The 2018 ALPCA Convention at Valley Forge was my tenth since joining the club in 1995. It was quite a different experience than the others. For the other nine, I could get my geek on without coming up for air for days at a time.
This was a hybrid trip. I alternated between my geek hat and my “dad” hat, because my young son Greg was with me. I spent half my time doing plate-related things, and the other half was father-son bonding outside the confines of the convention hall. For sake of relevance——I know my audience for this blog——I will focus mostly on plates.
The William E. Swigart Museum was featured in a short article in ALPCA’s Plates magazine earlier this year. I learned that it houses a extensive collection of plates, including nearly-complete runs of many Canadian provinces, including Ontario. The Swigart Museum is located in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, which is a three-hour drive west of Valley Forge. I decided that I should make the effort to see it, since I would be in the neighbourhood, relatively speaking. The museum closes at 5 o’clock each day. Rather than leave before dawn and race for seven hours to get there in time, I opted to leave later and drive at a more leisurely pace, get a hotel in Huntingdon, and then tour the museum at opening time the next morning. It would cost me about three hours of ALPCA convention time on opening day, but this was truly a now-or-never situation. It had been 18 years since I was in southern PA, and it’s quite possible I won’t ever pass that way again.
The plan paid off. We had time for an excursion into Buttermilk Falls State Park in Ithaca, New York… what started as a half-hour roadside attraction turned into a breathtaking three-hour-plus excursion as we hiked the entire trail system to the tune of 4 ½ miles. Not bad for someone who’s going into third grade!
We took a piecemeal route through Pennsylvania, with much of it on US Route 15, which is a divided four-lane highway that slices past cliffs and crosses some pretty large valleys. The engineering to build it boggles the mind. It’s not even an Interstate (but is designated as a future arm of I-99). The final leg of the journey after sundown brought us along PA State Highway 26, which was a dark, surreal corridor through alternating clouds of fireflies and rain; it sent us up engine-revving climbs and down brake-heating drops, with hairpin turns every couple of miles. All of a sudden, the road deposited us into nighttime Huntingdon, and we found ourselves on a main street lined with century-old houses and stores. It was mostly dark, but it seems to be a pretty town.
I awoke before seven to the sound of a freight train passing through downtown. There had actually been trains rumbling along in either direction about 20 or 30 minutes apart, all night long. I slept soundly through most of them. We had a swim and some breakfast, before checking out and arriving at the Swigart Museum just after opening; we were the first visitors of the day. As it turned out, we were the only visitors for as long as we stayed. The attendant, Lonnie, was a congenial fellow and quite helpful to us. The museum has some stunning cars, but I needed to see the plates first. They're all mounted by state and province on large swing panels at one end of the hall. The panels only pivoted about 20 degrees. Picture taking was achievable, but sub-optimal for the plates closest to the hinges, creating an unavoidable keystone effect (apropos in Pennsylvania), but I could fix that in Photoshop later.
When I opened the panel for Ontario, my jaw dropped. This wasn’t a mere assortment of crappy plates as a representative sampling. Instead, I found an incredible collection of plates going from a 1905 rubber all the way up to the early fifties. I’m proud of my collection, but a number of the Swigart plates would upgrade my own. Lonnie said that there are more plates in the museum's possession than can be displayed on the panels, but I didn’t mind. The early gems were what I truly hoped to see.
There were three rubber plates, all authentic, all the 1905-1909 variety without the “ONTARIO” bar at the top. The lowest-numbered representative, number 777, is actually a matched pair. They’re bolted to the panel in a nested configuration, so there’s no side-by-side photo opportunity, but number 777 is easily the coolest rubber issue I’ve seen. The other two unfortunately had “Ontario” handwritten along the top, but they were great to see. The best-condition of the three overall would be number 4763, with the numbers still a bright white.
Next up was the 1911 porcelain, a lower four-digit number. The wire-rimmed tins were interesting. Conditions varied, but the colours were all there. The 1912 was pretty nice, and the 1915 would be in the top five, in terms of condition, that I’ve ever seen. Strangely, the 1914 was rough, even though it’s an easier paint year for the tins.
The 1918 was stellar, and so were the 1919 and 1920. I did take pictures, but this blog post isn't intended to be a comprehensive plate-by-plate analysis of what's there. Think of this is a "greatest hits" package. You'll just have to visit yourself to fill in the gaps and discover the hidden gems.
There was a beautiful four-digit 1917, and probably THE nicest 1921 I’ve ever seen. Even the best 1921 plates tend to have some crackling in the orange paint, but the Swigart example has none of that. I’ve never seen anything like it… and completely original paint!
There were some nice low-number plates from the 1920s, and lots of high-quality examples after that. For 1944, the collection featured two gems: a cancelled 1944 windshield sticker (never seen that before), and a 1944 dealer plate, with a short number for good measure.
The rest of the 1940s plates were in stunning condition, including the silver 1947, which is a tough paint year. Aside from a couple of minor abrasions, it looks as shiny and bright as the day it was new. The panel was only able to accomodate plates up to 1952. The ‘52 example just happened to be yet another three-digit dealer plate. Oh, yeah——it’s a matching pair, too.
Although Ontario is my only true love in the Canadian plate world, I do have an an appreciation for older plates and less populous provinces. The Swigart collection is largely complete for each jurisdiction, and it boasts a porcelain PEI, and the undated embossed PEI plates of the early 1920s. The collection also includes a hand-painted Nova Scotia pre-provincial plate, dating from 1916, according to a handwritten notation on the plate itself. There’s also a super-rare 1944 Nova Scotia windshield sticker, and a impressive, incomplete run of Newfoundland plates going back to (gulp) 1929. The Northwest Territories is also included, and of course, it has excellent plates going all the way back to 1941 (who doesn’t?)
