Some years are great for collecting plates. For me, 2018 was a bonanza. But other years can be a bust. Collecting plates isn't a competition, and keeping up with the Joneses isn't really what it's about. But slow years like 2020 can be a bummer.
All the events I would have gone to—Lindsay, Barrie, Bonfield—had been cancelled. In these COVID times, I have to be careful for the sake of my family members. So even as certain smaller events have gone forward, like the impromptu gathering in Vineland, I’m far enough away that I’d have to spend the night in a hotel, which I can’t do presently. So collecting has been a bit slow as a result, but it’s not worth the risk.
I did manage to add to my collection this week, as a sort of three-way trade deal. A gentleman I know, Ed from Muskoka, had a batch of older Ontario plates to sell. He was in need of some plates for his own collection, particularly Ontario tins from 1912-15. I’ve had those in my trade stock before, but not presently. So I contacted a few pals in the hobby to see what they had.
Fellow collector John Hayes lives in my neck of the woods, and had a 1914 single that would do nicely for Ed’s collection. Ed was also looking for a few examples of general Canadian plates, and I knew I could cobble a few together. Ed proposed that we arrange a deal and meet halfway to make the exchange. It was a fairly straight-forward plan… I would leave Ottawa and meet up with John in Arnprior around nine in the morning, pick up what he had available, and then meet Ed partway down Highway 60 at eleven o’clock to make the larger deal happen. Then, I’d have the rest of the day to explore. I sold my son Greg on coming with me so that we could go ghost-town hunting. He was game.
We got up early on a sunny, cool morning, and arrived in Arnprior on time. John works in an auto restoration shop there, and he had the garage door open with a cool display of motorcycle plates on the wall. They didn’t actually belong to John, who keeps his fine collection at home. These plates on the shop wall belonged to John’s boss, who isn’t a fanatical collector, but likes bikes, and has pulled together a few dozen plates over the years.
I asked John to bring any extra out-of-province odds and sods, because if Ed was driving halfway to meet me, I wanted to have more for him to choose. I picked out a few, like a ‘72 Quebec, an ‘80 Nova Scotia, a BC with the flag, and a pitcher-plant Newfoundland, which I knew Ed would like. Nothing huge, but just wall-hangers for a plate enthusiast. The big prize for Ed would be the 1914, which is one of the easier tins to find… just something about the paint made '14 more robust than its 1913 and 1915 siblings.
John drives a 1960 El Camino, a frame-off restoration, with a set of YOM plates supplied by yours truly. I’ve seen the vehicle at a couple of car shows, but John himself was never in eyesight. So I asked John to pose next to the car, for a complete shot of the vehicle and its proud owner.
With my first stop complete, Greg and I got into the car and headed down the highway for the town of Renfrew. It’s a neat place, and fairly close to home, but I always seem to be there because I’m coming or going from someplace else. I keep telling myself to make a day trip there. Renfrew marks the eastern terminus of Highway 60, which meanders westward through Algonquin Park and ends in Huntsville at the Highway 11 junction. We followed Highway 60 through Douglas, Eganville, and Golden Lake (all of which are day-trip-worthy) before landing in Killaloe, next to the OPP station.
Ed was there waiting for us, mask on, having just arrived. Greg and I put on our masks, too. I opened up my trunk and displayed for Ed the 1914 Ontario tin, plus the various Canadian plates that I could bring. Ed was happy with them, and brought me over to his car for a look at the Ontario plates he’d brought. He’s not a user of email, so I hadn’t seen pictures. But we had spoken over the phone about them quite a bit, and I had a pretty good idea of what I might expect: Restorable Ontario pairs, with a few that were clean as-is, and some additional singles, totalling about 120 plates. We agreed on some values, and I forked over the remaining cash to call things square. As much as I wanted to lay them all out and gaze at them, I promised my son we’d go exploring, so any further plategeekery would have to wait for home.
We wished Ed a pleasant drive back, and headed south through Killaloe (home of the BeaverTail, a delicious wintertime rite-of-passage when skating on the Rideau Canal). I had made up a map of some ghost towns along the Opeongo road, and my son is fascinated with bygone relics from the pioneer and industrial eras.
The towns along present day Highway 60 were built along the Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway by John Radolphus Booth (the namesake behind Booth Street in Ottawa). Each had a station along the rail line, so even though the territory was remote and the land sub-par for farming, the towns grew in size and largely survive to present day. Those towns were more fortunate than those along the eastern end of Opeongo Colonization Road, which was built during the decade before Confederation. There was no railway line there to offset the hardship of clearing and farming land in rugged territory, even though much of that land was granted for free to settlers. Booth’s rail line was a few dozen miles to the north. Rather than expand to the south to serve the rail-less towns in this region, the rail line was extended west to Parry Sound. That spelled the end for several of these towns, which didn’t survive.
Speaking of dead end towns, I spotted this old sign along the way. It looks to have been painted atop an already-reflective yellow warning diamond. The yellow portions were painted over with still more yellow paint, which is not reflective and has faded over the decades. The black portions are faded as well, but ironically, they're reflective, as they reveal the original colour of the warning diamond before it was painted!
