The annual Acton swap meet has usually been held during the third weekend in April, but for this year, its ninth, the date was changed to be the first weekend in May. I’m a creature of habit and I don’t usually like change that much—but this change works well for a plate collector or two who live many hours away from Acton and have young kids staying at home with a wife… such as Eric Vettoretti and I.
We carefully plotted our geek weekend long in advance, because the Stirling auto market always happens on the first weekend in May—which meant that we’d be going to Stirling on Saturday, and Acton on Sunday. Two hits in one weekend would be tougher to plan, but if they were on separate weekends, we’d be forced to choose one or the other.
We left Ottawa at about 4:30 in the morning, fueled by coffee, and drove somewhat over the limit in order to arrive in the Belleville area just after sunrise at 7 am. Our first stop was to pick up a box lot of really nice plates that Eric had located. It only had a couple of YOM pairs, which we like to resell, but this lot was worth the trouble because it had some top-shelf single plates from the 1920s through 1940s. I alone took about 10 plates to upgrade the ones in my Ontario collection. The big prize for me was scoring a short three-digit 1926.
The next stop was the Stirling market. We got there by around 7:30, thereby beating the traffic, which floods the streets of Stirling if you arrive any later. Eric and I hopped out of the car, grabbed our backpacks, and agreed to pool our finds from the day as we trudged through the dewy grass on our way to the vendors’ stalls.
Most vendors were still shuttered from the night before, but I spotted some milk crates with plates beneath a table that was still covered with a tarpaulin. The seller wasn’t yet up and about, but since the crates were out in the open, we started shuffling through the plates. There were many years—including the all-too-common quarterly truck plates (more on that later). The plates were priced at $10 each. We selected a total of 13 plates and handed them to the seller, who by this time was uncovering his tables. He appeared hung over, but was nonetheless quite pleasant.
“What’s the best you can do for these?” Eric asked him. We figured he’d want something like $100 instead of $130. He flipped through them and noted how cool one of the plates was.
“How’s fifty bucks for the bunch?” he returned. Sold! Sold to the two geeks with backpacks looking for license plates at quarter-to-eight in the morning. Stirling bore a lot of fruit this year—Eric and I pooled quite a few goodies this year while combing the fields. We actually picked up more plates this morning at Stirling then in some years at the Barrie market, despite the fact that it’s about 5 times bigger.
We ran into Terry Ellsworth, as we thought we might—Stirling, after all, is in his area. Terry told us he wouldn’t be at Acton the next day, mostly because of rising gas prices. The previous evening, he had been talking to the same vendor with the milk crates that had sold us the fifty-dollar job lot. Terry had been trying to “school” him on plates, as many of his $10 plates were worth maybe a buck each (quarterlies again—but more on that still later). Eric speculated that Terry might have softened him up a bit and made him flexible to giving us a good deal.
The final find of interest was a pair of 1919 four-digit plates. It wasn’t a fantastic find, as they were in fair condition at best—but they were made of an unexpectedly heavy gauge of metal. Most 1919 plates were fairly light. These felt twice the weight they should have been. We picked them up to see how well we could clean them.
It was pushing noon by the time we had our fill at Stirling. We grabbed a bite and I spent a bit of time in the show lot, snapping pics of cars with YOM plates. There weren’t all that many to see, although word is getting out about the unadvertised program.
We made a pit stop in Campbellford so I could buy a set of plates I had agreed to buy weeks earlier. We stopped in a couple of antique joints along highway 30, and found only terrible smells—including at one shop, housed in a bungalow, operated by a chain-smoking proprietor. He had some interesting items, including a bunch of upholstered furniture, but given the way the store smelled, I couldn’t imagine anyone would ever want to buy them. I felt dizzy as I left the store. Not a nice place.
Our next stop was a few hours away in Hamilton—a seller was looking to move a massive lot of license plates. I had been in e-mail contact with him for a few weeks. Apparently, there were pairs from the 1920s up to the 1970s with some more recent pairs, plus some out-of-province stuff as well. Eric and I had withdrawn scads of cash and had several empty bins in the trunk—ready to buy the Holy Grail, if called for. The only thing was—I never did get to see any pictures of the lot beforehand, so that meant that we had little choice but to go see them in person—but Eric and I knew that we may not have necessarily wanted to buy them.
We arrived in Hamilton and drove to the seller’s residence. Eric and I began pawing through the plates while the seller talked to us. After about a minute of looking, I knew we were neither interested in the lot as priced ($2500), nor were we expecting the seller to come down to something more reasonable. There was an enormous amount of quarterly truck plates in the lot—plus various 1980s and 1990s car plates. You can’t even give these away. There are just so many of them around.
