I spent a day road-tripping during the May long weekend to tie up a couple of plate-related loose ends. I originally conceived the journey as a quick jaunt into Vermont. But after tacking on some extra stops, it turned into an 18-hour odyssey. Well, not quite an odyssey… but I hadn’t been to the US in nearly three years, so the trip felt like one.
I had a deal in place with longtime ALPCAn Corb Moister. He’s downsizing his collection, and he was holding a couple of rather high-end plates for me, which I wanted to pick up personally. Sending them by mail would mean insuring them, but an incoming package from the US to Canada with a high declared value could mean problems or tariffs at the border. When Corb and I agreed to our deal last summer, the Canada-US border was closed to land crossings, so he graciously agreed to wait until I could get down there. I finally had my chance a year onward.
My reunited pair, post-trip. The top plate came from Corb's collection... the main reason for this journey. The bottom plate came from Conrad Hughson's collection, years before, also via Corb.
I love a good road trip. It would be about five hours of driving to get to Corb’s place, and ten hours if I just grabbed the plates and returned home, staying on freeways the whole time. I’m not a member of the Extra Miler Club, but I did take some advice from their motto: “The shortest distance between two points is no fun!”
I wanted to see Corb at a reasonable mid-morning time so that he could get on with his day, and so I could have the freedom afterward to meander home at a slower pace. So I charted a more scenic return course through Vermont and across Lake Champlain. And I mapped out all the Walmarts, Home Depots and Lowe’s stores that I would pass along the way.
Why would I do that? The point of travelling through the Appalachians is certainly not to do a tour of big box stores. Well, I had a reason: I needed to stock up on some plate-restoring supplies. We in Canada are having some major supply-chain problems: For months, I hadn’t been able to buy the filler primer that I use to restore plates for my small business. In fact, I was down to my last two cans. My business would be stalled if I couldn’t find more. But a quick look online told me there was plenty in the US-of-A, and of course, it’s half the price. This would be a perfect chance to stock up. It didn’t matter if I had to pay HST on it when crossing back into Canada. It was well worth the extra effort—because really, it was that or nothing.
I woke up at 3:30 on Saturday morning after a good sleep. I was on the road by four o’clock. The highway to Montreal was pretty much empty, but it was still pretty tricky driving through the spaghetti-bowl that is the Décarie Interchange. I went over the new cable-stayed Champlain Bridge, which is really something. The old truss bridge still stands next to the new one, but it’s being dismantled.
I crossed the border into Vermont at Highgate Springs. The guard asked who I was going to see and how I knew him, but it was an easy conversation. I had a harder time switching my dashboard from metric to miles (newer car, never had to do it before). I stopped at the Walmart in St. Albans before 8 am to pick up my first load of primer, about 20 cans total. I noticed the guy in the checkout line in front of me carried a pistol in an open holster. He wasn’t an officer on duty though… just in a T-shirt and jeans, doing a grocery run with his wife and daughter. Totally legal, and well within his rights, of course. I’m just not used to seeing armed civilians.
I had to drive straight on to meet Corb on time, so I stuck to I-87. Vermont is such a pretty place that I got a pretty good view, even without leaving the freeway. The mountains there, while not snow-capped, are still a good deal higher than the most rugged northern country in Ontario. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering and labour that went into the diagonal slicing of the roads down the mountains.
Lewis House in Norwich, Vermont... Home of Gen. William Lewis, Town Clerk and Treasurer from 1846-1892. Now a museum.
I arrived at Corb’s hilltop home at about 10:30. He invited me into his new sitting room with huge windows facing the canopy below. The last time I’d seen Corb was in Valley Forge in 2018, and four years before that, Rochester. In Rochester, he was dispersing the collection of his pal and ALPCA Hall-of-Famer Conrad Hughson. It was through that dispersal that I acquired my 1912 Ontario plate #5692, which was the nicest I’d seen. Corb and Conrad had originally acquired the matching pair, and had split it between themselves. I didn’t realize that Corb owned the mate until last year. Reuniting that pair would be a definite upgrade to the 1912 pair in my run, so that was my main target.
I also acquired a four-digit 1915 Ontario passenger single. I’ve been running shorter numbers for years now. 1915 is a terrible paint year, so there aren’t a lot to find. I’ve passed up chances to take three-digit 1915 plates because of poor condition. This 1915 gives me the best of both worlds: A short(ish) number, and pretty good condition.
I took a short 1932 passenger plate (high number though) so I could compare it with the 1932s in my collection and see if it upgrades. Ditto with the 1930 plate. I had it in my head that the '30 was a dual-purpose plate, but I later realized that it was a passenger plate (X would have to be in the rightmost position to be a dual-purpose for 1930).
