I always know it’s been a great Acton trip when I spend a week recovering before I have the energy to write about what a great trip it was.
It was the Three Amigos this time around, with Eric Vettoretti doing the driving, myself navigating and curating the playlist, and Dave Grant as the professor of Rock ‘n’ Roll, keeping us up to speed with the inside scoop of the bands and songs to which we were listening.
We decided that this would be a long-haul trip, with as much plate-hunting as possible on the Saturday before the meet, so we left Ottawa Friday night at 8 o’clock. Eric picked Dave up first, and then me, before we bolted town and headed westward. In order to maximize our time in the hunt, we bunked in an Oshawa hotel on Friday night, so that we could get up early and be there right at opening time for our first stop——and we would then tour southwest Ontario at a breakneck pace for the next nine hours to score as many goodies as possible.
We bumped into CTV News anchor Lisa Laflamme at the Napanee OnRoute stop at about 10:30 on Friday night. We were all on our way back to the car. Eric recognized her first, and Dave broke the ice and said hello. She and her husband were on their way back home after an event in Kingston. When she asked where we were heading, as a journalist might be apt to do, Dave admitted that we were three nerds, somehow all married and with kids, who were heading to a licence plate collecting show. Lisa probably doesn’t hear that very often when talking to people.
We arrived in Oshawa close to midnight. I had a plate to pick up. The seller had gone off to the cottage, but left the plate for me in a well-hidden place on his property. I followed his directions, and sure enough, there was my plate as promised, good as gold. I can’t really consider it to be fruit of the Acton trip, since I paid for it a couple of weeks before, but I was still stoked to acquire it... a short-number 1937 MPP plate, number 162. It’s not my only short-number 1937 plate, but everyone in this hobby is fanatical about something, and short numbers are one of my weaknesses.
We spent an uneventful night in the hotel, and got up the next morning to wet pavement and overcast skies. Eric had a batch of plates to pick up as well——also from a cottage-going seller, and also hidden in the yard with instructions. The plates were there, and we loaded them into the back of the car before heading west toward Cambridge.
THE SATURDAY HUNT
Our first stop was at 9 am at Southworks Antiques. They’ve been forced to move from their charming location in a preserved factory into the less-charming ground floor of a disused office tower. While I missed the ambiance, I was there for the plates, and this place has something for everyone. Dave is collecting quarterly bus plates and found a couple of near-mint pairs. I found something that I dearly wanted… 1924 Ontario plate number 200-000. It was priced higher than I would have liked for the condition it was in, but round numbers are another weakness of mine, so rather than torture myself, I just put it under my arm to buy it. Southworks has all kinds of other things, like old traffic signs and a signal that I was seriously thinking about.
Suddenly, there was a terrible crashing sound, which lasted for a good five seconds. The sound came from the somewhere on the other side of a pegboard wall. It sounded like china shattering and metal clattering on the floor. I glanced behind myself, and there was Dave. He looked as confused as I. Neither of us caused it, but Eric was nowhere to be seen. We cautiously moved toward where the sound came from. Eric seemed to be in that direction. He was in the vicinity, but when we saw him, he was equally confused. As it turns out, a shelf was improperly attached to its pegboard and fell down, taking with it a sterling silver tray and some china. The absentee seller was not present, so the market manager just made note of the lost / damaged items as we went to cash out.
With the job done in Cambridge, we moved on. The next place we visited was Waterford. Interesting pair of stores there, with all kinds of pop culture nostalgia, but it’s a bit thin on the plates, although there are some. We didn’t find any to buy this time around, although Eric found an incorrectly-repainted 1931 Ontario trailer plate. Red on white would have been a cool colour combination, but Ontario never used it except for arcane non-passenger plates. With no other plates to uncover, I did find myself going through the vinyl racks. I would have ignored them all the way up to last year, but I bought a turntable over the winter and I’ve become an amateur vinyl sleuth. The payoff when I can find a clean pressing of some old album is huge——odd pops aside, the sound that comes out of these things has more music to hear than any CD or iTunes track. I wasted a bit of my friends’ time looking for old Lightfoot records. I have a weakness for Gordo.
