When I was a boy I became enthralled with study of the states – their nicknames, flags, statistics, etc. Along with that came an interest in license plates. I do not recall the moment I decided to collect, or even the first plate…but I do remember riding in a car on my hometown’s main street, and trying to see different plates on cars.
When I started collecting license plates, these were the two most common license base plates on the roads in my home state of California
At age 8 or 9, I acquired my first license plate and hung it up on my wall above the large window. Soon I added other plates to the wall.
The rusted 1921 California above was likely my first plate and purchased at a flea market; some of my early contributions to my collection were hung up on my bedroom wall.
In the summer of 1985, my family took a road trip to Denver to visit my aunt and uncle. We visited junkyards in both Colorado and Nevada. They were magical experiences for me, to run through tall weeds with giant grasshoppers with growling junkyard dogs behind chain link fences, plate-spotting and calling the finds out to my mom and older brother (both of whom did all the dirty work).
Early on in my collection, I obtained a large number of plates at junkyards in Nevada and Colorado
Then my mom heard about ALPCA. I sent away for a free copy of the club magazine and more information and joined the club in 1986, at the age of 11.
I received a couple of sample newsletters from 1985; the only color was on the cover and from 1986-1992 it was all black and white. As a child I didn’t understand all the information in these like I do now.
In those early years, my plates came from basically two sources: family, and other ALPCANs. Family members gave them as gifts, or had friends or acquaintances with plates. I bought additional plates from the classifieds of the club’s magazine. Some collectors contacted me simply because I was a new member, and when they found out my age sent me a free plate or two.
These plates were among those I received from ALPCA collectors via purchases, trades, or gifts.
ALPCA has multiple regions, each of which has several local meets every year. The one for my area is the Gold Rush Region. But in those days there was no Gold Rush Region. I did attend a couple of meets and got more plates there, but I hoped to attend a international convention, which occurs once per year in a U.S. city. I had “license plate dreams,” such as going to an international convention, finding a treasure chest-full of license plates underwater, and discovering a truckload of plates.
Clockwise from upper left: I blow out the candles on a custom-made license plate cake on my 10th birthday in 1985; my first ALPCA membership card; standing in front of a giant license plate at the Expo ’86 World’s Fair in Vancouver, British Columbia; montage featuring my brother & mother, father & cousin, and a elderly gentleman in Australia who gave me a plate.
It wasn’t long before license plates covered my entire room. There were jokes about all the nail holes I was putting in my walls. For a time, I designed my own license plates, rotating through all the states and displaying the product on my door.
My neighbor and childhood friend started collecting as well. His father often went on business trips, and bring back plates for his son. But he’d always give a few to me. I have a wonderful memory of him carrying a large black trash bag, and my friend and I eagerly awaiting to see which plates he’d pull out.
I did not renew my membership for 1993. I still enjoyed collecting license plates, but other concerns, I guess, put it on the back burner. Over the next dozen years I occasionally would pick up a plate at an antique store or receive one from a relative, but for the most part my collection was dormant. I had other collections, such as a Peanuts one and a circus one, which I kept active.
In 2006, the collecting bug was reignited. I guess all those years of holding back finally built up enough. By that time, I had missed a lot of cool graphic plates. I re-joined ALPCA and was disappointed to learn I had just missed an international convention in my home state of California (now that I was old enough to drive, and it was within a day’s driving distance).
In September of that year I attended a meet in Paso Robles. It was a combination meet between the NorCal and SoCal regions. I bought a lot of plates but could hardly help myself; there were so many base plates to get to bring my collection up to date, and now there were a lot of specialty plates. A small category of license plates had, in the last 12 years, grown into a large one.
All of these plates were obtained from one collector at the Paso Robles meet in 2006. It was larger than the couple of meets I had gone to as a child.
I was so enamored by the experience of that meet, there was no looking back. Since then I’ve attended at least two meets a year every year. Most importantly, in 2008 a longtime dream came true when I arrived at my first international convention. It took place in Salt Lake City; I stayed with nearby relatives and drove into the city each of the four days of the meet. It was a truly amazing sight to see so many license plates in one room. Indeed, it was just like I had dreamed!
The International Conventions have tables and tables of license plates and plate-related memorabilia
A couple of years later I visited my uncle in Southern California and went to a diner in which plates covered the wall. After chatting with the owner, I wrote an article about it which was subsequently published in PLATES, the official magazine of ALPCA. Since then I have written a number of articles for PLATES, and here are the titles of all of them:
- The Blue Plate Special (2/09)
- First Grade – The License Plate Project (10/09)
- Uncle Max and my favorite plate [a short story] (2/10)
- Weird Plate Stories (10/10)
- Paying It Forward – A boy grows up in ALPCA (10/11)
- Sideshow Stories on the road to the ALPCA convention (12/13)
- Extreme Makeovers – Specialty Plate Edition (10/14)
- Arkansas Environmentals (6/15)
- Weird Plate Stories 2 (2/16)
- Snoopy Loves Plates! California Museums Issue (8/16)
- California Specialty Plates (6/17)
Getting my first article published in PLATES was a thrill; seeing my mug on the cover was surreal; the Snoopy plate article was gratifying.
I have now been to the big annual meet seven times, and also gone to regional meets in Arizona and Rhode Island. Nowadays, I plan entire vacations around the international conventions. I now spend just a fraction of the time in the actual convention hall, preferring to use the rest to see as much as possible in the surrounding area (museums, parks, etc.). In doing so, however, I’ve refined my strategies to where I can get all that I need to out of that limited time.
The international conventions have afforded me some awesome travels. Memories include:
- Driving by buffalo, and going to an amusement park with my cousin, in Utah
- The Bowling Museum & Hall of Fame, and having perhaps the best barbecue of my life, in Texas
- Visiting an old prison, and meeting my favorite baseball player from my childhood, in West Virginia
- Matchstick Marvels museum, and meeting Danielle from the TV American Pickers, in Iowa
- Watching an old Wild West comedy show in Nevada
- The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and combing an abandoned junkyard for plates, in Missouri
- Visiting the hometown of my childhood basketball hero Larry Bird, and the Peru Amateur Circus, in Indiana
The list of fun and unique memories made as a result of ALPCA International Conventions is a deep one; above, an unforgettable restaurant in Arlington, a community college instructor’s moonlighting career, a museum to put things in perspective, and a sterling performance at an amateur circus.
That is just a very small sample of all the places and experiences I would never have enjoyed if not for ALPCA and collecting license plates.
I am so excited to watch my collection grow, meet and talk with other collectors, and plan trips around conventions. This hobby continues to enthrall me and it continues to thrive.
Left: At 10 years old, holding up a favorite junkyard find while wearing a license plate shirt for the University of California-Berkeley.
Right: Decades (!) later, taking a first place finish for a display of “Unusual Sticker Situations” at a Gold Rush Region meet.