The times, they are a-changing… especially in Ontario, for a small group of close-knit people who band together every six months to collect automotive license plates. The Grimsby swap meet this past weekend was abuzz with chatter over some unexpected news, on a couple of fronts, from the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario.
The Grimsby plate meet happens at an awkward time of year for me, as a father. My children’s schools usually host their respective costume parties on the Friday night before Hallowe’en. My daughter, now 10, has largely outgrown them, and she was invited to a sleepover at her friend’s house anyway. But my son, now 6, has just started at a new school, and we discovered the school was hosting a Hallowe’en party from 6 to 8 on Friday night. He wanted to go, but I’m the only driver in the family, and I had already made the commitment to travel to Grimsby on that very evening. I’m making it up to him afterward, with a trip to the costume store and maybe watching a scary movie. But I’m feeling a very strong pull to wear my “dad hat” on that Friday evening next year, and I don’t know what that might mean for my attendance in Grimsby in 2017. I suppose I could just drive late and arrive at my hotel by 2 am? But I’ll figure that out in another eleven months.
My friend Eric Vettoretti, with whom I have travel often, is unable to attend Grimsby for the foreseeable future, on account of that weekend being the birthday celebration of his little girl (now 2). I teamed up with my friend Dave Grant for the first time. We live in the same region of town, so it didn’t take long to organize ourselves after work, and we were heading down the highway in no time.
The road was fairly busy… lots of trucks forced my brain to stay alert. If my mental energy ebbed slightly, we stopped for coffee. It was a moonless, overcast night, which made it very dark on the highway, with nothing but taillights and the blur of the white lines on the pavement to guide us. One errant deer on the road would probably cause a multi-car pileup.
Dave is an avid plate spotter, and is always watching the road for interesting alphabetic combinations on Ontario plates. Earlier in the week, a couple of collectors snapped a photo of an odd-looking Ontario plate, which seemed to be made on a different assembly line than all the others. The font of the dies used to punch the numbers was clearly different, and looked like it had been made by Waldale—that’s the corporation that makes plates for BC, Alberta, Nova Scotia, Nevada, Mississippi, and many other jurisdictions. We didn’t know if this was the new way of making Ontario plates, or if it was just a temporary measure, maybe in response to the awful peeling problem that Ontario has had with its plates. In any case, Dave kept his eyes peeled for them—although they had only been issued for the past few days, so it might be like finding a needle in a haystack, although there was one to see, eventually, in Grimsby.
We drove toward Toronto and found ourselves on the Don Valley Parkway, following a strangely-painted school bus with flashing coloured lights inside. It looked like a mobile dance club. We followed it in amusement for a little while before realizing that we were under the speed limit in the left lane. I overtook the bus and left it behind as we moved through the metal, glass and concrete corridor that is downtown Toronto.
We arrived in Grimsby at around 10:30, with a room booked at the Super 8. There was a lot of condo construction all around the area. The nightly room rate had ballooned to $128, which was more than I wanted to pay for a discount hotel chain. The hotel is adjacent to the lake shore, where it seems to be permanently windy. My jacket whipped upward and flew around my ears as I walked from the car. The hotel attendant mentioned that the roof of the building had been resurfaced well before its expected life span, which had been substantially shortened due to the constant wind.
After a short night’s sleep, we were ready to leave for the meet. We saw an interesting plate in the hotel parking lot, number CAAA-011. The eleventh plate to be issued in the new C alphabet series which began issuance over three months before.
We arrived at the St. Andrews Parish Hall, still in the dark, at quarter after seven. Don Goodfellow, our primary host, was already there with the door unlocked, with his wife Darlene setting up the registration table. Joe Sallmen was actively carrying boxes of plates into the hall. Dave and I weren’t expecting the doors to be open quite this early, but we wasted no time in choosing tables and unloading our boxes of plates. More collectors appeared through the doors as the clock ticked closer to 7:30.