I also had dibs on a nice 1943 overstamped passenger plate. These were issued late in 1943, and feature H, J, K and L prefixes. Many were recycled through scrap metal drives. Most of those that survive are in rough shape, because they were used on the road through 1944. It's rare to find a '43 overstamp in nice condition. Corb acquired this one from Conrad, but there’s a story behind how Conrad came up with it. Pull up a chair:
A. K. “Stutzie” Miller was a reclusive car expert and antique collector. Born in 1906 as the only child of a wealthy New York stockbroker, he bought his first Stutz automobile as a teenager. He bought many more of them at various bankruptcy auctions over the years, for fractions of their values. When Stutz went out of business, Miller bought up all the spare parts he could. Given his propensity to tinker with his cars, it was only natural for him to study mechanical engineering in university. He was also interested in flight, but was deemed too old to enlist as an aviator in the U. S. Air Force during Word War II. He headed north of the border, and served instead in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He married in 1941 while serving with the RCAF.
After the war, Miller settled with his wife on a farm in Orange, Vermont. He was very secretive about his collection of Bearcats and autogyros. Although he came from a wealthy family, he scavenged for materials to build several makeshift outbuildings on the property to house his vehicles. He resisted the expenditure of money, and dealt heavily in gold and silver. Starting in the 1940s, he registered as an automobile dealer (Vermont dealer plate number 290). This made it cheaper to acquire and move his cars, rather than buying individual permits.
A. K. Miller in a 1914 Stutz Bearcat. Image from photo of the cover of The Stutz Stash of A. K. Miller by N. Whitman.
Word got around that Miller had some antiques and Stutz or two. He would occasionally raise money by selling or fabricating replacement Bearcat parts. However, Miller was such a recluse that the true extent of his collection was unknown, and he was notorious for his reticence to deal. Outsiders—meaning pretty much everyone—could only speculate. Enter Conrad Hughson, who learned that Miller had collected license plates since his teens.
Conrad concluded that in order to deal with A. K. Miller, he’d have to invest some time in building a relationship. It might involve a carefully-timed “chance” meeting, or an exchange of letters. And if the conversation went well, Conrad might get as far as the property gate within the next year or two. And a year or two after that, maybe he’d get as far as the front door of the house. And that's exactly what it took: Carefully-executed conversations, combined years of waiting, and unlimited tenacity.
Conrad eventually had his opportunity to acquire some interesting old things from A. K. Miller. Among the plates Conrad received was this 1943 Ontario overstamp plate. Miller was serving with the RCAF through 1943; he often ferried new aircraft from Canada to Britain. It is quite possible—though pure speculation on my part—that he may have acquired this plate during his time in Canadian service. The plate could even have been used on the Millers’ personal vehicle if their home was in Ontario during that time… Not a far-fetched hypothesis, given how many warplanes were being cranked out of the Avro factory in Malton. But I don’t have the resources to trace the assignments of WWII-era military personnel. In any case, the registration records for 1940s Ontario plates are either destroyed, or hopelessly squirrelled away in an archive.
“Stutzie” Miller inherited his family fortune upon the death of his father, but never paid any taxes, given his aversion to tax collectors and his tendency to hoard gold, silver, and cars. The Miller home became more dilapidated over time, and many locals simply assumed that they were poor and in need of charity. Mr. Miller passed away in 1993, followed by his wife in 1996. When no heirs were identified, the IRS set out to collect back taxes from the liquidation of the Millers’ property and personal effects. An inspection of the property provided some stunning discoveries: Hoarded away were 30 Stutz automobiles, a 1926 Rolls-Royce, and various other early and valuable cars. A million dollars’ worth of gold bullion was discovered hidden within wood piles and crawl spaces. Stock certificates and additional silver bullion was valued at another million dollars. Christie’s Auction House was commissioned to sell the cars and other various collectibles, which brought over $2 million in proceeds. It is a further irony that despite the Millers’ net worth, they lived an impoverished lifestyle on bare essentials only. No outsiders knew about the silver, or gold, or the cars, until the Millers were gone.
I stayed at Corb’s place for an hour or so. Aside from the Miller story, we chatted about the recent Acton swap meet, which Corb wants to try. We also talked about the first (of only two) ALPCA National meets in Canada: The 1973 event in Ottawa hosted by the late Jeff Berman. That was the first National meet that Corb ever attended. Corb joined the club in 1968 as a kid bound for college, but he wasn’t able to make the journey to an ALPCA National until five years later. Just as I was leaving, Corb admired the non-reflective blue Ontario plates on my car. We got to talking about ordering custom plates. I mentioned that if an Ontario motorist likes their next-from-box number, the only way to re-order it is to convert it to a personalized number at a cost of $310… but in Vermont, you can just have your number remade for a mere $25.