Our next stop was a place we almost missed. The Courtland antique market is not, as the name might suggest, located in Courtland. It’s located in nearby Delhi, but the info I pulled from the Internet while making our plate-hunting map gave us the wrong location. It just so happened that we stumbled on the market while driving into Delhi. I made Eric stop the car and pull a U-turn so we could check it out. I had been to this place once before, a couple of years ago.
I led the guys to the back where I had found a few boxes of plates last time. We found a couple of YOM candidates, and I picked up an old 1980 truck plate with the vehicle’s backstory written in marker on the reverse side (demoed in a rollover, but the plate was pretty nice). While looking through the store, Eric was crouched down on the floor, flipping through another hum-drum box of rusty plates. And then, a low mumble:
Eric looked up at me and passed me a rusty 1941 plate with a missing corner. It ended with the letter F.
I was holding a 1941 Ontario plate issued to the Canadian Forces. 1941 was the first year of issue, as evidenced by archival photos. And there were no surviving examples known——except the one Eric had just handed to me. The plate was priced typically at $20 with others of its vintage. Eric went through the rest of the box, but there was neither a mate to make it a pair, nor were there any other F-suffix plates.
We bought the plate as a joint find, but Dave and I knew who the rightful owner should be. Eric has done a lot of archival research to document these types of plates, and he’s actively running F-suffix Forces plates. The plate went into Eric’s collection, and it was his signature find on our Acton trip.
We headed west out of Delhi for some more plate hunting. It was hit-and-miss, but one of the more entertaining misses was a “Barn Sale” close to Delhi on Highway 3. It’s basically an elderly guy selling things privately out of his huge barn, so we stopped to take a look. Anything old that you can think of… we found it in this barn. We didn’t find any plates of interest, but it sure was fun to wander around. We had to look carefully, since it wouldn’t be hard to walk by a relic of interest that was partly hidden under something else.
We arrived in Tillsonburg and found a 1923 Ohio trailer plate, which was the second year of issue. It had a unique “TR’LR” legend on the left side. It wasn’t expensive, but it didn’t really have much paint left. Eric bought it out of interest. While we were in the shop, Dave wandered around outside to look at some derelict vehicles that were sitting nearby. One was a 1960's Chrysler 300, with its 1973 plate still attached, and last renewed sometime in the 1990s. Dave ventured a bit further inward and found a late sixties Ford Ranger pickup, with its final plate still attached (March 1980 quarterly). The truck, during its life, had been used by a Blake Moody out of Tillsonburg, judging by the hand-painted lettering.
From there, we headed north to a hole-in-the-wall place in Ingersoll. I had only seen one picture from inside the place, but they had pop bottles and glass telegraph insulators. Places like that are a decent bet to carry plates. The guy pointed up over to a tiny box that had maybe eight plates in it, but there were two pretty good YOM pairs, so that was a nice score. Outside the shop, on the main street, an old children’s wagon sat on the sidewalk with a motorcycle plate affixed to the rear side.
From Ingersoll, it was off to my old undergrad stomping grounds west of London. I lived in the northwest end near the university, but I frequently took my bike out to explore towns like Delaware and Mount Brydges. We stopped in both towns to shop for plates. We didn’t find any (aside from “DAT” one), but I’ll give a shout-out to Antique Allie, in Mount Brydges, who phoned up her friend Bob in nearby Strathroy. “He has lots of plates,” she said. “I’ll make sure he’s open, since he sells out of his house.” She got on the phone and gabbed with Bob for a couple of minutes before putting the phone down and saying he’d be expecting us. Thanks, Allie!
We headed north to Strathroy and found Bob’s place. Bob is a warm, congenial fellow, and he greeted us with smile. “Licence plates?” he said. “Follow me.” Bob led us to the backyard shed where he had a couple of crates of plates. Eric and Dave pawed through them, looking to fill holes in their collections. We were in what’s statistically a very warm part of Ontario, but the temperature had steadily dropped all day long. It was four in the afternoon at this point, and the wind bit the boys’ fingers as they tried to shuffle through the plates.
