The best kind of road trip involves a proper balance of driving, nice weather, good food, laughs, and of course, finding licence plates for one’s collection. Those who don’t collect licence plates, sadly, haven’t tasted the full experience that is a road trip.
Acton weekend was upon us, and the plans were set. Eric Vettoretti and I have, over the years, earned a joint reputation of being plate hounds and going for broke. We’ll habitually put 1500 km on one of our cars, and drive all over the province before arriving in Acton early Sunday morning for the long-awaited spring swap meet. This year, 2019, was no different.
It was my turn to drive. My car is older and less comfortable than Eric’s, and with the cold and wet spring weather that Ottawa has been dealt this year, I haven’t had a warm enough string of days to vacuum the winter’s worth of salt and grime out of the car. I warned Eric that the car wasn’t clean. “When is it?” he joked.
We left Ottawa after dinner on Friday night so that we could just drive like the wind and get to our hotel. This time, we positioned ourselves right on the city limit line into Toronto. We had a new southwest route in mind, and wanted to get a good start on the day.
We looked at our plategeeking map, and eyed the cities and towns where we would go. We wanted to arrive at our first stop right around opening time, but there was one problem: Every place we planned to stop opened at 10 or later on Saturday mornings. We wanted to find a place that opened at 9 am, and the only one we could find, within our plotted corridor, was Southworks Antiques in Cambridge. So we started there, just like last year.
Southworks is a great place to browse, with all of its absentee vendor stalls. We have to wander through every stall, because one never knows whether the plates will be on the wall, in a pile on a table, in a box at ankle-level, or stashed in behind a bunch of paperbacks. We found a bunch of plates, all right, but nothing that was “gotta-have” like last year when I found Ontario plate number 200-000 from 1924. I did find a red 1937 Ontario plate that I saw on eBay a few months before. I placed some bids at the time, but gave up when the shipping and competition pushed the price too high. I looked at the price tag, and saw that whoever bought it only marked it up by a couple of dollars. Without the shipping, I’d be paying less buying it now than I would have if I’d fought harder on eBay. So, I tucked the plate under my arm. I own the mate, which is in excellent shape, and used to be the 1937 in my passenger run before I upgraded to pairs. This plate, at Southworks, was clearly used on the front side, and had seen more abuse. It was still nice enough that I reasoned I could re-pair them and sell them as a YOM set… I had checked the number for that very purpose months before.
We didn’t find much else at Southworks that day, so we got back into the car and headed toward Stratford on Highway 8. There were a couple of stores in Stratford that were worth revisiting, although it had been at least a couple of years since either of us were there. We were getting close to Stratford, when we stumbled on the town of Shakespeare. It has about four antique places near its main intersection, but I’ve never found anything there of note. We stopped nonetheless. One store was housed in the former town post office, but the proprietor didn’t have any plates. Strike 1. We then went to the appropriately-named Jonny’s Antiques (sans H, which is how I spell my name), but they’re open by appointment only. It was cold and we didn’t feel like phoning Jonny up just to wait for his arrival. Strike 2. Eric then led us to a barn-like store just south of Jonny’s, but it sold nothing but furniture. Nice play, Shakespeare… Yer out!
We drove onward and soon arrived at the Stratford Antique Warehouse, which is smaller than Southworks, but has a lot of signage and a decent number of plates among its vendors. However, some sad news awaited us: The business would be closing in a few weeks due to the owner’s retirement. Apparently, someone else will be reopening on the site, but there was no indication of whether it would still be an antique market. We had a great time wandering the aisles, and there were plates to find, but nothing that we needed.
Our next stop in Stratford turned out to be a Jiu-Jitsu place of some kind, with the former antique store having gone out of business. We couldn’t locate any other similar places with quick Internet searches, so we abandoned Stratford and headed southwest to St. Marys, the home of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame (which I would love to visit sometime, but not while I’m going for broke with Eric looking for plates).
