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Discover Mid-America— May 2009

Dale, Dan, the ALPCA and the attraction of tags
Story and photos by Bruce Rodgers

   Dale Luttig is every bit a Kansan, leastwise those that don’t inhabit big cities or college towns. Farm cap, overalls, Carhartt jacket, work boots, all part of the everyday attire. A working man all his life, on his fifth decade of marriage with wife Carol, Dale made good with his hands, the knowledge he acquired, a spirited tenacity, and a formidable physical presence, softened by flashes wit and friendliness that reveal touches of business savvy and worldly travels.
   Oh yeah, and Dale collects license plates — current number, around 80,000.
Dale Luttig (left) and Dan Kellenberger are avid license plate collectors and good friends. Dale says Dan likes to “dig” through Dale’s collection when he visits. Considering Dale claims to have 80,000 plates, there’s plenty to dig for.
   His collection is hung on walls, nailed on upright boards or scattered in boxes among six buildings and two semi-trailers on his property just outside the tiny town of Emmett. Come up north from St. Marys on 63 and at about the 7-mile mark there will be a dirty white building on the east side with a big LUTTIG painted across the front. From the 1950s until Dale sold his company in 1992, it was home to his welding and building manufacturing company. Now, two smaller manufacturing companies lease space from Dale, doing their business while surrounded by his legacy in tags.
   It’s a passion that started some where around the time Dale and his sisters got their mother ready to leave the farm.
   “I was basically raised out west of town here, about six miles,” said Dale. “Dad died and I got two younger sisters. We decided to sell the place, farm machinery and stuff. Got it all lined up and had an auction.
   “The day of the sale, run on to mom — damn junk collector like me — and she had bought two buckets of license tags. Can you imagine an old woman buying two buckets of license tags?”
   Dale couldn’t figure why she bought them. But, anyway, he bought them from his mom, took them home and put them away in a shed. A couple of years later — 1988, ‘89 or ‘90, “along in there” — Dale  “looked at them things” and told himself, “You need to do something with them.”
   So he laid them out on the floor, arranging them by years and counties.
   “So I’m standin’ looking at those things just plum puzzled,” said Dale. Then, something must have happened.
   “So I went up to talk to state Sen. Bob Brown. ‘I’ve got some in the shed you can have.’ he said. Course, I’m like a cat on a mouse, I nailed them.”       
   Soon Dale was collecting tags from farmers, visiting old barns and junkyards, then going to sales and found out about the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA).
   “You talk about a drunk in a beer joint,” Dale said.

The tour

   Dan Kellenberger, an ALPCA member and close friend of Dale’s, is a real estate broker in Sabetha, located about 60 miles north of Emmett. The two met at a threshing bee at the Albany Museum, just west of Sabetha, some 15 years ago. Dale was trading and selling plates. Dan was in a buying mood and it went from there.
   Dan started collecting the tags off the cars he owned. Still has that 1955 Kansas plate off his first car, a 1948 Oldsmobile. He didn’t get real serious until he got into the automobile business in 1975. His close friendship with Dale has accelerated the collecting urge. Dale contends Dan occasionally makes an offer to buy his tag collection. Dan admits to that but also laments it would take years to catalog what Dale has into some sort of database.
   Until that happens, Dan will sometimes help Dale give tours of his collection.
   “Dale likes to have visitors,” said Dan.
   Dan is more technical sort when it comes to Kansas “tag” knowledge, kinda of a play-by-play guy as visitors are led from one license plate exhibit to another. Dale is more the color man with a story behind his collecting endeavors. Dan will occasionally correct Dale as what a specific plate or tag collection is about, but the stories are Dale’s alone.
   The tour begins right outside Dale’s tiny office. The decor there is, of course, license plates.
   “That’s a full set (of Kansas) plates,” Dale said, pointing to a collection of plates hung outside the office door. “That first one a 1913, the white one. It’s not a tag; that’s a piece of tin. I do have the tag. They are worth some money and someone is liable to steal them.”
   Dale said a friend of his sold a 1913 Kansas on eBay for $508.
   It’s hard to tell whether some of the plates Dale and Dan point out are the years they said they are. Then, Dale said, “Twenty-one is the first year they dated ‘em; ‘30 the first year the county designated them.”
   Dan gives a fuller explanation. The way the “KAN” was positioned on the plate indicates the year.
   “See how the “A” is raised, that’s (19)14. The next one, the KAN goes up hill, that’s ‘15. KAN in a circle is ‘16. KAN on the left side is for ‘17. KAN to the right going down hill is ‘18. Blue on blue KAN on the right is ‘19, and then white on black is ‘20. And then they ran out of space.”
   At first, like all the states, the number on the plate corresponded the number of automobiles licensed in that state, starting with plate “1.” Growth in automobile sales and use forced states to abandon that system. For the same reason, Kansas dropped county designation by number in 1951 and went to a two-letter designation.
   But it wasn’t until 1956 that a uniform size, mandated as policy in 1954 by the federal government, took effect, said Jeff Minard, an ALPCA member and considered a “license plate historian.” Together with Tim Stentiford, the men authored A Moving History, 50 YEARS OF ALPCA, 100 OF LICENSE PLATES. It was the automobile manufacturers, particularly through the Society of Automobile Engineers, which pressed for a uniform 6” by 12” size and mounting holes, Jeff said.
   As the tour continued, Dale points out his collection of all 50 states and plates from Atchison County, Kansas from 1913 to 2004.
   “Ain’t that a lot of lookin’?” Dale remarked at one point. We kept on.
Dale Luttig has a complete Kansas set of car, truck, dealer and lost plates from 1921 to 1930. But there’s one missing. “I need a ’30 lost,” said Dale.
   A board full of blue plates is from 1981. Dale has every county in Kansas.
   “See those little ‘44 tags?” asked Dale. “In my beggin’ situation here’s what happened.
   “I went over and talked with a farmer who lived a mile south and a mile west beggin’ for tags. He said, ‘Go down there in the shed and there’s a box of tags down there.’ His brother was highway patrol in Brown County during the war and the county treasurer had them left over and he got ‘em, gave them to his brother (who) put them on a shelf. They set there from ‘45 until I got ‘em.”
   Kansas was one of the few states to issue lost or “L” plates. As the name implies, such plates were issued when a plate was lost or stolen. “You went back to the county treasurer and he issued you a plate that had an “L” on it. It tells the police that you lost the original plate,” said Dan.
   Dale has one set from 1922 to 1930 that includes a car plate, truck plate, dealer plate and lost plate for each year. “This set appeals to me about as good as any,” said Dale. But it’s incomplete. “I need a ‘30 lost,” he added. “Damn, that bugs me.”
   According to Dan, Kansas stopped making Lost plates in 1961 and only a few were issued that year.
   Dale’s set of 1925 plates — the year he was born — is in consecutive numbers. He also has a set of 1938 plates, the year Dan was born.
   “I’m going to steal those some day,” Dan told Dale, jokingly. “I’m going to end up with those some how.”