I made my first purchase of the day before the official opening time. I found a strange 1971 plate, with the full year embossed at the top, on a yellow background, with the crown in the wrong position and the numbers unpainted. I figured that it might be a test plate, just fed into the press to verify that the correct pressure was being applied to emboss the characters.
Before 8 am, the hall was chock full of collectors. I found myself losing track of which tables I had browsed, because there are just so many people to greet. Alan Bones, Bill and Lynda Thoman, Mike and Alannah Franks, Matt and Holly Embro, Jacques Allen, Will Loftus, Norm Ratcliffe, Dave Steckley… and all before opening time. Ten years ago, our swap meet was much different, and didn’t have the sense of familiarity that it has today. I notice, more with each passing year, that our swap meets feel like a family reunion. People just resume their conversations as though they talking the previous day. There are hugs and hearty handshakes all around. Those who can’t make it this year are missed, and newcomers are encouraged to keep coming. We talk about our now-older children, and ask ourselves, “Where has the time gone?” Lynda met my daughter Madeleine once as a pre-schooler when I brought her to Acton. Now Mads is in fifth grade, which, neither Lynda nor I can believe. The last time I saw Holly Embro, she was her usual petite, svelte self… but she and Matt are expecting their first child at the end of November, and she looked like she was ready to pop any time.
I did some YOM prospecting with Dave Steckley, with whom I had a deal brewing for the past couple of months. Also, Dave had taken custody of my commemorative "7135" ALPCA plate back at the convention in Fort Wayne in July, and he passed it on to me in Grimsby. Thanks, Dave!
I found a single 1924 plate, on Will’s trade table. It was a four-digit short plate made with 1923 dies-- a more angular, blocky style of numbers. I have an affinity for short plates, and Will had a reasonable price on it, so I bought it from him. It’ll go in my run among the other three- and four- digit numbers I’ve collected. I’d love to find a 1920s plate with just two digits someday. Bill Thoman brought two such plates to display at the meet. They were two-digit trailer plates, including 1924 number T-40, which was embossed with the more commonly-seen round characters.
John Rubick was at the meet this year. He called me over and had some news he wanted to share. He asked me to take notes with a pen and paper, so I could organize his thoughts and deliver the news to our group in a graceful way. I obliged and began jotting down some notes. John is normally an exuberant, boisterous fellow, but he was clearly troubled. He had spoken on the phone with our mutual friend and swap meet stalwart Bob Cornelius, who was absent from Grimsby this year. According to what John told me, Bob had just been discharged from the hospital after a lengthy stay, and was too unwell to make the trip to the meet. Bob wanted to convey to everyone that he was sorry he couldn’t be present, he hoped we all would have a great time, and he was looking forward to attending the Acton meet in 2017. I thanked John for pulling me aside. When ten o’clock came, and it was time for the group announcement, I delivered Bob’s message to the group, and gently explained why he wasn’t there. Bob has many long-time friends within our collecting circle. Usually, when I do the announcements in Grimsby, there are a few people who don’t pay much attention and chat quietly in the background. But this time, when I talked about Bob being unwell, I paused briefly during my address for a “sinking-in” moment, and to allow a chance for some to begin a quiet prayer. There was absolute silence in the hall. We could have heard a pin drop.
Gary Edwards had a surprise in store for us. He had somehow gotten in touch with someone in the upper echelons of the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario and brought up the fact that 2016 is the centennial anniversary of the formation of that government agency tasked with the development of roads and licensing of vehicles. He was able to initiate a limited run of commemorative license plates, produced in the factory in Lindsay, to be given out to VIPs within the MTO. Gary was also able to negotiate a limited run of plates to be distributed to collectors at a cost of $25. Not only were license plates made, but included with each plate was a miniature commemorative highway sign with a wonderful King’s Highway-style logo with the number 100. Very smart-looking! The roll-out process for these plates is net yet complete, so to maintain the integrity of the surprise for staff within the MTO, Gary asked that we not publish any photos of these plates just yet, which is why there are none pictured with this article.