I turned my attention to the Canada and US stuff, hoping that there might be some goodies in there. Unfortunately, those boxes were chock full of New York, Ohio and Quebec plates from the 50s on up. There were a few older New York and Ohio plates, but they all needed restoring—not worth it for such easy states.
The seller also showed us some boxes of Ontario plates in the garage—many of them bent or having torn bolt holes. The coolest plate we found there was a yellow reflective dealer plate—but those aren’t exactly priceless, either.
By then, we found ourselves in a pickle—we wanted to turn the seller down cold, and to leave with no hard feelings either way. The seller didn’t seem to have a lot of knowledge behind specific plates, and the fact that there were probably a thousand plates there was a selling point. Eric started first by explaining that most of the plates there were worth maybe a dollar, but quite a few basically had no value. The seller brought up the concept of the YOM law—and I had to tell him that all his nice-condition quarterly truck plates couldn’t play in that game. I also grabbed a nice 1949 pair and a relatively new motorcycle that had similar combinations and used them to explain to him that once a number is reused in the MTO system—as most already are—they can’t be used again. Based on what we had seen, there were only four pairs out of the thousand or so that stood a chance of being acceptable for YOM.
The seller clearly wanted to move the plates, and stepped out of the room for a minute to consider. He returned with a sale offer of about half of what he had before. Eric and I appreciated the gesture, but even so, they were overpriced. Given that we were not going to buy them, but were still giving him advice on how the value was lower than he thought, he appeared to understand that we were actually trying to help, as opposed to lowballing him. He did offer to sell us the YOM-possible pairs for $15 a pop, so we came away with those, in any event.
Our next destination was our last for the day—to get to our hotel. We checked in and went to the East Side Mario’s nearby for dinner, and hopefully to watch some hockey. Just as we got there, the barmaid was turning all the channels to some ultimate fighting junk. We asked her if we could watch hockey, but when I saw she was wearing a UFC shirt, it dawned on me that it was probably a sponsored event. Sure enough, it was. Eric and I hate UFC and everything about it, so we left and had dinner at Montana’s instead—right in front of a TV with the Canucks / Predators game. When we were done, we headed back to the hotel and spent a couple of hours cleaning plates with CLR in the hotel bathtub. Other people party on Saturday nights… but this is what I do.
Sunday morning arrived, and we headed out the door for Acton earlier than usual. Why earlier? Well, for the past weeks leading up to this installment of Acton, a notable and reclusive collector has been liquidating his collection on eBay. As he has attended Acton in the past, Eric and I thought there was a possibility that he might just show up with some interesting goodies in-hand, and we wanted to be sure that, in such an event, we would be in a position to be first-served. As it turned out, the reclusive collector never did show up at Acton this year, although Eric and I did make it to the parking lot by 7:20 am with no other vehicles in sight.
When people began to show up and the arena was finally unlocked, I unloaded my boxes onto a pair of tables that were against the wall closest to the windows. Why I keep taking tables against the walls, I don’t know. Every time I do that, my sales flatline. I guess I pick tables based on a hunch, but really, I should just pick them based on past success. I had a lot of cool stuff on my table and in my trade boxes, and little of it sold. Next time I’ll grab a table right in the centre of the room and take all the plastic sleeves off my plates when I lay them flat on the table. I’ve been able to sell scads of plates that way. The most interesting “no-sale” conversation of the day came early in the show from a rather tall, unkempt man who was wandering around asking for “exotic” Canadian plates. The most exotic plates I had were 1916 and 1917 New Brunswick porcelains with the same number. He noted them on the table:
“Common. And rough. No offense.” Groan… there’s always someone.
My most significant Acton purchase wasn’t actually arranged there. Weeks earlier, the late Bill Verbakel’s collection was sold by the family in the form of a garage sale. I opted not to go, and it’s good that I didn’t make the effort—everything important was sold ahead of time to a flea market vendor from Ancaster. I had seen the pictures and I was interested in a Sault Ste. Marie license plate topper, but apparently, that was sold to the Ancaster buyer. A couple of weeks later, collector and fellow ALPCAn Jacques Allen was at an antique market in Woodstock where he saw the vendor from Ancaster selling items from the Verbakel collection. He knew I wanted the Sault topper, and he forked over the asking price—which was steep, but manageable. Finally, in Acton, we got together so I could reimburse him and take the topper for myself. It’s nice to have friends who will do favours—ALPCA members are great for that.