I headed away from Corb’s place and ventured into the commercial heart of the area, which happens to be just across the river in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. I cleaned out the Walmart and Home Depot stores of their filler primer. This was as far east as I could go, while keeping my trip within a single day. I suppose I should give sightseeing a try in New Hampshire, but today would be all about Vermont.
My only photo in New Hampshire. I'll give it a fair chance another time.
The Quechee Gorge Bridge, which doesn't seem remarkable until you're on it.
I headed west back into the Green Mountain State along US Route 4, which would be a particularly rewarding drive. I was winding along the forest-shrouded road when I encountered a short bridge along a bend. I didn’t think anything of it until I looked to one side and noticed a sheer drop that could have been 200 feet. I looked to the other side and saw the same thing. I was compelled to check it out, and luckily, there was a turn-out where I could park.
I learned that the bridge is Vermont’s oldest surviving steel arch span. It originally served as a railroad bridge when it was built in 1911, and it was converted for automobile use in 1933. It has sidewalks on both sides, which allow for great views of the Quechee Gorge. It’s a very narrow channel, cut by the Ottauquechee River, which is over 150 feet below. Looking up and down the gorge was almost like looking down a giant corridor. There’s a hiking trail that runs alongside the gorge. I would have loved to explore it, but I didn't have the time. I’ll have to come back.
I started the car and continued along the road, but I was soon distracted by another roadside attraction: A covered bridge. It almost looked like a shed fronting on the highway. But it was really an intersection where you could turn left and drive ino the “shed”… and then over the same river that carved the gorge that I’d just seen. There was no historical plaque or commemorative signage. Ontario has only one surviving covered bridge, and it’s important enough to get its own plaque and specialized rehab work. But why not here? I looked it up, and found that this “long shed over a river” is the Lincoln Covered Bridge… one of over a hundred such bridges in the state of Vermont alone. Not a big deal here, apparently. I crossed it, took a picture, crossed back, and resumed my way down Route 4.
The rear side of the Lincoln Covered Bridge, with US Route 4 in the background.
Not long after, I was approaching the town of Bridgewater when I came upon a tourist trap that was custom-made for me: the Hillbilly Recycling Retail Store. I had already passed by a couple of antique places, but I didn’t want to blow a half-hour looking at wooden furniture or figurines, but not finding any plates. But this place…? Well, look at it:
So, of course I was going to stop. I photographed the old signs and plates on the outside wall. The front door was propped open, so I went inside. It didn’t take long to find the plates. They were all from Vermont, and I needed a souvenir. I flipped through and found a couple of personalized plates… I had seen many on my travels here, and given Corb’s remarks about how cheap they are to get, I wasn’t surprised to find some in this shop. This trip was turning out to be a great deal of fun, so that made my choice of souvenirs easy.
The hard part was finding someone to settle up. The price wasn’t labeled, and I couldn’t find anyone. There was a little window where the proprietor would ordinarily sit, but the chair was empty. I rang the service bell, but no one came. I found a screen door to a private room, and called into it. Nothing. But then I could hear a creaking from the low ceiling. Someone was clearly upstairs. Maybe they heard me calling? They didn’t seem to be heading toward any stairs, so I knocked on the ceiling. Still nothing.
I was about to write a note and leave a $5 bill, when a couple of younger women came into the shop. I assumed they were customers. One of them smiled right at me and said hello.
“I heard you knocking from upstairs,” she said with a sheepish smile.
“Oh, so you’re the one who takes the money?” I said. It turned out the plate was five dollars after all. It seemed that she was upstairs having a nap, or a drink, or a joint, or something else. Whatever was going on wasn’t just a pee break. But anyway, I got my plate.
The Vermontariodyssey was great fun.
I drove over more small mountains before stopping in Rutland, home of the Vermont State Fair. I stopped in the local Home Depot and Walmart stores and stocked up on even more spray primer. The hills were a little more gentle along Route 4 west of the town, and instead of forests and ski hills, I saw grassy fields and barns. Route 4 turned into a freeway, which was a nice change from earlier. It was a pretty drive from Quechee to Rutland, but all the blind curves had been keeping me on my toes. It was about three o'clock, which meant I’d been awake for nearly twelve hours. I realized that I hadn’t eaten in six hours, so I grabbed a McBurger and a caffeinated beverage.