Soon enough, we arrived at a shop in downtown St. Marys. I hadn’t found plates there previously, but the store was densely packed with many different items, so it seemed reasonable that there might be some stashed somewhere. We asked the proprietor, who led us to a spot where there appeared to be nothing of interest. He moved a couple of items out of the way and slid a couple of boxes into view. He did have a run of trailer plates going from 1929 up to 1940, minus a couple of years. The 1930 trailer was a matching pair. The condition wasn’t great, but they’re rare and we reasoned they may clean up a bit. I myself needed a 1930 trailer for my run, although these would be placeholders until an upgrader came along. We pulled out a stack of nine plates, with some YOM candidates, all but one very rusty, and asked the proprietor for a price.
He hemmed and hawed. “$170,” he said.
That was too much, in our opinion, for a stack of nine plates with little original paint left. Eric did the the math in front of him by dividing the price by the number of plates. $170 divided by 9 was just under $20 per plate. We hoped to get him down to a more reasonable unit price.
“Nine plates? Oh… I only counted eight, so that’s what the $170 was based on.” It wasn’t our fault that he miscounted. We countered at $130 and offered to meet in the middle somewhere, but the seller stood his ground. He steadfastly refused to take $150.
I decided the trailers weren’t worth it, so I put them down and aimed for just the YOM candidates, which whittled the stack down to four plates. “How much for just these four?” I asked.
He hemmed and hawed some more. “$120,” he said. Behind us, another customer was vying for his attention.
We put the plates down, thanked him for his time, and left the store. Isn’t a haggle supposed to be part of buying unpriced picks?
From St. Marys, we moved on to Huron county and Grand Bend to try Dale’s. More than twenty years before, I had found my 1962 Ontario diplomat plate for $4 in a box of quarterly truck plates. I hadn’t found anything there since, and they didn’t even have plates left when I visited about 15 years ago. But it was a cool store, with signage, train memorabilia and whatnot, so we set course for Dale’s. We eventually pulled up to the store, but the parking lot was ominously empty. There was a sign on the door: “Closed this Saturday, April 27.” We threw our hands into the air. Another guy pulled into the lot, saw the sign, and threw his hands into the air as well. We traded exasperated smiles through the windshields of our vehicles. Hopefully, he had come from a lesser distance than we had.
At 530 km away, this was our maximum crow-flying distance from home during this trip. We were disappointed that the store was randomly closed on the one day we were there, although it could have been because of a funeral, a graduation, or a grandchild’s recital. There was no point in being upset. I pressed my camera against the glass to take some pictures. We were hungry, so we reasoned that getting a burger from Denny’s Drive-In might help us forget how fruitless our morning had been. My burger was greasy and very comforting. It gave me hope that the afternoon would be better.
We had expected to spend more time in Grand Bend, so we hadn’t really thought hard about where we’d go next. We headed toward Goderich, since our map had a couple of stores pinned there. But those pins were a couple of years old, and it was anyone’s guess as to whether the proprietors would be cheapskates, on holiday this weekend only, or just plain out of business. As it turned out, we were partly correct: One store had gone extinct, and the other had just closed for the day at 3 o’clock. We enjoyed walking the quaint courthouse square of Goderich, which now has replanted trees to replace the old growth that was destroyed by a tornado a few years before.
I was driving in a flat area in the middle of nowhere. Eric was looking at his phone, trying in vain to find a reliable junk shop. And then, just like that, I saw a rusted-out truck with a partly-hidden sign that had the word “FLEA” in faded paint on one side. I hit the brakes, startling Eric in the process. I managed to pull into the driveway without locking the wheels, and I parked next to a series of shanties that all had doors open. We couldn’t tell if this place was a store, or whether it was open or not, but after being shut out in Grand Bend, this place looked open enough to us.
As it turned out, it was open by chance. The owner came over to chat with us. When we mentioned that we were looking for plates, he brought us into one of his shanties, where we saw a selection of older plates that Eric recognized as belonging to a vendor at the Barrie Automotive Flea Market. As it turns out, it was the same fellow. He chatted with us while we pawed through extra boxes that we hadn’t seen. He had a few modern Ontario truck plates, so I flipped through them while Eric looked for YOM options. Suddenly, I saw the yellow and black stripes of an exempt (aka bumblebee) sticker. And then another. And then another! As it turned out, there were three pairs of exempt truck plates, all in nice shape. I reasoned that they were likely issued to a township ambulance or fire engine. OPP and MTO vehicles use bumblebee stickers, too, but I couldn’t see plates from provincially-owned vehicles ending up in a remote, come-by-chance place like this.
