are attached to wooden boards that are frequently posted with ads. I was surprised to see that one of my Ontplates.com posters was still up and in good condition, having been posted a year ago. My phone number had changed, so I came to Barrie armed with new posters. I tore the old one down and started stapling the new one up—but I ran out of staples. I couldn’t find anyone at the market who had the J-21 staples I needed, so I just scrounged up a few staples of a different size, bought a hammer for 50 cents, and hammered the staples into the phone boards. It took a few minutes, but it worked fine. I left a healthy amount of business cards with the poster. I have no idea if it works or not, but as long as the posters get left alone, it means I’ll get some free ad space during concerts and events all summer long.
Having failed to find more interesting plates, Eric and I returned to the guy with all the King’s Highway signs and bought a stack from him. Overall, we were pleased with what we acquired, but the problem was that everything was purchased from 2-3 vendors. Normally, we’re used to picking up smaller quantities from multiple vendors. There weren’t as many vendors to find this time around, so I think we were lucky to come home with as many plates as we did. Had we struck out with Mr. King’s Highway, we would have been pretty bummed out, to say the least.
By four o’clock, Eric had left for the return trip home. I found myself in the unfamiliar position of having an abundance of time on my hands. The sun was still high, and there were lots of people still around. I re-started my combing of the fields, but this time with other things in mind. I find that when I’m focused on finding old plates, I do it to the exclusion of other items. I may not see a part I need for my ’71 Beetle, or a useful tool that I can use when I restore plates. I also had to find a couple of small gifts for my son and daughter.
I bought a battery cutoff switch for use with my Beetle during its winter storage. With the battery being under the rear bench seat, it’s often a pain to get a wrench in there to loosen the main lead off the battery. Now, I’ll be able to do it by simply twisting a knob.
Ever since I bought an anvil last year to use when flattening my plates, I’ve been looking for a way to re-shape dented numbers, or to put the “pop” back into an embossed border that’s been bent. My collecting buddy Bill Thoman showed me how he bought some broken old hammers from a flea market and used the hardwood handles as blunt-ended punches for this sort of thing. I kept my eye open for greasy boxes of old tools and eventually spent $5 on loose or broken hammers with hardwood handles, plus a couple of big chisels whose points had been beaten to nubs—but they were the right size for restoring die strikes on old plates.
I had reconsidered the old Commodore programmable calculator that I had seen – big enough that it looked like it could seat four comfortably – but it was gone by the time returned to the vendor who was selling it. I probably should have jumped on it—something like that would have been cool for my classroom, and probably a bargain at $15. Oh, well. It would have been a bear to carry.
I lumbered around the fields until about six o’clock—which meant I had been constantly on foot for eleven hours. I bought a couple of new dinky cars for my son, and a jewelled bracelet and matching necklace for my daughter. Vendors were closing up in preparation for suppertime, followed by a night’s worth of drinking. I headed back to my campsite. I felt like taking a swim, but the pool was in no condition to be used. The sky was clear, and there was no chance of rain overnight, so I pitched my tent and read through some Old Autos papers before falling asleep.
I awoke at six o’clock the following morning. If I drove home without dawdling, I could make it home in a little more than four hours. Originally, I was going to return to the market fields when they opened at 7, and browse for a little while—but that would cost me another ten bucks admission. However, my plans changed, and I had to drive down to Toronto. I had been in touch with someone who had a rather interesting mini-run of plates that were used on the Metro Toronto Chairman’s car back in the 60s and early 70s. The late father of the person I was talking to was the chauffeur for the Metro Chair (aka the Mayor) back in the day, and he had retained many of the plates from the official car from 1962 to 1972. Normally, it’s the provincial government VIPs that get low-numbered plates. The Chair received A10000 for one vehicle, 10000E for another, and there were a couple of other combinations with 10000 in the lot. There was no surviving documentation with the plates, but the provenance seems fairly straight-forward, and there’s enough archival material within the city of Toronto that there may be a photograph or two of the Chair and his vehicle attending an event or parade. The proof may eventually be found in the pudding, but in any case, I loved the round numbers on the plates and I made arrangements to buy the lot. It meant a detour through Toronto, and bypassing my preferred northern route back home, but I didn’t mind.
I had just enough time to stop at the Pickering Flea Market on the way home. One of the vendors with whom I had been talking in Barrie said that there was a new Antique section to the Pickering Market, and he ran a stall there, as well as at the 400 Flea Market. I hadn’t been to the Pickering market in years—the last time I was there, the dealers were all selling foods and new retail items; there were no antique dealers who might carry mantique-type stuff for me. Apparently, the antique section in Pickering had just made its debut a few weeks before. I stopped in and my efforts were rewarded when I found a couple of pairs at a reasonable price. I paid up, hopped in the car, and drove steadily to get home. There were just enough plates to make the familiar rattling sound.