Before doing the ghost town route, we stopped near Quadeville to try and find Al Capone’s old cabin. Capone had the hideout built around 1942 into the side of a hill. It’s built of logs, which were never paid for. (The story goes that the lumber supplier went down to the US to ask Capone’s gang for payment. He was told to turn around and go home, or face the consequences… so he went home.) The cabin has several rooms and features a stone-faced fireplace. Apparently, Capone had trap doors installed, leading to escape tunnels excavated beneath the hill. Capone himself is believed to have stayed in the cabin sometime between 1943 and 1946. By this time, he had lost some of his mental capacity due to his infection with syphilis, and there are local stories of an important, sickly-looking man who was referred to as “Uncle Al” to local children. Sightings of suited men in large cars were common. Capone died in Florida in 1947, and by the looks of the cabin, it hasn’t been occupied since, aside from party-goers. We did find the cabin. It was boarded up at one point, but the barriers have been pulled away. I heard the floor is rotting out, so we decided to play it safe and just peek through the glassless window frames. Best not to suffer a broken ankle in an abandoned cabin with no cell signal!
We took the Opeongo Road west toward home and stopped in Foymount, which I visited ten years before. It’s partly abandoned, but not because of pioneers being left in a lurch. Foymount is the highest-elevation settlement in Ontario, making it an ideal location for the Canadian Forces Station that operated as a radar facility from 1952 to 1974. It was one of the NORAD-organized stations along the Pinetree Line (not to be confused with the later DEW Line), intended to detect incoming Soviet bombers. Many buildings have been demolished, but some storage buildings, garages, and abandoned military apartment houses still remain.
My son loves to explore, and he spotted a cluster of derelict cars and trucks up a hill. There were no signs to tell us to keep out, but as we were wandering, the scrubby bushes abutted a neatly-mowed lawn, where there were a couple more vehicles. Down the hill in another direction sat a house, so obviously, we were on private property. The vehicles had plates, but clearly this wasn’t a finders-keepers scenario. It wasn’t a hard decision to make… there were just a couple of regular passenger and truck plates. We spotted a school bus up there, but it didn’t have bus plates. We took only pictures and left only footprints.
We passed by the vestiges of a couple of ghost towns, but each abandoned store seemed to have a well-kept house directly beside it, or a guy fixing something nearby. I didn’t want to be a nuisance to anyone, so we didn’t get out to explore anything unless it was obviously abandoned: Meaning, no mowed grass and no occupied buildings nearby. Our best chance to explore was the super-abandoned settlement of Newfoundout.
Newfoundout is a few miles into the backwoods off the Opeongo Road. It’s easily accessible with a regular car, but the dirt road is mostly single-lane, and I wouldn’t trust the tires to keep much grip in muddy conditions. Apparently, the town was located atop a steep hill because the land was said to be arable, although the children had to walk the entire road to the bottom of the hill to attend school. At its peak, there were a dozen or so families, eaking out an agrarian living, but the land was poor, and by the 1890s, families were cutting their losses and leaving. Newfoundout’s population dwindled to zero by the 1940s. The forested road into the area is lined with century-old log fences and stone walls. The big payoff begins a few miles up the road, where two log barns are partially standing, with the remains of early motorized tractors rusting silently in the field. We moved further up the road (taking a left turn when we came to a tee), and we encountered a tin-roofed barn, fully intact. The main door was shut with a contemporary lock. A laughable sign on the wall advised us that we were on camera. Of course we weren’t: There was no source of electricity here, no sign of maintenance, and not even a cell signal to send a camera image anywhere. I spotted a rusty car at the bottom of a nearby ravine, party hidden by the trees. We made our way down the slope to check it out.
These days, when I find a derelict car, it’s something from the 1980s or 90s with fibreglass bumpers that would still have been on the road when I was a college kid. Even when I was Greg’s age, the derelict cars I’d see were maybe as old as 1960. But this was a real find… a 1952 Chevrolet Styleline 2-door sedan. All the fenders were still there, the hood and trunk were still hinged, and the straight-six engine was all in one piece (no doubt seized hopelessly). The tail lights and rear badging were still intact. The remnants of the dealership sticker were still there, but I couldn’t read the name. Of course, I checked the plate mounts, and there were no traces of the plates that once adorned this vehicle, so there was no way to tell how long it had been there. I had acquired a rusty set of 1959 plates from Ed earlier in the day, and I briefly considered leaving them with the car as a prize for someone else to find. But the day was getting on, and we had to get moving on home.
It’s been a long time since I’ve driven home from someplace with the familiar rattle of plates in the trunk. They shook continually along the road away from Newfoundout. As much as I wanted to take more time, we’d passed through Rockingham, Letterkenny, Vanbrugh and Clontarf, and there was no more time to take, so we headed for home.
Of course, I hadn’t yet had a chance to go over my plate purchase with a fine-tooth comb. I waited until after dinner before pulling them out of their boxes and posing them for photos on the garage floor. For a plate geek, this is heaven. I started doing this ritual a few years ago, just taking pictures privately, and sitting among the plates, wondering which I’ll keep for my collection, which will shine up to become traders, which can be restored, and which can be sold in bulk for crafts (or people who really, really want to spend time on lost causes).
I wasn’t expecting to make any big plate-gathering trips in the year 2020, and I’m lucky I was able to make one safely and close to home. I’m not sure when this will happen again. I suppose the lesson here is not to “get used” to bringing collectibles home. If it happens, enjoy it, but don’t get down in the dumps if 2020 and 2021 are dry years.