The owner was in no hurry and was keen to chat, so we took our time and found a good 15 or so plates, mostly for our collections, with only a couple of minor YOM finds, and we came to a fair deal for them. Once we were done in the shanty, we wandered over to his barn-housed workshop, where he had a few more plates going high up the wall, including a low-numbered Quebec farm truck plate. Outside in the yard, he had an old flatbed truck circa 1935, which was still wearing the last plate it used: A yellow December 1964 quarterly. We didn’t take away much, but given our luck to this point, this remote place was easily the most rewarding stop of the day. It wasn’t even on the map!
We got back into the car and resumed our meandering across southwestern Ontario farmland. We made our way to Wingham, where we hoped to find the “Old Shop” that Dave Steckley told us about. From what he described, it looks like a store from the outside, but nothing is specifically “for sale.” Dave happened to stop in when the owner was around. We hoped that we would have the same luck. As it turned out, we didn’t have any luck at all. We knocked for a few minutes, but no one answered. The place looked very promising from the outside, and we knew there were plates on the inside, but it was locked up tight. We loitered in vain for about 20 minutes before giving up and moving on.
It was already about 4:30, and there were barely any signs of life in Wingham. The main street through town was devoid of people and cars. Even the full-serve gas station had a pump left hanging from a car, but there was no driver and no attendant. We spent close to half an hour in that town and only saw two people. Our chances of going anywhere else were slim… We were coming upon closing time for many antique shops, and we weren’t even close to another town.
As I started driving toward Toronto, Eric had a hunch and looked up the St. Jacob’s Antique Market, just outside Waterloo. Closing time: 6 pm. We punched the address into the GPS. Arrival time: 5:50 pm. We would be passing straight through Kitchener-Waterloo anyway, so we figured we’d give it a try.
I managed to shave a couple of minutes from our time, so we got there with 12 minutes to spare. They let us in, and we did the fastest plate search of our lives, looking up-down and side-to-side, checking one vendor after the next. There were no plates of interest, but I did find a glorange emergency detour sign intended for Highway 403. It was in mint condition, with the vinyl backing still covering the unused bolt holes, and a bold green crown with “403” in white. Beautiful!
With that, our antiquing day was done. It was much less fruitful than we’d hoped, but we looked at it this way: We were in a car, on the open road, with free time and we were looking for plates. That’s a great way to spend any Saturday.
We eventually arrived in northwest Mississauga to stay at the Motel 6 on Argentia Road. We’ve been staying here for most of the last 15 years’ worth of Acton trips. It was built in 2001, back before the sprawl arrived. Argentia Road dead-ended at the Motel 6 driveway. There was a Rona, a Home Depot, a gas station, and scrubby bushes and sand for as far as the eye could see. We wondered why a hotel would ever be built there, but it was a clean, quiet haven for us while we divided our day’s finds and wondered how tomorrow’s swap meet would unfold. But now, in 2019, Argentia Road is a commercial and industrial hub. Walmart’s Canadian headquarters are there. It’s a very busy place, with a lot of amenities. It has car dealerships, restaurants, supermarkets, banks, and coffee shops for as far as the eye can see. We went to a nearby bar and grill, one of many now there, for a celebratory pint. And amidst it all, the Motel 6 now shows its age. It’s not as clean as it used to be. White paint has faded to beige. Cobwebs abound. Baseboards have been kicked away. The sinks are cracked from years of parties. The unmistakable odour of combustible products wafts through the corridors of this supposedly non-smoking establishment. Loud people enter, looking for other loud people. It’s not what it used to be. The city has enveloped and changed it.
What the hell?
WREEEEEEEEEE WREEEEEEEEEE WREEEEEEEEEE
It’s midnight. I’ve been deeply asleep for two hours. What’s that noise?
WREEEEEEEEEE WREEEEEEEEEE WREEEEEEEEEE WREEEEEEEEEE
Eric’s as confused and disoriented as I am. I fumble to turn on the lights. The sound is coming from the door. And It’s really loud.