This secret was kept under wraps, and NOBODY in the meet hall had a clue that these plates and signs were being made, so naturally, there was healthy applause and gratitude for Gary all around. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough plates to go around, so to keep the distribution civilized, he and Dave Steckley composed a list of collectors within Ontario who were members of the ALPCA in good standing, or non-members who had been regular attendees of the Grimsby and Acton swap meets over the years. We lined up to check the list to see if our names were there. I figured I easily met the criteria to be on the list, and indeed, my name was there. Eric Vettoretti’s name was there also, so I initialled the list on his behalf and prepared to pay for his plate so I could bring it back to Ottawa for him. I checked the list for the name “Bob Cornelius,” and of course, his name was printed. I knew immediately what had to be done. I initialled Bob’s place on the list, asked Dave and Gary for permission to pay for and take custody of Bob’s plate on his behalf. They gratefully allowed me to do so.
Martine Stonehouse continued her tradition of bringing some uncommon plates for an educational show-and-tell session. This time, she had a well-preserved matched pair of 1936 Ontario truck plates, featuring the none-too-common experimental locking tab plate. Once installed, the bolts were concealed, so the only way to remove the plate at the end of 1936 was to rip it apart… so there aren’t a lot of surviving examples.
We had a bumper crop of prizes to hand out this year. Don rounded up some plates, plus two years’ worth of ALPCA Plates magazines, and a copy of Joe Sallmen’s license plate book, late of the George Sanders collection. I contributed a couple of hand-made pull-off shop calendars. John Powers made a late entrance and brought some donated loot from Canadian Tire that we could use as door prizes. John donated jumper cables, washer fluid, snow brushes, and various other useful automotive items that we all could use. It was fitting that we had so many door prizes to give away. According to Darlene and Don, there were 49 collectors present, but with spouses included, that number went up to about 70, which, I believe, is a record. We had a couple of new faces from down Windsor way who were encouraged to come by Bill Thoman, and Dave Steeves made the trip from the GTA after being encouraged to do so by Eric Vettoretti.
The crowd of 70 had dissipated somewhat by 11:30, and there were a few empty tables appearing in the hall. I had just finished a deal with Dave Steckley, and I figured I was pretty much done for the morning, so I started to put some tables and chairs away with Don. Dave Grant helped out, as did Mike and Alannah Franks. There are always stragglers who are slow on the move-out, but I put away as much as possible without evicting anyone. Don graciously thanked me for my help and gave me the green light to depart, since I have a very long drive home. We checked our calendars and agreed that the next Grimsby meet should be held on Saturday, October 28, 2017. The rent is going up by $60 next year, so we’ll probably have to adjust admission pricing a bit, but not egregiously so.
Lunch plans were percolating, and I suggested to Mike and Alannah that we try the Judge and Jester, an English-style pub nearby. The last time I was there was three years prior with Will, Normy and Eric, and we had a delicious meal and a great time. A group of eight agreed to meet there for some good eats. Dave and I were the first to arrive, followed by Mike and Alannah, Xavier Dubé and Emilie Ouellette, and ALPCA’s President and First Gentleman, Cyndi McCabe and Chuck Sakryd. The atmosphere was pleasant, the service was swift, and the food was great. Mike ordered the Haddock, and when it arrived, it was the size of a breadbox. Emilie had a terrific peameal sandwich the size of a baseball glove. I had “The Barrister,” an open-faced sandwich piled high with roast beef and gravy. Of course, these details have nothing to do with plate collecting, but by writing about them, odds are that one of us will remember to go back there another year (incidentally, no tumblers of Coke were spilled anywhere this time).
