Barry L. Mitchell of Oil City has amassed a massive collection of roughly 5,000 license plates in the past 12 years.
He has plates from all over North America and says his collection isn’t close to being finished.
“Every state has 100 or more different kinds. It’s just fun, it’s a good hobby,” he said.
Having spent most of his life on the road, it’s easy to see why Mitchell enjoys collecting plates from all over the continent.
“I worked construction all my life. I was a welder and a tank builder. I worked out on the road 38 years, traveling,” he said.
He has since retired from construction and spends his spare time collecting plates and attending conventions where he hauls his collection in the back of his pickup truck to show off to other avid collectors.
He networks with other collectors to find more plates and also visits scrap yards in search of plates.
“Some junk yards let me in and I buy ’em for a buck apiece,” he said.
He traveled to Arkansas for last year’s plate convention, and this year’s convention will be in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Mitchell asked his friend, Michael Weaver, who owns and operates Manion Paint and Hardware on Route 8 with his wife, to display a small selection of his plates in the shop.
“Barry’s a friend of mine and I knew he had this big collection. He asked to display it and I said ‘why sure!'” Weaver said.
“Over the last week, I’ve had people come in just to look at that. They look through it for 15 to 20 minutes and they leave. I’m glad they’re coming in the store, but I kind of wish they might walk around some,” he joked.
One of Mitchell’s prized plates is a Pennsylvania plate from his birth year. As the country ramped up production efforts for World War II, plates were reused to save metal, so his 1943 plate is actually a 1942 plate with an updated 1943 tab tacked to the upper right corner of the plate.
“This one here is tough to get,” he said, holding the 1943 plate.
His Pennsylvania plates date all the way back to 1907, and Mitchell says he has had trouble finding one from 1906.
“I don’t have a 1906 Pennsylvania. I do have a 1907 and up. One of these days I’ll run across one but they’re kind of pricey,” he said. “If you find one in pretty good condition, it will be four or five hundred bucks.”
His 1907 plate is far heavier than one made today and has paint that looks as fresh as it did in 1907, minus a few rusty chips in the corners.
“These are probably rocks that come up and hit it,” Weaver said, pointing to the small defects in the plate.
Mint condition vintage plates are hard to find and when they can be found, Mitchell advises the potential buyer to “open up their pocketbook.”
License plates, in their original incarnation, were vastly different from ones made today.
“When you first got plates, you had to go to a blacksmith and have them hammer them out,” Mitchell said.
His homemade display case stands in the middle of the hardware store, ready for interested passersby to take a look. It consists of a base plate and a beam that is adorned with three American flags.
The displays can be leafed through like a book, and each of them are filled with a small sample of his collection.
To take the plates to shows, Mitchell has crafted cardboard sleeves that slide over each of the displays so the bed of his truck doesn’t scratch or pinch the thin, metal plates.
Mitchell has vintage plates from Pennsylvania that feature decorative border pieces with city-specific artwork. Erie has its skyline painted on the border while Chambersburg has fruit trees as the backdrop.
His Kentucky showcase has various organizations stamped on to the plates such as Ducks Unlimited. There are plates from every Canadian province, vanity plates from various states and even a plate from the Middle East.
“I have quite a few foreign plates too but I’m not really into that,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell says his wife convinced him to find a niche in plate collecting so he began gathering Native American plates from reservations around the country.
“I got into tribal plates, there’s a lot of them I don’t have, but I have a pretty nice collection,” he said.
Mitchell said every reservation has its own individual plate, and Oklahoma alone has more than 30 different plates. When he has his Native American plates on display, he switches out the American flags from the display case and uses ones from reservations.
He also collects motorcycle plates, which are harder to find in northern areas since the bikes spend so much time sitting in garages year round.
Behind every treasured plate is a story, and Mitchell has anecdotes for many of them.
He spoke of a plate he received from an Elvis impersonator who sang in various bars, and he has a personalized plate he received from a man in Alaska who makes them.
While some of the rarer plates may be prohibitively expensive, Mitchell encourages aspiring collectors to join in on the hobby.
“It’s a nice hobby, it’s fun. It doesn’t have to be real expensive, you can buy a lot of stuff for a dollar to get yourself started.”
Weaver plans to have the plates up for display in his hardware store for a few more days.