WREEEEEEEEEE WREEEEEEEEEE WREEEEEEEEEE WREEEEEEEEEE
There’s a light blinking in an outlet by the door. The sound may be coming from there. Maybe I have to reset something? I press a button, but it’s just a GCFI outlet. The sound is coming from the hallway.
WREEEEEEEEEE WREEEEEEEEEE WREEEEEEEEEE WREEEEEEEEEE
It’s been a long day, and we’re dead tired. I finally put it together that it’s a fire alarm. I open the door slightly. A couple of people are in the hall, taking stock of the situation. The hall smells like smoke.
Eric and I get dressed. We grab our coats, wallets, keys, and the small number of plates that we brought to the room (some don’t belong to us-- we’re delivering them on behalf of others back home). We walk down the hallway, through the piercing alarm, and turn down the stairs. The smoke is thicker one floor below us. It’s even thicker on the ground floor.
We exit and make our way through the parking lot to the front of the hotel. A ladder truck, lights flashing, pulls into the driveway, with a pumper close behind. We go across the street. Within a few minutes, the ladder shuts off its lights and drives off. We see people re-entering the building, so we do the same. We have forgotten our keys in the room, so the attendant makes another for us, no questions asked. We ask what happened. Apparently, someone on the first floor was microwaving popcorn and let it cook for too long. The whole ground floor and lobby are filled with a gray haze.
We climb the stairs and find the third floor a little less smoky than when the alarms were screeching. Luckily, there is no smell at all in our room. We get back to sleep, but it takes an hour.
I awoke to another alarm, only this time it was the familiar opening chords of a Tragically Hip song, and it was coming from my phone. We were dog-tired, having lost at least an hour’s sleep from last night’s fire alarm. Our third-floor corridor didn’t smell of smoke any more, but the stench lingered in the first-floor hall, which had been cleared of last night’s haze. We were dead on our feet as we walked out to the car and loaded our stuff. Going forward, Eric and I have decided to deep-six the Motel 6… we won’t be staying there again. Milton is much closer to Acton, with more places to stay now than 15 years ago.
We drove into Acton, got some coffee, and ran into Alan Bones while waiting in line, just like in previous years. When we arrived at the arena, the doors were open and a few earlybirds were unloading their vehicles, so we joined in. Before long, our tables were set up.
Within the past month, Eric had bought the passenger run of the late Dick Patterson, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease and sadly passed away over the winter. After upgrading his collection where possible, he still had a very handsome selection of older Ontario pairs from the ‘teens and twenties. His table got its fair share of oohs and aahs as the hall began to fill up. The 1921 pair on his table actually came from me-- he didn’t need the Patterson 1921 pair, but I did, so I swapped my downgrader pair to him in a deal that we had struck a couple of weeks before.
Bill Thoman had major surgery over the previous month, and we had been keeping in touch with his wife Lynda to see how he was recovering, and whether he’d be well enough to attend Acton this year. Luckily, Bill was pulling through and would attend the meet, although he would need assistance, as he would be using a wheelchair and a walker. We marked the two closest tables to the entrance ramp as “Reserved” for the Thomans. We figured they would probably not arrive as early as usual, but at least their tables would be ready.
I didn’t venture far from my table this time around. I had a lot of trade stock that I had taken on the previous summer, and I didn’t move as much as I’d hoped last fall in Grimsby. I figured that I might as well make myself available to wheel and deal. I had a few rarer items that had downgraded out of my collection, such as a pair of 1916 tins, a single 1914 tin, some diplomats and dealers, and various odds and sods. Many would sell over the morning, but a few still remain.
Don Goodfellow arrived and had a stack of attractive flyers advertising the Grimsby meet this fall. Once again, Don’s brother-in-law had photoshopped the meet date onto an image of a vintage plate… this time, 1919. These flyers are almost collectibles in their own right! It’s never too early to plan for the next plate collectors’ swap meet.
Sam Mazmanian had an interesting table of mint condition show-and-tell plates, including one of the new Francophone veteran plates. What’s interesting about it, to me, is the number. Sam has 1F0011, and at my wife’s work, I have started seeing 1F0012 on a daily basis in the parking lot! I want to re-order my personalized plate before the new baseplate comes in, but I want to try and sneak in two additional crowns to complement the one I already have, so that I have a crown in between each number. We’ll see if Sam can help work some magic for me behind the scenes.