The ALPCA bond

   Seems that one can’t be called a serious license plate collector without being a member of the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association. The organization, founded in 1954, offers a collector a type of kindred spirit association the feeds the collecting appetite. The ALPCA claims nearly 3,000 members from all 50 states and 19 countries.
   Part of that fraternal atmosphere comes from the fact that no one knows all when it comes to license plates. Unlike other countries, a license plate in the States is assigned to the owner of the car, not the car. Plus, most states only keep records for so long so knowing who owned a particular plate and on what kind of automobile is overwhelmingly a mystery. Which, of course adds to the fun.
   “New plates last only five, seven or ten years, then there’s a new base plate,” said Jeff Minard. “When those things cycle out, they (state officials) throw away their records. A lot of us privately kept records. We, as collectors, are the only ones in the world that know these things. We’ve done all the research.”
   ALPCA helps its members add to and sell their collections. The organization publishes Plates, a bimonthly full-color magazine and many regional and state ALPCA members publish a newsletter announcing upcoming events and advertising what plates members are seeking and what they’re selling.
   “It’s a fine hobby,” said Barney Williams, an ALPCA member in Muskogee, OK. “I have a complete Oklahoma collection from 1915 through 2009, and two complete tribes.” Thirty-nine Native America tribes in Oklahoma issue license plates.       
   The days of finding old license plates in junkyards are pretty much over, said Jeff. Recycling laws had its effect. Some ALPCA members have created ways to collect outside of eBay or through other club members.
   “What I do on Fridays is I go around the car dealers and detail shops. I’ve gotten to be good friends with these fellas,” said Barney. “They save me plates. I come home with 30 plates a week average.”
   For Dale Luttig, it was “who you know, not what you know.” Dale forged personal connections with county treasurers and other officials who issued license plates.
   Variations also mark the reasons why and how ALPCA members collect. Surprisingly, a tie to one’s first car doesn’t rank that high. Jeff thinks the need to organize is one reason, and license plates have that element of mystery that adds to the attraction.
   Mike Naughton, a former ALPCA president, has been collecting for over 40 years. Mike lives in Manhattan, IL and still has a 1948 Illinois plate, his first in a current collection of 15,000. “I took it off my uncle’s car, a 1930 Graham,” he said.
   Mike said he has “everything from everywhere” but concentrates on government or elected officials’ plates. One of his prizes is a 1950 Adlai Stevenson plate. The former governor of Illinois twice ran for President of the United States under the Democratic Party banner. As a former mayor of Manhattan, said he has yet to find a plate for disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, but he’s on the look out.
   Dan Kellenberger has the ambitious goal of wanting to collect every year from every state. “That’s a big order,” he admitted.
   Most collectors use plates to cement family ties. Many collect the year he or she was born, or of family members’ names or birth years. Dale has Kansas’ special issue buffalo plates with the names of himself, his wife, his children and grandchildren.
   Collectors generally don’t think that much as to why they collect license plates. Once into it, it becomes pretty natural. Or as Dale put it when asked, “You still eatin’ are ya?”

SIDEBAR

Dale’s other collection

   Dale Luttig also has a collecting fondness for Maytag washing machine engines. These hardy contraptions were built by Maytag to power washing machines for rural families in the days before electrification. The 1925 and 1935 or ‘36 shown above are part of Dale’s collection of 400, down from the 618 he said he once had.
   The 2-cycle hit and miss engines were simple and long lasting. Dale gets a kick out starting a few from his collection for visitors. In 1993, Dale even spent some time in New Zealand repairing engines during what was suppose to be a vacation.
   There’s some dispute about when the first engines were built and what year the company stopped building them. Some references state 1921, others 1915 for when production started and 1948 or 1952 for when Maytag stopped making them. Most collectors consider the Maytag Fruit Jar Engine the most rare. A Mason jar or other fruit jar served as the fuel tank. That model was made from 1921 to 1923.
   Dale claims he bought an original Mason jar for such an engine for $10 at a flea market and later sold it for $750.


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