My present weekend-after-Labour-Day ritual is to escape my city life—by driving for a few hours through the wilderness, so I can camp for the night and then spend the next day at the Barrie Automotive Flea Market. I missed the fall edition last year, as well as the spring edition this year, so I was positively pumped. In fact, it was 20 years ago this very weekend that I visited the BAFM for the very first time with Joe Sallmen, way back when he was a Torontonian and I a Londoner, on the very same trip where he found the infamous Tony the Tiger cereal box that “started it all.” But I digress.
I was more than ready for a journey that’s fun, tiring, surprising, disgusting, and rewarding. But this year, I didn’t experience all those different facets that I’ve come to expect. Instead, it was like visiting a long-distance sweetheart after too long a time, only to find that something’s changed.
There was rain in the forecast, which meant I’d probably be sleeping in the car. The last time I used my tent and took a chance on the weather, I woke up in the middle of newly-formed pond, and believe me, that was a rude awakening if ever there was one. I brought my new twin-sized air mattress, which neatly fits in the back of my station wagon with the seats folded down flat. I enjoy using a tent, but only if dry overnight weather is a certainty. I threw my 27-hour survival gear in the car, including my rain poncho and some zip-lock bags. I use those for keeping my phone and wallet dry in case of a downpour. I kissed my family goodbye, set my trip meter to zero, and off I went into the western sun.
It was a pretty evening. The active weather was still over Lake Huron and wouldn’t be reaching Barrie until much later, so the sun was shining pleasantly as I drove out of Ottawa and into Renfrew County. I passed by the Renfrew fair as I entered the main town, as I have done so often in other years on this September weekend. There is always a lively aura there as I move past, with the midway lights fighting the low sun in the sky. Sometimes I wish I could stop to poke around for a little while to check out the games, animals, tractors, and other such things. But I had four more hours to drive, and I didn’t want to keep Debbie waiting up too late for me at the campground. I stopped briefly at Ma-Te-Way Park so I could eat and stretch my legs, but the clock was ticking.
The forest surrounded me as I drove westward along the two-lane ribbon. The sun began its cycle of setting on me in the valleys and reappearing as I crested the hilltops. It lent a brilliant gold hue to the landscape. Every time that happens, I find a place to stop and take a picture, as if it’s something I’ve never seen before. I suppose that’s true in the sense that every place and time is different, and it may explain why my camera archives are replete with sunset or sunrise pictures.
I arrived in Bancroft, my halfway haven, just as the sun’s disc was starting to bite into the distant hills. I stopped to stretch my legs and eat some ice cream at the Kawartha Dairy, and I found a restored 1952 Chevrolet pickup truck in the parking lot, illuminated beautifully by the sun’s final rays. I walked over and took some pictures just in the nick of time. The sun did set at last, as I walked away from the truck and ordered my dessert. Strangely, I couldn’t eat it all. I’m not used to throwing out food. It’s an unusual idea to me.
The sky quickly became dark as I got back on the road again and drove into the tunnel of trees and moonlight. The music and dash lights kept me alert as I snaked my way along the rocky hills and through smaller towns as they shut down for the night. The only beacon of human activity was in Norland, where two open stores remained brightly lit into the evening. This lonely stretch would be a lousy place to run low on fuel in the night.
I arrived at my campground at about 10 pm, and Debbie was expecting me. We chatted pleasantly as she unlocked the store and processed my arrival. She finds it unusual that I so willingly drive through the evening from Ottawa just to be there. But most of my driving hours are spent with bickering children in the back seat, so it’s easy to explain how wonderful the solitude is when I alone can choose the music, choose where to stop, or make a spur-of-the-moment detour without worry. The clouds were coming into view, so I left my tent stowed, inflated my mattress, and settled down for the night inside the car. I slept better than usual.
My alarm blared. It was still dark outside. I opened my eyes and peered upward, through my oblique rear window, toward the sky. There were no stars in sight, but there were no raindrops on the glass, either. The night had been steadily overcast with no rain. I raised the seats, tossed my sleeping gear in the back, and drove off.