A little after 8:30, the Thomans arrived: Bill, Lynda, and their daughter Karen. Eric and I went out to greet them and see if we could help unload. Bill had a couple of boxes of plates, but nothing terribly bulky… if laid out flat, they would cover pretty much all of his table space. It was great to finally see Bill. He was looking good, considering that his surgery was barely a month before. It was a long road for Bill to attend Acton this time around, but Lynda and Karen were there to support him every step of the way.
The hall had begun to fill up, with most tables filled by 9 am. Dave Steckley, our host, had to acquire two extra tables, but we weren’t short of vending space. I recall, a couple of years ago, we had to roll out some extra round tables for all the vendors!
Dave Grant, who traveled with Eric and I last year, was in Toronto with his family on a separate trip and was planning on attending Acton this year. Eric challenged me to an over-under bet, and wagered that Dave would arrive at the meet hall by 10:30. I knew Dave would be encumbered with family members, but no way would he be that late, so I took the under-bet. As it happened, Dave arrived a little after 9 o’clock, so now, Eric owes me our token bet amount of a shitty quarterly (he still hasn’t paid up).
I said hello to Jim Becksted and Dave Wilson, who were chatting at Jim’s table, next to mine. Dave W. doesn’t make our Ontario swap meets regularly, because he loves to travel, and Acton / Grimsby are smack in the middle of ocean cruise sale season. Dave shocked us by telling the story of his car accident the previous day. Dave looked perfectly fine. What happened? Well, Dave was already on his way to Acton and taking the scenic route when he was approaching an intersection with a flashing amber beacon. Dave had the right of way, and traffic was stopped on either side because the cross road had a stop sign with a flashing red beacon. I guess that the driver approaching from the left mistook the intersection for a four-way stop, because he pulled out in front of Dave. Dave hit the brakes and slowed to about 60 before T-boning the other vehicle on its passenger side. It came to rest on its side. Dave’s airbags deployed, and his chest was bruised and achy from the impact, but he was otherwise OK, having remained upright. The other driver was taken away in an ambulance, and later charged. Dave’s car was brand new——the odometer was reading only 512 km! At the time I talked to Dave, the car was sitting in a pound in Orangeville while the insurance company figured out what to do with it. The car was ultimately written off, which is good news for Dave, since he won’t have to drive all the way down to Orangeville from North Bay to deal with repairs.
I chatted again with Bill, who brought 1945 and 1946 plates 1M3 for show-and-tell. They were originally issued to the same person, year after year, and somewhere along the line, the plates were dispersed to different people. Bill wonders who else has a 1M3 plate. I told him I’d take a picture, post it online, and see if anyone else comes out of the woodwork.
Paul Frater made Acton this year, as he’s taking a few weeks back home from his work in Germany. It just so happened that Dave Steckley acquired a bunch of plates last fall with various first names on them, including “Joan,” “Dave,” and “Paul.” Paul jumped at the chance to buy a PAUL plate. Norm Ratcliffe’s Facebook avatar is a picture of a NORM plate, but he didn’t have it on-hand, otherwise it would have made for much cooler picture than the one shown here!
I managed to escape from my table only briefly to do some browsing. I did pick up an early reflective Ontario plate, from the reverse VYS series, which was issued in my childhood hometown of Sault Ste. Marie. The Soo was also issued VYR, and I had been trying to find either one of those for my collection for the past 24 years, and all it took was a walk to Matt Embro’s table. The VYS plate I bought from him is in nice condition, with a natural 1997 sticker, no less!
The crowd was quite large, so when Dave Steckley asked for my help at picture time, I figured that we should try something different. We used some benches as tiers and successfully posed the group in four rows. Lynda was able to get the camera reasonably close to the group, everybody fit within the frame, and no one’s face was hidden! I posed next to Bill, with the two of us holding a two-digit 1918 plate that I had acquired from him by prior arrangement.
