License plate collector has piece of history in tags

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NEW WATERFORD, Ohio – Three trucks are parked in the driveway, pelted with freezing rain, instead of being stored inside.

Garden tools don’t hang from the two-car garage walls. Only a bicycle and lawn mower are parked inside. But the garage is by no means empty.

Tacked to the ceiling – and hanging in columns from the rafters, connected by chain links – and covering the overhead door and nearly all the wall space is just a sample of a monstrous license plate collection that Bruce Bott has amassed.

More boxes packed full – some never completely gone through – are stacked along two other walls in his New Waterford home, holding his treasure of an estimated 10,000-plus plates from 1904 to today.

Getting started. Bott’s collecting hobby began in 1972 with help from his sister.

She’d bought a house at public auction and found plates dating back to the 1910s nailed to the garage beams.

She gave him the plates, which he added to the pile of plates he’d just begun saving from his own vehicles, and his collection began.

He has expanded his collection by networking with others at the Auto License Plate Collectors Association annual international meeting. At the same time, Bott has become a bit of a historian.

Hard to find. Bott can tell a lot about a time period by looking at the metal tags in his collection.

License plates were issued one per car during World War I, he said.

During World War II, in 1942 a pair were issued, and in 1943 no plates were made so resources could be used for the war.

That year, car owners’ licenses were extended with a window decal.

To help war efforts, Louisiana made its 1944 plate from bag grass and Wyoming’s was made from fiber board.

From 1943 to 1948, Illinois used soybean fiberboard.

“But the story goes that all the goats used to eat the license plates right off the cars,” Bott said.

In 1947, pairs were issued again, but it wouldn’t last long. The Korean Conflict led to windshield decals in 1952, and only one plate was issued in 1953.

Hammered out. Bott also knows a little Ohio history by looking at his collection. To his trained eye, he can detect differences in materials and paint on plates from the late 1960s.

Those differences, he said, are a result of Ohio’s plates being farmed out to New York, Nebraska, Arkansas and other states after the Lebanon penal institution burned in the fall of 1966.

The penitentiary had made a majority of the state’s plates.

“Each state made those plates a little different. Some plates are really rare, especially the ones that were farmed out to Arkansas to complete the 1966 year,” he said.

The production cutbacks from conflict periods have made those plates even more valuable, and Bott has a number of them in his collection.

Numbering system. Plates were painted or stamped with the year of issue up until 1974, Bott said, perhaps to cut back on work.

The move led to today’s system of renewing plates by affixing a year-numbered sticker on a lowered square on the plate, called a ‘navel’ in license plate circles.

Early plates were made of porcelain and later changed to enamel. In 1918, letters went from flat paint to embossed metal. In 1948, plates were made of waffled aluminum and steel.

Today’s plates are made from the waffled aluminum, said Bott, who prefers to limit the number of newer plates in his collection.

“The new ones are so easy to come by. But a lot of them are nice to look at,” he said.

Driver’s hometown. Early plates could tell a lot about the vehicle, its owner, or where the car was registered.

It was in 1953, in honor of Ohio’s sesquicentennial, that small towns and villages began issuing their own personal plates for use on the vehicle’s front.

Tiny Columbiana County towns of Leetonia and Wellsville had their own, as did Bellaire in Belmont County; South Charleston in Clark County, and Kenton in Hardin County, among others.

Some plates had stars at the left, used to denote how many tons the vehicle weighed. Following that, a letter could tell passers-by if a truck had solid or cushioned tires.

Split letters – one each at the left and right of the plate – were used to designate where the car was registered.

Letters at the left on the plate indicated it was from the Cleveland area; at the right, the Cincinnati area. One letter only on the plate indicated the car was registered in the Columbus or Toledo area, Bott said.

Adding to the personalization were plates for ham radio enthusiasts, livestock dealers, government officials and doctors.

“You could really tell a lot about who was driving the car just by looking at the plate. Imagine if they did that today,” Bott joked.

Special collection. In addition to automobile plates, Bott also collects licenses from bicycles, motorcycles and sidecars and boats.

He can decipher the alphabet soup of letters painted on the tags, like MR, SL and MWCD: motor boats, sail boats, and a plate issued specifically to boats in the four-county area of the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, he said.