I had a bit of time to kill, so I stopped at a gas station for fuel and coffee. The weather forecast was now calling for rain to begin before lunchtime. I knew I had to make the most of my early time at the market, so I went to Burl’s Creek early to wait in line. In past years, I’ve exited the highway at Oro-Medonte Line 8 and been sent into a huge parking field on the left, to the east of the actual event park. The previous time I parked there, I had to walk a half mile west to the entrance gate, which had been moved to accommodate some construction… not fun. This time, the attendant waved at me to make a right turn straight into the event park. When the line started moving at 7 am, I was directed deeper into the park, past the newly-reinstated brown field, along what might once have been the 7½th Oro Line, and into a big parking field to the west of all the vendors. Being one of the first people there, I scored the most convenient parking spot in the place, in the first row, right across the lane from the entrance gate. The closest vendor was maybe 100 feet from my car, which made up for the half-mile hike I endured the previous spring.
The new owners of the event park have clearly sunk a lot of money into the property to turn it into a proper concert venue. Previously, the event park was owned by those who host the flea market, and there were a lot of cheap corners cut. There were recycled 1-hour-photo huts used as ticket booths, various decaying outbuildings, scavenged soccer goalposts used as fences, and dangerous-looking, cut-up 1970s Econolines and Suburbans to haul garbage and deliver parts. Rough as the edges were, it was a great place to have a multi-day outdoor flea market. However, changes abound. Makeshift barriers have been replaced with proper chain-link fencing, there are surveillance camera towers installed, and new tractors pull trailers loaded with parts or garbage bags. One thing that I found rather surprising was that the Barrie Speedway has been completely demolished. In its place is a lawn covering a quiet empty field. A few years ago, you could hear the revving racing engines from miles away.
Last year, the organizers were fined $250k by the township for violations involving the use of an agriculturally-zoned field for event purposes. At the time, the field closer to Line 7 had been used for vending. Apparently, they can’t use that field anymore, so the vending fields returned to the side closest to Line 8. The former vending field next to the now-renovated barn has been excavated into a bowl shape for concerts, so that land can’t be used for the market anymore. The remaining L-shape is used for vendors, who are packed into a smaller area. There are fewer empty spaces than under the old park ownership, but my gut feeling after my visit this year is that there were also fewer vendors overall. There were no site maps available, unlike in past years, which was inconvenient. Visitors who are less familiar with the layout could easily miss the more isolated sections of vendors. Not only that, but it was impossible to locate specific vendors within the market, or mark a vendor on the map to revisit them later. The orange and brown fields give way to camping fields somewhere in there, and I wasted some time wandering along rows of non-vendors in their RVs. Perhaps the vendor layout changed and there wasn’t time to print a map, but a good computer guy could easily come up with a PDF for the BAFM website, but no new map was posted. So I’ve made my own 2016 map here to compare to the layouts from prior years:
One drawback of the new setup is that there are no PA speakers anywhere, so the lively crackle of a tinny voice to wake the slumbering vendors is no longer available. The result is that people sleep in. I spent the first hours wandering the fields randomly, simply looking for any vendor who appeared to be open (the majority were not). There was no concerted effort by the vendors at large to open for business promptly. I didn’t see a plate for sale for the first hour, and it wasn’t until 8:30 that it was worth heading to a starting point to methodically comb the field, row by row.
I made my first plate purchase of the day by pawing through a wet box of old singles and pairs. There was coffee-coloured water between all the plates from the rust that results from poor storage. I did manage to find a couple of pairs I liked, plus a chrome motorcycle backing plate, which might be useful to one of my YOM customers down the road. The palms of my hands were stained from all the wet rust, and of course, at a place like this, there’d be nowhere to wash my hands. No matter… I figured it would rain soon enough anyway, and dirty hands would be the least of my worries.
The sun peered feebly through some clouds, and I could hear the sound of an engine turning over endlessly. Empty bottles of OV lay on the grass, having fallen out of their torn cases. A light smoke smelled like burning cigarettes and bacon. And in my backpack, there was the rattling of a few plates. Hopefully, there would be many more. I had a great parking spot, which would make emptying my backpack a snap, were it to become heavy.
I bumped into fellow collector Dave Steckley at a display board of license plates… one of only two such boards that I would find all day. Dave was just packing up from making a purchase of some CAVR waffle sticker plates, which were prevalent on tractor-trailers in the 1980s. It was great to see each other there, as the previous time we’d run into each other so randomly at Barrie was a few years ago. We knew that we only had a couple of hours before the first band of rain was to pass over us, so we kept our greeting brief and wished each other luck in the field. Time can be very precious in a place like this.
As Dave walked away, I noticed some pairs on the ground next to the display board. Nothing terribly earth-shattering, but they were relevant to my interests, and the vendor offered a great deal on them. This was my first substantial buy of the day, and with rain coming, I wondered how many more I might find. I paid my money and loaded my backpack.
Rain began to sprinkle here and there before long, and as I’d feared, some vendors whipped out their tarps to cover their tables. It didn’t last a long time, though, and I found an interesting vendor under a tent anyway. He had some older plates, rusty but restorable, sitting in boxes on a table. He came to watch me closely. I’d have preferred some distance, but I wasn’t going to be unfriendly. He had a couple of 1932 pairs – one of my big goals of the day was to find that year – and a 1928 pair. We chatted about the state of the market, with generally fewer vendors of classic car parts, accessories and such. We both noted with disdain the increase in the number of vendors selling new knock-off products, clothing, and jewellry. I mentioned that I drove from Ottawa to be there. He found that surprising, but my end of Ontario doesn’t have as many plates to find as the central region.
I took time out to look at the classic car lot, but there was barely anything parked there. What’s more (or less), is that I couldn’t tell if I was looking at the show lot, or the sale lot. I suspect that it might have simply been a sale lot, since there was a 15-year-old beige Toyota Corolla parked right with everything else. There were maybe 20 cars there total, and sadly, none of them wore YOM license plates. The most interesting vehicle there was a 1946 DeSoto Custom 7-Passenger Sedan, but it was a non-running restoration project sitting atop a trailer. It had a ’46 Trailer plate on it just for fun, and the matching patina was neat, even if the plate was mismatched.
My continued systematic combing of the fields was largely fruitless. I focused on supplies for my plate restoration shop, and I bought some work gloves and a cool used shop coat for $5 that used to belong to a guy named Frank, as evidenced by the embroidered name tag. Rain fell off and on as I finished the brown field and crossed the tree line to what was once the orange field, years ago. The lack of gravel paths made things fairly slick, and some lonely vendors were tucked away in the top of the orange field, surrounded by campers. I hoped that my effort to include them in my journey would result in some neat finds, but there were no plates to be had; nor were there supplies that I needed.
And that was it—I was finished. And it was only 1 pm. I’ve never finished any Barrie market that quickly, spring or fall. I didn’t rush… there were just fewer vendors. I refused to believe that I had bled the place dry, so I walked a half-mile up to the top of the narrow yellow field so I could revisit some vendors who may have been asleep at 8 am… but I didn’t find anything else. I did not see the pricey sign guy who sells gas station memorabilia and road signs as well as plates (pricey, but I’d still buy from him). I didn’t see the green Solmes license plate bus. I didn’t see the guy who sells me wire and sandpaper wheels for drills. I didn’t see Dick Patterson with his brown van with the ALPCA-2 plate and all his high-end barn finds. I didn’t see the POR-15 blimp. Nor the rust remover booth. Not the “carb kits & lenses” guy either (I don’t buy from him, but he’s never NOT been in Barrie). In their absence, I was free to buy counterfeit sports jerseys, smart phone cases, new-in-box items from unfamiliar brands of questionable quality, jewelry, and mass-produced emoji toys. When I arrive, I’m looking specifically for licence plates, Beetle parts, sometimes small pieces of equipment or tools for my shop, and I’ve picked up a variety of old signs and antique trinkets over the years. I’m not looking for something I could find in a mall, or on Etsy. The Barrie Automotive Flea Market has become less automotive, and as such, there’s less for a guy like me to find.
The founder of the BAFM has made public requests for people to spread the word about the market and encourage younger automotive collectors and experts to try it out, as the elder vendor participants slow down and retire. If you need parts for a 50-year-old domestic car, then the BAFM has absolutely been your best bet to find things that “they don’t make anymore.” But a gradual demographic change is happening, with fewer people buying body parts for old Fords and Chevies, and more people into buying low-profile rims and LED lighting for their tricked-out Nissans and Hondas. If I was a younger guy looking for aftermarket parts for my ’05 Civic, it would be much easier to just shop close to home; parts for modern cars are widely available in-store and online. I wouldn’t bother to wait until the magic weekend and then drive all the way to Oro-Medonte. So I don’t believe the tricked-out import crowd are as likely to embrace the BAFM, and I didn’t see much of anything for late-model imports among the vendors. As the previous generation makes their exit from the old car hobby, the incoming generation enters into the modern car hobby, and they don’t need the BAFM in the way the previous generation did.
That’s a nice, logical way of explaining why the market was smaller and why I might have found less than in past years. That would be my polite argument in a room of people where I don’t want to tread on anyone’s feelings. But there’s another observation to be made that could be contributing to the downward slide of the market, and possibly its demise altogether. The market itself appears, from this patron’s view, to be unsuitable for its location.