Five o’clock was coming, and it was time to make our last stop of the day at the Strathroy Antique Mall. It was large enough, with a decent assortment of road-related items, but the plates were a bit pricey for us. While wandering between vendors, Eric glanced at the wall and saw a familiar face: Himself. Eric was lucky enough to make national news a couple of years ago with his YOM business, and tacked to the wall was a copy of his article in living colour, complete with a picture of smiling Eric next to his collection.
The mall closed, and it was time to head to Guelph to get another hotel and some dinner. Well, almost time for that. I scanned my notes for London-area antique joints that stayed open until six o’clock, and I found that Memory Lane, on Hyde Park Road, was open. Dave and Eric were pretty worn out, but I persisted that we should try it out, as we basically had to pass near it anyway to get back to the highway. We stopped, and found little in the line of plates, although I did pick out yet more vinyl.
With that, we were done. We arrived in Guelph a bit after seven and checked into an ancient Super 8 in the north end of the city. Eric and I split up some jointly found pairs of plates and handed some cash to each other. It was probably one of many cash deals made in this room over the decades... What a shithole. It would do for the night, but just barely. It was roughly on par with the Cedar Spring motel outside of Acton, but this place smelled even worse of stale cigarettes, with a pigeon living in the fan vent, and it was twice the price. I wrote a letter to Super 8 afterward, expressing my disgust and listing 14 obvious problems with the room (and I wasn’t even digging hard to come up with them). Never, ever again.
We went across the street and had a nice, long dinner with Mike and Alannah Franks at Crabby Joe’s. I ate way too much. Of course, a couple of plates were revealed at the table and photographed. Plate collectors don’t go to dinner... They have mini-meets.
The morning dawned, and my throat hurt from the smoke of all the decades' worth of extinguished cigarettes that I had been inhaling over the previous six hours sleeping Chez Chithole. We left Guelph a little later than we would have liked, with packing and breakfast and all. Still, we managed to get to Acton before the official start of the meet, although it was a relatively-late-for-us 7:45 am.
Acton is a whirlwind. I have to choose a table and unpack my traders and arrange them, all the while keeping an eye out for other tables to see if there are any goodies to scoop quickly. There are many people to say hello to, new faces to meet for the first time, and YOM customers who are meeting me to seal a deal from my small business. I never have time to eat the snack I brought, and washroom breaks generally don’t happen because I’m so busy. But that’s the nature of the beast!
I chatted with co-host Paul Cafarella as I paid my entry and table fees. Like me, Paul is a public school teacher, except he’s decided to retire at the end of the school year. As exciting as that is, Paul and family are looking at moving to BC once he’s hung up his teacher hat, which means that this may well be the final Acton meet he attends. Nothing is set in stone yet, but that’s bittersweet news to all of his friends.
I picked up a recent Ontario passenger plate from Xavier Dubé. Eric acquired a super-rare Véhicule Écologique plate from Xavier that morning. I’m next in line for the next one that Xavier can make available! Still looking for recent Ontario plates, I stopped by the Embro family table where Matt had a couple interesting Waldale plates available (I have the mates). I’ve become a pairs guy, so I acquired them from Matt to reunite them. Little Dallas Embro, who was in a baby carrier last year, was eager to wander around the hall, thereby keeping his mom Holly on her toes.
Bill Thoman brought a mini-run of plates, all number 3048, which were issued to Charles MacNaughton, the MPP for Huron County from 1958 to 1973. The plates that Bill brought covered most years from 1962 to 1972. MacNaughton served as Minister of Highways, Minister of Transportation and Communications, and Provincial Treasurer during his tenure as an MPP.
John Powers treated the group to coffee and doughnuts, and then had a presentation to make to the group. He brought Joe Sallmen toward the centre, and also myself. I didn’t know why, but I was curious to know what John was going to do. As John addressed the collectors surrounding us, he began to describe the mother of all Ontario plate auctions a couple of months prior wherein a 1916 pair of canvas temporary plates were sold for a five-figure price. He had a recording of the auctioneer chanting his way through the auction as bidding came in from the phones, the internet, and the floor. He grabbed my wrist and hoisted it, boxing-referee-style, when my shared bid with Eric came up in the recording. We were the high bidders for about a second before we were eclipsed and the bidding passed the $10k mark. That auction ended eventually, and then it was Joe’s turn. He bid high on the tin 1916 plates that were issued to replace the temp plates. Joe actually won that auction, and John hoisted Joe’s wrist when his winning bid was announced in the recording. Joe ultimately resold those plates to the same person who bought the canvas temp plates, making tidy profit in the process.