Other plates in the collection include those issued for public-use motorbikes, mopeds, and all-terrain vehicles.

The motorcycle plates are extremely hard to come by, Bott said, because after a year of use they were ripped, rusted and usually thrown away.

Ford’s Model T invention in the ’20s also cut back on the number of motorcycles registered, thus cutting back on the number of plates available for collections.

Prized value. Bruce Bott has never had personalized plates. The closest he came was a plate that sported his initials on a 1968 Ford, but those plates were long gone by the time Bott started collecting.

“I kind of kick myself for that, but at the time I never knew I’d be collecting,” he said.

“I’ve got things here today worth scrap all the way up to high value,” the modest Bott said.

Two of his most prized plates are a 1935 state highway patrol plate, dubbed “the only one he’s ever seen” in his travels, and a plate from an impeached Columbiana County sheriff.

Among the more interesting plates in Bott’s collection include a 1985 “family plate.”

Designed to serve as an embarrassment and also called a “drunk plate,” the bright yellow metal tags were issued to drunken driving offenders. The plates are still issued today, Bott said, but they’re hard to come by.

Of interest. Other plates in his collection feature presidents, senators, Congressional medal of honor recipients, electric cars and dealers. Another plate was painted on the indented side instead of the front.

Still another section of Bott’s display features plates for tractors, school buses and parade cars; copper Arizona plates and brass Maine plates; and decorative plates.

Another prized part of the collection is a run from 1924 to the present, all featuring the same number.

The run had been reserved for a dealership family and Bott purchased it.

Bott also has some paperwork and registrations for license plates in his collection, upping both the collectible and personal value they hold.

Hobby help. The car restoration hobby has helped license plate collectors along, too.

Because of year of manufacture laws, car owners who restore an old model can purchase and use plates from that year for road use, Bott said.

“That’s why prices have escalated so much. People want those plates on that car,” he said.

Bott maintains and adds to his collection by specializing in certain topics, and recommends the same for other collectors.

“You can get into sample plates, plates with birds, lighthouses, ones with your initials, anything,” he said.

His latest task is to collect a license plate from each state bearing the year 1939, his birth year.

Keep on adding. Bott’s favorite places to make additions to his collection are flea markets at Rogers and Hartville, as well as smaller meets of the collectors’ association.

“I take time to drive to a flea market and then don’t find exactly what I had in mind. But I usually end up buying something anyhow, just to make the trip worthwhile,” he said.

He also searches the eBay auction Web site, which he claims to check nearly every day.

“You never know what you’ll find on there. But you’ve got to be careful what you’re buying,” he warned.

“I really have to try to limit myself,” he said. “There’s stuff I’d like to have that I can’t have.”

For more information on collecting license plates, contact Bott at 330-482-3616.

Additional information is available on the collectors’ association, 7365 Main St., #214, Stratford, CT 06614-1300, or its Web site at www.alpca.org.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)


Related story

So you want to start collecting?

NEW WATERFORD, Ohio – Veteran license plate collector Bruce Bott offers the following tips and hints for other collectors.

Examine. Fooled himself by a counterfeit plate, Bott warns beginning collectors to examine the plates they’re buying.

While a large number of association members and collectors know of a fake plate maker, it’s still hard to tell them from the real deal, he said.

“He uses the same gauge metal, the same paint, and acid washes them to make them look a little rusty.”

The only difference is the depth of the letters stamped into some of the tags, he said, but “you’d never know.”

Clean. Before hanging new additions to his garage collection, Bott scrubs each with WD-40 and a toothbrush. The lubricant gives the plates a sheen and helps prevent rust, he said.

Bott also wraps most plates in plastic sleeves before displaying them to protect the finish.

Control. Exercise control.

“Try to hold yourself down and don’t go crazy,” Bott said. “There are enough plates out there for everybody.”

Find your niche. Don’t limit your collection to automobile license plates.

Bott’s stash also includes license plate stickers issued with baseball cards and bubble gum; miniature plates that came with cereal and bakers’ chocolate; and disabled American veteran tags.

“There’s a lot out there to collect. Find what you like. Beauty is all in the eyes of the beholder.”

He recommends collectors specialize, noting bicycle plates or veterans’ plates are huge collections in themselves.

“You can spend a lifetime building a collection,” he said.

– Andrea Myers

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