After the picture was taken, I discovered that I was the object of some unwarranted criticism. Someone, who wasn’t minding their own business, apparently felt that I was unworthy of owning the two-digit 1918 plate, and openly suggested so to the Thomans. We were all appalled. Without naming my assailant, I will simply state that Bill and I have been good friends for quite a while. Bill had ample time to consider the next home for his higher-end plates. The agreement we reached was arranged in advance, entirely on Bill’s terms, and quite fair to both of us; I didn’t haggle or try to mitigate the value. I am truly grateful to have some gorgeous additions that I will treasure, partly because I’d been admiring them for a long time, and partly just because they were Bill’s.
On to nicer news: Did you know that Andrew Turnbull has been granted permanent residency in Canada? He’s thrilled about it for a number of reasons. Moreover, he told me that he intends to pursue Canadian Citizenship, although he’ll have to live as a permanent resident for about three years in the meantime. I was surprised when I first learned that he moved to London, but he’s still here and loving it, so… a belated welcome home!
There were a couple of notable absences in Acton this time around. Mike and Alannah Franks had planned to go, but had to cancel at the last minute due to illness. It was even more unfortunate, because I was couriering some plates to Mike from a pre-arranged trade with Mike DeVouge in Ottawa. I had a heavy stack of PEI plates under my table with no Mike to give them to! I had also agreed to bring some plates back to Ottawa to seal the trade between the two gentlemen. I decided that I could fairly easily make a detour and drive home via Lindsay, where the Frankses live. That way, Mike Franks could get his plates, and we could have a quick visit, and I could then bring Mike DeVouge’s plates home to Ottawa. Time was getting on, so we’d have to get moving.
Eric threw a half-off sale at his table to get rid of the rest of his trade stock. I still had some boxes of traders, but my load had lightened by about half, so I was content just to pack up without a fire sale. Eric and I saw the Thomans to their car, did a victory lap to say goodbye, and we were off.
The quickest way to Lindsay is via the 407. I installed a 407 ETR transponder in my car over the winter, because I use a toll highway at least three times a year, and that’s the break-even point with the annual transponder rental fee. I can see myself using the toll roads more and more, now that King’s Highway 407 is almost linked to the Peterborough highway, which will allow us easy access to Highway 7 to Ottawa. It takes the same amount of time as the 401. The drive is slower, with less distance, and more pleasant.
We got to Mike and Alannah’s house at about three o’clock. They were bummed at having missed the meet. They played it safe by staying home, but it turned out that they could have gone to Acton if they’d tried. I did my best to soften the blow by giving Mike the bundle of PEI plates from Mike DeVouge. And surprise, surprise, it worked!
We sat around the kitchen table, having a pop, as Mike told us about the gruelling exams he just completed in his Geographic Information Systems program at Fleming College. We soon started talking about Acton, and plates. Mike enjoys cleaning plates and using different products to bring them to life without adding new paint. Eric’s porcelain dealer plate (from Bill) was discoloured to a brown from being buried for a number of years, and we discussed the various ways in which the cobalt blue could possibly be resurrected. We’d swear there’s still come cobalt blue under the brown film on the surface. The plate is pretty fragile though, so Eric may not risk it. He’ll see.
The Acton trip is always a tough one for my wife and kids to put up with. I’m gone Friday night and I’m back Sunday night, and so I try to play my role as “SuperDad” as actively as possible in the time leading up to it. What makes it more awkward is that the Lindsay and Stirling markets are the very next weekend, so it means being gone the following Saturday as well. After Eric and I said goodbye to Alannah and Mike, I drove past the Lindsay Fairgrounds, which we would be re-visiting in a mere six days’ time. Lindsay is a good 3 ½ hour drive from home, so that’s a lot of miles on the highway just to be back in the same place the next weekend. But after that, we aren’t planning any long geek trips for plates until September. We’ll miss the spring Barrie and the new summer Bonfield flea markets, but that’s the price we pay for choosing Lindsay and Stirling.
Truth be told, it takes a while to write these articles, and at the time of writing, Eric and I have already returned from our second trip to Lindsay. How did that go? Tune in next time, when you’ll hear Eric say, “Hey, there’s that weird old bridge that we passed six days ago.”