Mountains give way to farmland in western Vermont.
The next leg of my journey would take me north on state highway 22A through more farm country. I stopped at a small picnic area to snap a picture of the flat fields around me… A far cry from the mountains and gorges. I would eventually take a bridge over Lake Champlain and into New York state. From there, I’d be driving through cottage country on the western shore of the lake. I was very close to Ticonderoga, which is where the original Star Trek Set Tour is based. I went there with a fellow sci-fi nerd a few years ago. It was surprisingly well done, and I was very tempted to make another detour to revisit the place, but there was no time. I just headed north on NY state highway 9N. The N doesn’t stand for “north,” even though I was heading in that direction. It’s some antiquated numbering scheme that somehow survives to present day.
Out for a leg-stretch, not far from Lake Champlain and the state of New York, visible in the distance in the right photo.
The highway twisted in tandem with the Champlain shoreline, with lots of blind crests and corners, even through the towns. Off in the northwest distance, I could see a dark wall of clouds with an obvious torrent of rain under it… Probably the same storm that my wife said was going to be passing through Ottawa, with possible hail and tornadoes (more on that later). The clouds eventually hid the sun from me. I passed through Westport, toward I-87, with the sky growing darker and darker.
The oncoming storm in upstate New York. This would be the last of the sunshine for a while.
The rain and hail hit me while I was on the Interstate. It was falling too quickly for me to see how large the hailstones were. The storm sounded like a hundred kids in the car with me, all popping bubble-wrap as quickly as possible. Just when I was about to pull over to the shoulder, the hail subsided, leaving just the rain, which although heavy, was driveable. But even that didn’t last more than five minutes... then I was out of it. It cleaned a lot of the bugs off the car, which was nice.
Rain and hail from the dash cam at about 4:30. Unbeknownst to me, Ottawa was being pelted at this time.
By the time I reached Plattsburgh, it was evening… just gone six o’clock. I had one more spray primer stop to make. I’d spent most of the past 15 hours driving, but I was feeling OK. The caffeine was helping. The quickest way home would be to follow I-87 to the border and then use the freeways to go home. But I’d bought about a zillion cans of spray primer, and I was planning to declare it to customs. If I crossed into Quebec, I’d be taxed at a higher HST rate than if I crossed into Ontario. So I stuck to the two-lane highways, and I re-entered Canada at Cornwall.
Time for more shopping.
I had the ArriveCan app on my phone, with my account created and my passport all scanned in, but I didn’t think I had to launch a session for a mere single-day trip. The verbiage I had read online was confusing. The officer at the customs booth informed me otherwise. She was super-nice about it, but it meant that I’d have to talk to an officer inside and wait for the app to grant an entry code so I could be released. I mentioned that I’d done some shopping to the tune of a couple hundred or more dollars, but the ArriveCan situation was the only problem that they wanted to solve.
The bridge to Canada, south of Cornwall, Ontario.
The officer in the station was good about it and coached me through the session. He said that technically there’s a fine now for attempting to enter without using the app to get a code, but the rules had changed and not everyone was aware. This would be my one freebie. So as a public service announcement, I’ll just say to you: Any Canadian returning from the US, even just to buy milk, has to have an ArriveCan account, with a scanned passport, and has to apply for a return code prior to re-entering Canada. Which means you should park somewhere before you cross the border and enter your re-entry particulars. I’d planned on doing that while waiting in a long line for the customs booth, but the lanes were empty… I was the only one there.
I inquired about the rain storm while we were waiting for the code to be granted by the system. The officer said that Cornwall had some heavy rain, but nothing too special. But he’d heard that Ottawa had trees down and power out all over the city. I wondered how my house was. I had managed to avoid paying taxes on my cross-border shopping… How far would my luck go?
Lights off through downtown Ottawa.
My code came through, and I was allowed to leave. I called my wife, now that I had my cell service back. There were trees down, but our house was OK, and our neighbourhood was one of the relative few that never lost power. It was dark by the time I reached the outskirts of Ottawa, and I could see there were trees down along the side of the highway. I could even smell freshly-cut wood as I drove past at full speed. Lots of lights were still out, and there were emergency crews here and there. But my family was safe, my home was undamaged, and I was coming home with good plates and a whack of primer that I desperately needed after a long day out. I didn't win the lottery. Or did I?
Here are some pics of the commercial strip about a mile from my house. There were no tornadoes, just very high winds. Power still out, with crews and police stretched fairly thin. Click to enlarge.
Here's some further reading about A. K. Miller: