In this busy hobby of plate-collecting, many of us can easily name a mentor or two: A more experienced collector who offered their time and expertise. Someone who inspired your collecting interests. Someone who may have given you a generous supply of plates to get started. Someone who welcomed you, and was always pleased to reconnect later on.
For me, two people come to mind when I think of the word “mentor.” There’s Joey Koldys from Ohio, who was the first plate collector I ever met. He introduced me to ALPCA in 1995. Joey is a great guy, and I’ve written about him several times in this column. But today’s installment isn’t about Joey… it’s about my other mentor.
The story starts in the small Ontario city of Sault Ste. Marie. I developed my liking for plates there. I’d have to go to local dumps to find them. Either I’d tag along with my dad on an errand, or I’d strike out on my bicycle. Dad had a really detailed topographical map of the city and area. It showed the location of several abandoned dump sites. There was even a “cart path” that had hollow squares on it, indicating “vehicle wrecks,” according to the map legend. Many times through my teens, I rode my bike up to these places. Sometimes I’d bring a friend who was up for the trip.
One day in high school, a yellow bus brought my class to the highlands for an orienteering field trip (kind of like geocaching, but with map and compass only). I noticed that our course would pass close to the “vehicle wrecks” that I remembered from dad’s map. So I talked my hiking buddy into taking a detour up the road. Sure enough, a glimmer of glass and chrome winked from the bushes. It was some mid-fifties sedan with a badly-rusted 1963 plate. I stuffed it in my bag. This was how my collecting was done. By the time I was finished high school, I’d collected maybe forty plates through the previous ten years.
I discovered ALPCA a couple of years later. Several letters arrived in the postbox to welcome me into the club. One of those letters stood out from the rest: It was from Ernie Wilson, member 361, of —surprise, surprise— Sault Ste. Marie. Ernie was a former ALPCA President, and had been collecting plates avidly for decades. He lived in the same end of the city where I had, but I never knew he was there. Ernie gave me a standing invitation to come by anytime.
Ernie’s first love was cars. By association, he began to notice the annual plates with their various colours and designs. He began to save plates as opportunity knocked through his younger years. He collected from friends and relatives, and he saved his own plates once he had a car. They were easy to find in those days, given that they were annual cast-offs. By the 1950s, Ernie had begun to collect them from the local wrecking yards. He was enamoured with the colourful plates of neighbouring Michigan, and would sometimes take the ferry across the St. Marys River to go looking at American plates and cars.
Ernie in 1962. In his first year as an ALPCAn, he upgraded some plates in his Ontario run, and acquired this 1944 trailer plate.
Ernie had casually collected about a hundred plates by the age of forty. But suddenly, the collecting bug bit him, and never let go. He was on vacation in early 1961 when he came upon a complete run of Indiana plates going back to 1913. Something about those plates sparked his interest. He acquired them and brought them home. He started collecting plates with a renewed vigor, wherever he could find them. In those days, the best methods were to visit the local auto wrecking yards, or check in with the local licence bureau to acquire turn-ins and unissued surplus.
Ernie’s true epiphany came during another trip later that year. Ernie found some old plates in a shop window, and he discovered ALPCA at the same time. He joined the fledgling club as member 361. He was one of only a handful of Canadian members. His name was first published in an appendix to the February 1962 Newsletter mailing, although he had already gotten in touch with other ALPCA members prior to then.
Roughly a year after joining the club, Ernie got in touch with a reporter from the local daily newspaper to do a piece about his growing pastime. ALPCA members at large were keen to spread awareness of the hobby to attract new collectors. Ernie wanted to do his part. The article was published in August of 1962. It featured a big picture of Ernie holding the oldest of the Indiana plates that he found the previous year. “The members swap back and forth by mail,” Ernie said at the time. “Now I have 1050 plates in my collection.”
Ernie didn’t spend much time talking about himself in this article. He focused instead on providing interesting notes about plates in general. He discussed the various methods of manufacture in Ontario, and also covered some other jurisdictions. He mentioned the county-coding used by many US states, and discussed the issuance of amateur radio operator plates. This would be notable for a local reader, because Ontario didn’t issue ham radio plates; nor would it another fifteen years.
Composite image of Ernie's newspaper article from 1962. Click to enlarge.
Another newspaper article came three years later. It included another portrait of a smiling Ernie, surrounded by plates in the basement. By this time, Ernie had travelled to visit other collectors and had hosted some collector guests himself. He had assembled some wooden mounting boards to display the cream of his Ontario passenger run (visible in the picture below). The background of the image reveals Ernie’s low-numbered 7-12 Wyoming plates; his collection had grown to over seven thousand. ALPCA had recruited 630 members by that point. There were still very few Canadian collectors who had joined the scene. Ontario was in second place with three members. BC was in the lead with six.
The 1965 article revealed that Ernie had been elected to the ALPCA Board of Directors (he would go on to serve a term as President in 1967-68). His oldest Ontario plate was a 1916 wire-rimmed tin. As for the oldest plates in his collection? It was a tie between Michigan and New York for 1910.
Composite image of Ernie's second newspaper article in 1965. Click to enlarge.
Ernie kept chugging along with his collection. His enthusiasm for plates meant that he was always busy. He was featured once again in the local daily paper, in the fall of 1982. At this time, the newspaper featured a weekend supplement called “Starlight,” which included the funnies and human-interest articles. It was my weekly ritual to grab the Saturday paper and read through the funnies. They were nested within the Starlight section, so there’s no way I could possibly have missed Ernie’s picture. But I was just eight years old, and I wasn’t yet interested in plates. At least, not enough to collect them. That wouldn’t happen for a couple of years. I have no memory of seeing Ernie’s article at the time.