The land once made for a great market field. The field was flat, there were food vendors and stores centrally located, a PA system to make announcements, and gravel pathways to bear the weight of the vehicles moving in and out. Now that the land has been sold and redeveloped, it makes for an attractive concert venue—I’d love to see a show there someday—but the new layout is terrible for a flea market. The heart of the old field is now a concert bowl, forcing the market out to the edges of the zoned property in an awkward L-shape. There’s no PA system, no central area for food and services, and there are too many lousy vendor spots in remote corners where people just won’t go. Moving the market to the west field again, closer to Line 7, would consolidate things and make it “feel” more like the older quadrant-style setup, but zoning won’t allow it, and so the market is confined into its awkward L-shape. There are far fewer gravel laneways now, so the passing traffic beats the grass down, which gives rise to mud everywhere in wet weather, and dust everywhere in dry weather. It wouldn’t make sense for Burl’s Creek to install new permanent gravel laneways within that peripheral L-shape to accommodate a market that only runs twice yearly. Their priority is developing an attractive concert venue, and so it should be.
I believe BAFM’s battle with changing vendor demographics was surmountable, but the sale of the land has, in my opinion, sealed its fate. I sadly suspect that the market will languish there while the organizers try to stay afloat by offering vendor spots to anyone under the sun who has something to sell. Item 3 in the BAFM Vendor Terms and Conditions is, and I quote, “Vendors are required to have 75% automotive related items for sale on their sites.” From what I saw, that clearly ain’t happening. I think, as a patron, my better option might be to go to the AACA show in Lindsay. The one time I was there, every single vendor legitimately sold car parts and automobilia. There was none of this toys-phones-clothes business. I have loved going to the BAFM as regularly as possible since 1996, and I had no reason to believe the fun would end. Often, you can’t tell when something is as good at it gets until things start to slide downhill.
Having finished at the market with time to spare, I set my sights on the 400 Roadshow antique place south of Barrie. I don’t go there often, and to date, I don’t think I’ve ever found plates there that I wanted to buy, but my buddy Eric has hit paydirt there occasionally, so I figured I’d try it out. It was a zoo! They charged a buck for parking and then I had to hunt around for a spot. I finally found one, but the parking spot was all I found at Roadshow. In all the aisles of antique dealers, only one had a substantial amount of plates, but none that I needed. One other dealer had an original pair of 1934 plates, but they wanted $165 for them! Maybe they were made of platinum?
I still had time to spare, so I hit the Barrie Antiques Centre. They did have some plates, including a restorable set of 1957s that I put under my arm for a great price. There was also a pair of 1932 plates that I liked, but they were $70… too rich for me. If the vendor was there, I might have tried haggling, but this store is an absent-vendor sort of place where they expect you to pay what the price tag says. I was happy with my ’57 find and moved on.
I had previously gotten in touch with a couple of people in Orillia who were selling plates, and I still had time to spare before meeting up with them separately. I tried out a local restaurant, Zat’s Sandwich Co., for some lunch. I had the steak sandwich, and it was delicious. Highly recommended if you’re passing through Orillia. It’s right near the junction of Highways 11 and 12-West.
I met up with my sellers, for some shady cash-only Kijiji dealing involving 1960s Ontario plates. And with that, it was four-thirty in the afternoon, and it was time to go home. The wind was howling and there were some dark clouds passing to the south of us, roughly where the flea market would be. I imagined they’d be getting drenched. Weather reports throughout the area mentioned storm warnings. I headed east for home, figuring that I might outrun the rains.
How wrong I was! The drive through Simcoe County and the Kawarthas was fairly quiet and uneventful, but in the middle of Haliburton County, the skies opened up and the rain spilled down. The two-lane highway there is quite remote, and I didn’t want to risk hydroplaning in the downpour, so I clicked on my four-ways and slowed down to about 60 kph. The rain pounded for about 20 minutes, and I noticed a couple of small lakes by the roadside where the water level had risen sharply. I kept an eye on the road for a possible washout. I wanted to stay alert in case I ran into more pockets of stormy weather, so I stopped at the new Tim’s west of Bancroft and bought a hit of caffeine.
The temperature cooled off as I emerged from the rain, although there was quite a lightning show in the distance as the sky became dark in the evening. I wondered which town might be getting hammered by the lightning, and as it turns out, it was Ottawa! By the time I got home, it was 10 pm, with rain flying everywhere and the odd tree branch down. But I was safe, dry, and I had the plates I wanted—albeit not as many as I’d hoped.