It was nice chatting with everyone, but Dave and I had to be going. I had earlier called Barbara Cornelius, Bob’s wife, and let her know that I had a very special plate to give to Bob, if he was feeling up to it. She said they would be at home, and I was welcome to stop by. So Dave and I got into my car and we drove 20 minutes eastbound until we reached Bob’s house in nearby St. Catharines.
Barb answered the door and invited us inside. She said that Bob would love to see us, and so we ventured into the family room, where he was resting in his recliner. I took a knee and shook his hand. He was clearly not feeling well, but he was just as gracious and eloquent as he’s always been. I explained the story of how Gary had spearheaded the limited run of MTO centennial plates, and I presented the plate and matching mini-sign to Bob.
“Oh, wow… would you look at that!” he said. “This is something really special… and for you to come all this way to bring it to me…”
“It’s no trouble, Bob,” I replied. “You’re worth it.”
“Thank you, so very much,” Bob said. “This is a wonderful gift, and I’ll truly cherish it forever.”
I was gratified that we had been able to brighten his day this much. I reminded him of his many other friends within the extended hobby family who wished him well and missed him at Grimsby.
“Well,” he said, “I sure would like to make it to Acton next spring.”
I wished Bob a speedy recovery. It’s always a pleasure to talk to him, and I wished we could chat for a longer time, but his stamina was waning, and I didn’t want to tax his energy. There were other family members in the home, keeping Bob company and helping to make him feel comfortable. It was time to go. Bob and I shook hands again. “Take good care,” I said.
Barb showed us to the door, thanked me graciously, and gave me a hug as I said goodbye. I worried about Bob as I drove away, but he’s such a selfless, classy guy—if he knew I was worrying about him, he’d tell me to put it out of my mind. I tried not to be preoccupied.
Dave and I stopped for a coffee before heading back home. We weren’t quite in familiar territory. We were fairly close to Niagara Falls, where I hadn’t been in five years. We had just started toward home, when we passed by a flea market that looked promising. We couldn’t resist. We got out of the car and looked around. “We’re going to be here a while,” said Dave. “This place is a picker’s dream!”
I found my way to a vendor who had plates in clear plastic bins. I could see the faces of the plates from a few dozen feet away, so I geared up for some more plate hunting. The vendor had higher-quality plates in the back of his van, and he let me paw through them. It made for decent YOM prospecting—I found a couple of short 1930s pairs I liked, but I was really excited about some 1980 motorcycle plates with just two digits, and another one on the 1982 “sticker box” base with repeating digits. I assembled a small pile of plates, both old and new, and bought them. The seller tucked a New Jersey into the pile after Dave found an interesting letter combination on it.
That’s about all we found in terms of plates. This place still had a lot of vendors to check out, both outdoor and in a century-old house-turned-antique store. I enjoy looking at the old phones, comic books, hockey pennants, highway signs and cameras, even if I find no plates. Sometimes I’ll find something from my childhood—something about which I’d completely forgotten, and not thought about in 30 years – and as soon as I see it in the store, I recognize it immediately. This time, it was a Kodak Instamatic X-15F camera, which was best used in bright sunlight. I snapped a picture of it with my now-aging iPhone 5.
With that, it was four o’clock, we were somewhere in wine country, and we had to get home. I bit the bullet and chose the outrageously expensive 407 ETR, since there would certainly be slowdowns through the GTA if I took the toll-free routes, and we were already looking at an ETA home of sometime after 9 pm. We took the ETR from start to finish and used the new 412 also. I drank too much coffee, but I was alert for the whole ride home. Dave did offer to share in the driving, but I tend to be an all-or-nothing traveller. I enjoy being in the left seat, and I’d rather keep my mind active. When I arrived home, I saw that my son Greg had made me a welcome sign and taped it in the hall next to the front door. That was a heart-warmer. So ended my trip... I now had kids to attend to, chores to do, pumpkins to carve, articles to write… and it probably won’t be until next weekend that I start going through my loot. But boy, will it be fun!