Being an American collector, the late Bill Swigart was no slouch at collecting stateside plates. There hung some beautiful CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) tags, Maryland politicals, pre-states, city plates, and so many others that I was able to look at, but ran out of time to photograph. My head still swims just trying to remember them all.
Turning to the cars, there were about twenty of them, most old, and all rare in some aspect. There was a Stanley Steamer, a Tucker Torpedo (#13 of 51), a Delorean DMC-12, and one of the actual 1960 Beetles that was used in the making of the first and second “Herbie” movies. There are also cars made by Chevrolet, Ford, Cord, Pierce, and International, among others. Each was accompanied by comprehensive background information. There was another room with antique radiator caps, horns, lamps… I could easily have spent another three hours there. Heck, I could have spent most of the day!
Time was wearing on, and it was time to head to Valley Forge. US Route 22 snaked through the mountains and eventually widened into an expressway (with a level train crossing!) We climbed and descended mountain after mountain. We hugged the cliffs, and some of them were too steep to accommodate two opposing roadbeds side by side, so they were offset from each other so they’d fit. At one point, the westbound lanes were atop a concrete wall that was at least 60 feet above us. We passed rapids in the rivers below, and spotted small roads that somehow threaded a needle to fit between the highways, tracks and rivers that were already piled atop each other. Soon, we left the mountains and entered the toll-based Pennsylvania Turnpike for a smooth-but-unexciting ride to the ALPCA Convention.
We arrived a bit after 2 pm and checked into our room first before finding our way through the labyrinthine hallways that somehow connected the hotel to another hotel, and ultimately, to the convention hall on the basement floor. I had ordered a single table at the convention, even though I brought nothing to sell. It was mostly a place where my son Greg could sit if he spent time in the hall. I set up a couple of decorations on the table, and it wasn’t long before people stopped by to chat.
Joe Sallmen was the first ALPCAn at the convention to meet Greg. Joe has seen the family pics, and recognized him right away. Gary Doherty from New Brunswick also stopped by. I hadn’t seen Gary in a number of years… possibly since Rochester four years before. Gary was very kind to Greg and let him choose a free Wheaties cereal plate. Greg chose the Iran plate… not because it was Iran, but because it was red and had different numerals.
It seemed that there were a lot of Canadians grouped in our section of the hall. I found William Loftus and Norm Ratcliffe’s table in the next row over from mine. They were just as surprised to see Greg as the others had been.
“What do you like to collect? What floats your boat?” Norm asked.
“I just like that they're plates,” Greg replied.
“Yer in!” laughed Norm.
A little later, I ran into Joey Koldys from Ohio and had a great chat with him. Joey is the first ALPCAn I ever met, and he told me everything I needed to know to join the club. That was 23 years ago, and my membership has been continuous ever since. Joey arrived early to the greater Philadelphia area. He had already spent four days exploring the city and still hadn’t been able to do everything on his list. Joey highly recommended the zoo to Greg and I. Our itinerary was already choked with destinations, but if we had time somehow, I’d try to get there.
One of the perceived drawbacks to attending the convention is the lack of Canadian plates for specialist collectors of different provinces. I suppose I have a greater chance of finding that Ontario gem at a swap meet like Acton or Grimsby, but surprises awaited me in Valley Forge. Before the day was out, I had acquired 1962 and 1969 PCV plates, plus a 1960 school bus, plus a couple of smalls for Greg.
I had to beware of the sensory overload that was surely affecting my son. After all, my own mind was blown 22 years before at my first convention, but that was literally half my lifetime ago. Greg’s going into third grade in September. He has no focus, and I worry that he just wants a plate on impulse only. He expressed random interest in a Virgin Islands motorcycle plate, a 1975 Missouri truck, and a lipstick-base Louisiana wheelchair plate, not knowing what they were used for or where they were from. I remember at my first convention, I blew money on Illinois plates because it was the host state for the convention that year. Did I care about Illinois plates? Not really. Do I still have any of them? Not a chance. I hoped that I could help Greg make some meaningful finds without watching him jump on the first plates to appear.
ALPCA’s private dinner event would be happening soon, and the hall was set to close at 5 pm. I didn’t buy tickets to the dinner because Greg is an active kid, and he needs exercise during his day to burn off energy. So when we travel, we choose hotels with pools, and he swims either in the morning before we go someplace, or in the evening, after the day's events are through. When I registered months ago for the convention, I figured Greg (and I) would be better off doing something more active, like going for a swim, rather than sit and have dinner with people. But I was none too pleased to discover that ALPCA’s private event would be using “Valley Beach”, which is the area with the outdoor pool, thereby closing it to the rest of the hotel patrons, including Greg. Worse, the pool’s hours were just plain shitty. It opened at 11 am——no morning swim for Greg——and it closed to children at 7 pm sharp. So I could let him swim during supper hour, but we’d go hungry; or I could feed him supper, and he wouldn’t have time to swim. So I kept him away from the hotel and the idea of swimming: We went to the King of Prussia Mall, which is the largest in the USA. We had dinner there and a long enough walk that getting to sleep that night wouldn't be a problem. I called room service and pre-ordered some breakfast, just to buy Greg more sleep time the following morning. We’d be having a big day, and I wanted it to start out right. Surely, this hotel could deliver.
Sleep came easily. I nodded off thinking about all the plates I'd seen at the museum, and imagining all the plates I hadn't seen...