I have a recurring dream where I’ve wandered into a clearing in a forest. There’s an old shack nearby that hasn’t been touched by anyone in years. There are no signs to warn me away. A few ancient cars sit around, rusting silently. The grass is tall enough that it’s obvious no one lives here. I notice a flash of colour on the ground, so I crouch down to investigate. It’s a porcelain plate! A low number, too, like 6. But wait: Underneath that plate is another one, number 7. And another. I lift my head and look around, to be sure that this isn’t someone else’s turf. No one else is in sight, and I’m pretty sure I’m alone. I hold the small stack of porcelain plates tightly as I see another one, hidden in the grass, over by the shack. Others are on the ground, inside the shack, on a dirt floor protected from the rain by the sloping tin roof. I can’t believe my luck.
The dream never gets any further than that. I never have a bag with me, so I start working out how I’ll take the important ones home, and how I’ll rush back with a huge backpack or a wagon to get them before anyone else finds them. And before I know it, it starts to rain, or the Easter Bunny appears, or the shack morphs into a Burger King. My dreams are very transient… I rarely stay in the same situation for long.
Anyway, the dream came true this week—sort of. I’ve been taking my son for road adventures every couple of weeks, just to stay active during this boring COVID summer. I pick a direction, find some possibilities, and we go explore. We ended up on one of the many gravel roads in the forests of Addington county, and along the roadside were some derelict trucks. We saw more and more of them as we moved along. Soon, we saw a bigger group of vehicles, scattered in a clearing by the road. There was evidence that someone had been pushing vehicles into place or pulling them out in the recent weeks, but there were no fences, no signs, and no houses within eyesight. So my son and I got out to have a look around.
The oldest vehicles were from the late 1950s, and there was a steady distribution through the decades all the way up to the early aughts. Our exploration of the yard revealed a bevy of classic badging, painted logos on rusty doors, and yes, even a few licence plates. Most that I saw were either a crumpled aluminum front plate, or a sun-faded “Keep It Beautiful,” hopelessly seized to the bumper. I had with me a little pocket knife with an already-bent screwdriver, but it wouldn't be of any help.
We made our way around, taking only pictures and leaving only footprints. There’s a certain magic in finding plates in the wild. When I was my son’s age, I’d occasionally find a plate somewhere, but I couldn’t always take it with me. My mind would spin, trying to come up with ways that I could return to the place where I saw it, properly equipped, so I could liberate it and bring it home. Sometimes my plans would work, but just as often, the plate was beyond my grasp. Now, after almost 40 years of hard work, I’ve got a quality collection. I don’t need to take what I find in the forest. Just seeing them there was enough.
Once we had our fill of the forest junkyard, we moved on. We ended up going southeast for a while to meet James, a distant relative on my dad’s side. James collects signs, some plates, and various other industrial bric-a-brac. He had done me a solid favour by purchasing an old Eagle traffic signal a few months earlier at my request, right at the height of the initial COVID quarantine. I was finally able to travel and take it off his hands, and reimburse him for the cost. We chatted for a while about the trials and tribulations of being collectors before heading our separate ways (no picture while we were meeting; it didn’t occur to me).
We moved onward to pay a visit to Bill and Lynda, who have relocated to the Kingston area. Lynda fed Greg some O-Henry, and Bill kindly loaned me his coffee table book on antique cars. I was keen to pick up a few plates from Bill for my collection. The 1955 dual-purpose plate fills a hole in my own collection. Bill also had a 1962 pair with all twos in the serial. I like repeating numbers. I have Ontario passenger plates with repeating digits with all zeroes, all ones, and three up to nine, but I didn’t have a passenger plate with all twos. I was thrilled to procure Bill’s H-2222 set.
Bill had one other plate of interest: A 1967 Ontario doctor plate that I could have sworn I once owned. I even remember taking a photo of it about 25 years ago. I have a pretty good memory for numbers; they just stick there. But when I got home, it turned out that my memory wasn’t quite as sharp as I thought. I found the picture from a quarter-century ago, but the plate in the photo is D10-453. The one I bought from Bill is D10-435. Oh, well… it makes for a slightly more interesting story. It’s still a keeper!
It was time to go home. We stopped at the Kingston Mills locks on our way out of town. I’ve spent lots of time around the northern end of the Rideau Canal, but I’ve never visited the south end. There was a really strong wind coming south across Colonel By Lake, which posed a challenge for the amateur fishers along the shore. There’s a swing bridge across the locks, and it’s equipped with a bell, striped barriers, and pair of really old traffic signals, one facing each direction. A prominent finial topped each signal head. I didn’t recognize the manufacturer. The rear of the signal had an almost parabolic curve with no embossed maker’s mark. Where I would ordinarily see a name like Eagle, GE, or Crouse-Hinds, there was nothing. One signal was painted black, but the other had long ago been redone in yellow.
I noticed a downward-facing maker’s plaque on the very bottom of the yellow signal: Northern Electric Company Limited. That’s one of the precursor companies that would go on to form the once-dominant, but now-extinct Nortel. I had no idea that Nortel had a history of dabbling in the signal business. The plaque clearly read “TRAFFIC SIGNAL HEAD R13A,” but I can’t find anything online about them. Oh, the tribulations of being a collector!