John surprised the group by announcing that he had some replicas made up, complete with canvas-like overlay and brass grommets——the idea being that if the real thing was selling for crazy money, people at the meet could buy a pair of 1915 and 1916 replicas for $50. My feelings about this were mixed. I have long opposed the making of replica plates (and I call a spade a spade by referring to them as “fake.”) These items were beautifully crafted, and John had 14 of each available. Clearly, they wouldn’t be mistaken for the real thing anytime soon, but that mistake can’t be ruled out in
50 years once they are possibly worn and faded. I decided to buy one of each, more as a memento of the historic auction and of John Powers himself, who is one of the more colourful characters that you might meet in Acton or Grimsby. I will be permanently marking the rear of my mementos with the word “REPLICA”. I will also measure and photograph these mementos, and find a place (other than here) to document their existence, as well as the occasion for which they were made, so that people who missed them will know they’re out there. I reasoned that I wouldn’t be able to document this info very well second-hand if I didn’t take a set of plates for myself.
Back to real plates: New Ontario resident Andrew Turnbull displayed his 1985 birth year motorcycle run of plates from the USA. Canadian motorcycle plates are harder to find, especially if you’re looking for them to bear a specific year sticker. Andrew posted a list of the Canadian plates he’s still trying to find for his fine display. I look forward to seeing a complete set of Canadian motorcycle plates added to his display board in years to come.
I talked to Norm Ratcliffe, who has something display-related up his sleeve for this year’s ALPCA Convention in Valley Forge. Ned Flynn, ALPCA’s Convention Chair, stopped by to chat with us. I mentioned that my plans are now firm to attend the Convention. I booked a hotel room at Valley Forge back in the fall, before I could guarantee myself that I was going. But a few weeks ago, I sent in my pre-registration to make it official. I had been thinking about flying down there, but the airfare is no bargain, coming from Canada. It looks to be about a seven-hour drive, not including breaks, and I’ve driven further in a day on many occasions. Ned gave me a few tourist ideas for staying in the greater Philadelphia area. I’ll be bringing my son, and possibly my wife and daughter, if I can convince them that the nation’s biggest shopping mall is worth it.
Don Goodfellow, my Grimsby co-host, brought hard copies of the Grimsby meet flyer to Acton. This year’s invitation theme is a 1980s diplomatic plate in bright red. Looks pretty sharp! Don brought his daughter to Acton this year. The last time I saw her, I remember her being half as tall.
The group picture gets harder and harder to pose each year. It wasn’t long ago when there were few enough people to gather in the corner of the hall, with maybe 20 people in all. We have more than double that in our 2018 picture, expertly taken once again by the lovely and talented Lynda Thoman.
Matt and Holly left the meet not long after the picture was taken, since Dallas had his fill and was getting cranky. I remember those days in my household vividly. I brought my daughter to Acton one time eight years ago shortly after her brother was born. Parenting and geeking out at the same time is hard!
It wasn’t long before noon was approaching and it was time for the Ottawa crew to head home with a full car. Thomas Zimmerman, a newer collector from Ottawa, was at the meet, but had to hitch rides with friends and then catch the GO Train to Acton Saturday morning. He caught a ride with Mike and Alannah back to Guelph, where another ride was waiting for him to bring him back to Ottawa. That’s dedication!
It was a sunny day, and traffic on the 401 was building as we were heading east and approaching Mississauga. Rather than get pissed off at the high traffic volume and waste an hour or more, Eric splurged and took the 407 ETR. We rode it the whole way, and then further on the newly opened King’s Highway 407 toll highway, because Eric opted for the quieter, more relaxing route home along Highway 7. The far eastern leg of Highway 407 isn’t complete yet, but judging by the construction, it won’t be long before it just empties at Highway 115 headed to Peterborough. Once it’s finished, Highway 7 / 115 / 407 might supplant the 401 as our route of choice to go home after a brisk day of trading.