Speaking of favours, it was time for me to pay back an old one to Paul Cafarella. A couple of years before, There was a plate that I really wanted at an auction in Paul’s neck of the woods. He went there and bought the plate for me—and didn’t even buy anything for himself, as I recall. Anyway, Paul expressed a keen interest the “common and rough” New Brunswick porcelains that I had on my table, but was hemming over the price, which was marked up moderately from the pittance I had paid the previous fall in Grimsby. I decided that my favour to him would be to make it an easy decision—so I offered the pair for just a shade over what they cost me—still a pittance, for porcelain plates. Paul was thrilled and brought them home to go with his 1915.
Just before the group photo, where Lynda Thoman always does a magnificent job, our host, Dave Steckley, punctuated the meet with some announcements and we observed a moment of silence in memory of Bill Verbakel and “Sam” Samis. Martine Stonehouse shared what was rightfully called the “Holy Grail” of Ontario non-passenger plates: a 1928 truck dealer plate that had been sitting unforgivably in the basement of a reclusive collector for decades. Finally, Martine acquired it and brought it out, much to the delight of the rest of us.
Dave and Joe Sallmen completed a trade that they had been working on, which unequivocally completes Dave’s Ontario bus plate run. Some of those quarterly years in the 70s are just impossible to find for buses—Dave thought that September and December ’79 bus plates didn’t exist. Joe proved otherwise by supplying Dave with the missing years in a trade where Joe received a very rare June ’79 bus plate. I, too, am running the quarterly bus plates, and I’m down to the toughies now, too. At least I now know that they exist!
One of the most interesting sights at Acton came courtesy of Don Goodfellow, who is the host of the fall Grimsby swap meet that serves as a counterpoint to Acton. Don acquired some early BC porcelain plates that were literally unearthed by a construction crew in Vancouver as they were excavating for the Olympic Village. Although there were gaping holes and missing sections, the remaining porcelain is still as bright as it was they day it was fired.
So my sales were somewhat flat, with only about $70 worth heading into the home stretch, not counting the sale of the New Brunswick porcelains to Paul. I noticed that Eric was getting some action on a Toonie sale, so I waited until he was done, and then did my own Loonie sale. I made about $40 doing that, and another $33 by selling the rest of what was on my Loonie table as one lot. That didn’t make a lot of money, and it also didn’t reduce the load for the drive home, either—Joe Sallmen bought much of them, and I had previously agreed to drop extra plates off at his parents’ home in Ottawa (not a big deal, as they live a mile from me, and Joe couldn’t fit them all on his motorcycle).
Eric caught wind that the admission from the Acton meet had not yet accumulated enough to pay for the hall rental, so he donated a box of plates, which were auctioned. Joe bought them too, making me their temporary custodian until the next time I swing by his parents’ area. The proceeds of the auction went toward the hall rental, which was covered and then some.
The meet was winding down, and I had a long ride ahead with Eric at the wheel, so I packed up my stuff, and Joe’s stuff, and put it all in the trunk of Eric’s car. In my haste to leave, I forgot to take a picture of the cool oversized Haiti plates that Bob Cornelius brought to show and tell (sorry, Bob!). We grabbed lunch at Mr. Sub and yakked with Mike Franks while we ate.
Usually, we hightail it home, but three important things happened at once while we were on the 401 going east through Oshawa:
1) There were no crying kids in the car. 2) We weren’t in a rush and had the time to spare. 3) I saw the exit sign for the Canadian Automotive Museum.
I’ve had two out of three of these things happen at once— but never all three. So Eric expertly got off the highway and we navigated through Oshawa to the museum.
Visible through the front window was an old motorcycle with a 1944 Ontario plate (very rare, the stuff that makes a collector drool). We paid our five bucks to get in, thereby interrupting the museum chick’s game of computer solitaire. There were some impressive cars in the museum, as well as some impressive plates—but my one major complaint about the museum was that it was so poorly organized. There were many cars packed into it, but they were parked door-to-door and you couldn’t even get close to some of them. There was a beautiful 1939 Wraith there, but the only way to see part of it was to sneak behind the rope. It was worth the price of admission, but it was a heartbreaker not to get a close look at some of the cars. My advice to this museum—get out of your tiny brick building downtown and find a warehouse with more space.
The drive home down the 401 revealed that much of service centre rebuilding is finished… some of them had been closed a couple of years, with no convenient place to stop for gas. The new service centres, now called OnRoutes, are spacious, modern, and clean. Apparently there’s only one remaining dome-style Service Centre that still operates, and it was spared from demolition only because they’re rebuilding beside it, instead of on it. I snapped a couple of pics of the dome’s geodesic structure from the inside. Road geeks like interesting stuff... sometimes.