Several pictures of Ernie’s basement collection accompanied the Starlight featurette: Walls lined floor-to-ceiling with plates, with dozens of boxes arranged on the floor in each picture. His 7-12 Wyoming run still hung on the exact same nails as it had in 1965. Ernie’s collection had grown by a factor of almost ten since then: Fifty thousand is the number quoted; all within the confines of his little east-end bungalow. Ernie’s collection wasn’t in disarray, though. He had charts and lists to show which plates he had, which he needed, and where they could be found in the house. He loved driving across the southern US and collecting plates, wherever he could find them.
Composite image of Ernie's third newspaper article from 1982. Click to enlarge.
By the time we met in 1995, Ernie had retired from his job at the local paper mill. He had mostly retired from his regular road trips to find plates as well. However, he was still actively corresponding and trading with other collectors. I arrived home from university and gave him a call. His voice was somewhat gruff and abrupt over the phone, but I could tell that he was glad that I called after he had reached out weeks earlier with his letter. I made arrangements to head over after dinner.
My pictures of Ernie's basement collection in December 1995. Click to enlarge.
It was a wonderful and eye-opening visit. Ernie was genuinely pleased to show his collection and answer my various questions about plates and collecting. I saw many aspects of Ontario plaquology for the first time: Older square motorcycle plates, low-numbered passenger plates, wire-rimmed tin plates from the 19-teens, and quarterly truck plates going back to the mid sixties. My mind was going a mile a minute as I tried to absorb it all. I chronicled this visit years ago in another 2Cents column, so I won’t re-tell the whole experience here. The saying “Where’ve you been all my life?” sums it up pretty well. Ernie knew I was just getting started, and he fixed me up with a big box of plates that I could either keep or trade. He gave it to me for a pittance.
I went to see Ernie whenever I was able over the following few years… Probably a half-dozen times in all. He’d typically make tea or instant coffee and I’d listen to his stories. I couldn’t get back to town very often, because I was either studying or working many hundreds of miles away. We kept in touch by mail. In 2001, I appeared in the ALPCA magazine with a little display of Ontario plates with almost-repeating numbers that I called “Close But No Cigar.” Ernie got a kick out of that, and sent me a Sault-issued 1963 passenger plate, number K-77776.
I hadn’t been able to visit Ernie over the previous couple of years, so I stayed in town for a longer time that Christmas, and made a point of visiting. He was slowing down, but still bright-eyed when it came to talking about plates. He had been flipping through a box of old photos on the kitchen table. Ernie had made many reprints over the years to enclose in his letters, and he gave a few of them to me that day. He had his collection charts at the table also: State names handwritten, grids drawn with ruled lines, with an X for every plate that he had collected. Ernie particularly enjoyed Mississippi plates, and had been trying to assemble county runs for each year. He was also looking to collect plates from the current year from each province and state. Given that I was visiting him at the year’s end, he had them all arranged on the carpet in the living room. He was only missing a couple. For a guy who was slowing down, he certainly had a lot of irons in the fire!
I knew I would be back in March, so I told Ernie that I’d pop by again. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance. Ernie passed away at home on February 26, 2002. He was found seated on his couch, with a licence plate magazine, looking like he had simply dozed off. His remains were interred at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery near Gordon Lake in Johnson Township, Ontario. Ernie’s headstone is engraved with a likeness of a modern-day Ontario plate. The number? 361, of course… a tribute to his ALPCA membership.
When any prominent collector departs from this dimension, questions inevitably arise about the collection. Ernie’s surviving family members shopped his plates around. I was approached at one point, as apparently Ernie had spoken highly of me as a young collector, new to the hobby. I wasn’t expecting any freebies. I made a four-figure offer for Ernie’s run of passenger plates, which would stretch me pretty far. My offer had been accepted, but in the end, someone in the background changed their mind, and I didn’t get them. I heard they went to an anonymous local person. To my knowledge, these plates have not been seen since. I still have the pictures.
Composite image of Ernie's passenger run as they appeared when I tried to buy them.
Take a look in the old black-and-white photos: Can you spot some of these?
Ernie made a habit, in his decades as a collector, of labelling the rear side of his plates with the number 361, and the name of the person or wrecking yard from which it was acquired. Many of them were swapped to other collectors. Every so often, I’ll flip a plate over at a swap meet or flea market, and see his unmistakable handwriting. I’ve discovered and saved quite a few of Ernie’s plates over the past twenty years. Who knows… there may be enough time in this realm for me to find his passenger run.
It’s been twenty years since Ernie passed. Many of the collectors he knew well have also passed on. These folks were the pioneers of our hobby. Money rarely changed hands. Nostalgia, at that time, consisted of relics from the turn of the century, or perhaps the depression. Licence plates were a contemporary collectible then, like Pogs in the 1990s, or maybe NFTs today. But the passing decades have generated the all-important nostalgia factor, where people like me—or you—want to relive our younger years. Nowadays, nostalgia is a multi-billion dollar industry. With all the emphasis on buying and selling, I fear that we may be losing something. I have to wonder what Ernie would think about that if he were alive today. I’m not so sure it’s a problem, per se; it may simply be evolution. In any case, Ernie had a major hand in getting me started in the plate-collecting hobby, and I will always remember him for it. So, pour a pint and raise your glass to the pioneers. Here’s to our mentors!
My favourite photo of Ernie. Possibly taken during the shoot for his 1982 newspaper article.