I’m coming up on 18 months of not having attended an in-person swap meet. The virtual swap meets are a reasonable substitute for now, but there’s a lot missing. To me, a swap meet isn’t just about the plates. It’s about the journey, and the discovery along the way. Every year when the snow melts, I get itchy to hit the road for the weekend trip to Acton. Of course, with much of Ontario either in the COVID red zone—or outright lockdown—Acton will not be happening this year. And as much as I understand the reasons why it has to be scuttled for a second straight year, I still have the same itch to hit the road.
My chance to scratch that itch came during the last weekend in March. I discovered a farm estate auction in the village of Dalkeith, in the easternmost reaches of Ontario, just a few miles before it ends and Quebec starts. Lot number 261 caught my eye: “Barrel of Licence Plates.” The picture showed old Ontario plates piled around and inside an old metal barrel. There were about fifty in all, from the 1930s to the 1970s. Not all of them were visible, so the lot was somewhat of a mystery grab-bag. I was game, mostly because the barrel idea captivated me.
In the fall of 1954, ALPCA founder Cecil George sent what is now known as the “George Letter” to as many licence plate enthusiasts / collectors as he could. He had been collecting for years already, and detailed some of the ways in which he was able to acquire old plates for his collection. The one old-timey suggestion that sticks in my mind is, “Place an empty barrel in a conspicuous place downtown just after current auto registrations expire. Place a sign on the barrel: ‘Please leave your old number plates here. I save them.’ Put your name and address on it too. In this way you can get a supply of plates to use for swapping in distant states. Someone might bring along real old ones to go along with those of last year.” I can hardly imagine a time when plates had no value and could be realistically collected in this way. At the time of writing, Dr. George had never yet paid to acquire old plates for his collection.
One COVID-related benefit of collecting is that pretty much every local auction house has switched to online listings. A lot of them were moving in that direction anyway, but in the past year, the rest of them have pivoted to the online format out of necessity. This means I can bid from the comfort of my own home... a far cry from collecting in 1954!
I checked the bidding on the day of the auction’s closure. It had reached $250. That was a stiff price, and I’d be lucky to recoup my costs. But I was eager to have an excuse to take a little country drive. The money I was paying wasn’t so much for the plates themselves. I was buying a little getaway to provide a small surrogate taste of springtime adventure. I pulled the trigger on my top bid, and won.
Pickup was by appointment on Saturday at the farm in Dalkeith. I booked my time for the earliest possible hour, and I was on the road by eight in the morning. It was a cool, overcast morning. We’d had a lot of rain and warmer temperatures over the past few days, so the snow was mostly gone, leaving muddy farm fields, swollen creeks, full ditches, and the occasional submerged lawn. I could see flocks of migrating Canada Geese in the distance in all directions of the expansive grey sky.
I left the highway for a two-lane county road. An Earthy smell filled my nose as I drove past the barns and fields. It was too early in the spring for anyone to be turning soil over just yet; the soil was still much too muddy for that. I drove past clusters of farm houses, made a turn onto a smaller sideroad, and moved aside for an oncoming truck with a wide trailer. The farmer gave a friendly wave. The smell of wood stove smoke came to me at the same time as I found my destination: A farm house with a barn, silo, and several outbuildings in behind.
I turned into the driveway, parked, donned my mask, and made my way to a makeshift office. The lady there flipped through some paper until she found my record. I had already paid, so she gave me my receipt and directed me to an outbuilding where the staff had begun fetching customer purchases for outdoor pick-up. I showed my receipt to one of the gophers, who went indoors and reappeared a moment later with a small cylindrical barrel, filled with plates. They were rusty and dirty, but just like an episode of “Storage Locker Wars,” one never knows if there’s hidden treasure (although if this was a TV show, someone would surely have planted a 1775 pistol from the American Revolution under a plate at the bottom of the barrel).
A boy, maybe about 12 or 13, admired the plates as I walked past him. He wore a red jacket bearing the logo of a nearby Holstein farm.
“Nice plates! You bought them in the auction?” He asked.
“Yep, that was me,” I replied.
“I was bidding against you,” he said. “I’m hoping to start a collection one day. Have a nice day!”
He wandered off as I opened my trunk and hoisted the barrel into the car. A quick look through told me that this was certainly not going to be a holy grail. I might not be able to break even. But I remembered Rule #1 of licence plate collecting:
If a child expresses an interest, nurture that interest by giving them a plate for free.
Many people in our hobby experienced that “spark” in childhood, and have become life-long collectors as a result. Be that spark.
I didn’t have much to offer the boy, but I pulled out a straight and clean quarterly truck plate. That’s how I started my collection long ago. I walked over to him. “You said you were hoping to start a collection? Here, start it with this.”
“Thank you very much!”
He quickly walked off to show his plate to a parent. Will the spark ignite? Maybe one day, I’ll find out that it did.
I hopped into the car and drove a couple of miles to a deserted church that I had passed. I wanted to organize my plates with some privacy. The small barrel, made of metal plates riveted together, had an inlet pipe attached to it, and a spigot on the bottom end. It had been used for water at some point, but with the top end open, it might have just been for rain.
I had eight pairs in total that could clear for the YOM program and be used as stock for my business—the best way to recoup costs—but I would have to get on the phone with an operator on a weekday to verify these. The rest were either singles, or pairs of quarterly truck plates. There wasn’t much to crow about. The best item I had was a clean pair of 1960 Quebec plates, and a quarterly truck plate with a lot of nines in the serial number. Everything else was either very common, or badly rusted, or both. But my disappointment was tempered by the fact that it was a Saturday, and I was in the middle of the country in the early spring. Half the fun is in the hunt itself. Not every journey is going to turn up keepers, or even good traders. I hadn’t been “out and about” like this since last year, and it was wonderful just to be free for a few hours. After all, the third wave of the COVID pandemic was upon us, we were mired in the “red zone,” and with climbing case numbers, we could be pushed back into lockdown at any time.
Rather than go straight home, I meandered a little. I passed a historic plaque, marking the pre-Confederation location of the McLeod settlement, wherein forty Scottish families relocated to the Dalkeith area in the 1790s. I passed a fast-moving stream, with its muddy water slicing about. It reminded me of the time a couple of springs before when the Moira River had overspilled its banks through Tweed: Eric and I were on our way home from gathering plates and the water beneath the bridge was perilously high.
I drove through Dalkeith itself. Nothing too much to see there, although it looked like every homeowner was a collector: There were old porcelain beverage signs and petroliana affixed to the garages in behind several of the houses. Probably the result of being regulars at estate auctions.
I headed north to Vankleek Hill, the largest town in the area, on Highway 34, leading to Hawkesbury and the river boundary with Quebec. If I continued eastward for another 15 minutes, I would have crossed into Quebec by way of the peculiar bent survey line that slices across the farmland, nearly unannounced, between the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers. But I’d done that years before, and there wouldn’t be much more to see. So I headed to the Vankleek Tim Horton’s. The current app-based “Roll Up” contest (sans rims) isn’t nearly as fun as it used to be, but the coffee and donut was just as welcome as ever.
My time was up, and I had to get back home. I did some chores, and managed to wash up the plates and clean out the barrel. There really was nothing much of value for resale, unless I encounter someone who loves the barrel that the plates came in. I checked the YOM situation on my pairs the following Monday, and nothing was eligible, so I’d clearly be taking a monetary loss on my excursion. But I knew that might well happen, and I figured at the very least, the journey would make for a new 2Cents story. So here it is.
As spring unfolds, I hope you’re able to find plates in the rough, too (for cheaper than mine turned out to be). But most of all, stay safe!