OH NO, NOT ORONO!
Just before we were going to enter highway 115, we passed by Orono, which has a couple of excellent antique stops. Dave and Eric were exhausted, but I was persistent that we should stop.
After getting temporarily lost, due to a not-closed closed street and a neighbourhood that was disconnected from the others, we found our way to Main Street. One shop was a fun look-through, but had no plates of interest. The other shop, in the historic Orono Armoury, was just as expansive as I remembered. With multiple vendors, there were plates tucked behind corners here and there. I didn’t find any plates I wanted, but they had a lot of vinyl, and I found near-mint copies of two more of Gordo’s obscure albums. Dave found some Kennedy memorabilia in the store——one of his other interests——and purchased it as well.
Eric, Dave and I were browsing toward the back of the store, when we turned a corner and saw a blue MC Freeway highway shield sign hanging from a nail on the rear wall. These signs are very rare to find now. They were once twin-posted with Highway 401 shields all across the length of the highway from Windsor to nearly Montreal, but the MTO stopped making them and they’ve been phased out over the years. The last one I ever saw posted on the highway was somewhere around Belleville. I was lucky enough to find one for my collection about ten years ago. Eric casually collects some shield signs, just like I do. This one was priced at over $100, which for a shield sign, is a lot. But this wasn’t just any shield sign. It may have been double the price, but it was about 100 times as rare. Eric tangled with the proprietor while haggling over the price, but he managed to get about ten bucks off. Good things happen in Orono!
We had blown about 45 minutes doing some antiquing for which we really didn’t have the time. We got into the car and found our way back to the northbound highway and toward Peterborough. We had a full tank and no one was hungry, so it was a great chance to make up for lost time. But then Jon struck again.
We were passing through the town of Norwood on Highway 7. There’s a big red barn on the eastern end of town with all kinds of rustic stuff hanging all over it, including plates. The owner deals in furniture and antique farm implements, but usually when I’ve driven by, he’s been closed. It was getting late in the afternoon on a Sunday, and I figured he’d be locked up. But to my surprise, the doors were wide open.
“Stop the car! He’s open! We gotta go!” I said, not trying to contain myself. Eric made a quick turn and parked the car. I hadn’t actually stopped at this place in years, and something told me we should. After all, the last time that happened, Eric scored a rare sign that he’ll always treasure.
The guy had assorted quarterly truck plates nailed to the side of the barn, among the retired weathervanes and odd trinkets. I found a box of ‘73 bases inside and showed them to Dave. While he was picking through them, I stepped back outside and peered upward at the plates, and a weird one caught my eye. It was a Maryland State Police plate, faded by daily sunlight.
“Hey Eric,” I said, “Look at that one… do you think Norm might need it?”
“Good question,” Eric replied. “I’ll text him. I wonder how much?”
The proprietor was a bit of a player and it seemed that nothing here would come cheap. Dave emerged from the barn and walked toward us while Eric was texting Norm.
“Did you find anything in there?” I asked Dave.
“He wants forty dollars a plate, so no way,” replied Dave in exasperation. None of the plates were in pristine condition and they clearly weren’t worth close to $40.
Eric didn’t get an immediate reply from Norm, so we asked the seller for a price for the Maryland State Police plate… it was $65. We figured that if Norm needed it for his state police collection, we’d give him directions. Norm gratefully replied later on to say that he didn’t need it, but thanks anyway. Norm said that Maryland was one of the easier states to find for that type, and $65 was overpriced.
With that, the sun was getting low in the sky, so we left town and swore off any more pit stops (not hard, since there’s not a lot to find on Highway 7 overall). Three hours later, Eric was dropping Dave and I off to our excited children. I don’t know about Dave, but I was so tired that I couldn’t muster the energy to look at my plates for about four days. Acton always wipes me out on its own, and with a whole extra Saturday of plate hunting… It’s a blast, but as soon as I get home, I just want to sleep for the next four days.