Collector of Kansas license plates shares stories
By ANGIE HAFLICH
Unbeknownst to most people, license plates are like history books in a lot of ways.
"That's what really got me hooked on it was just the history of it," Burl Loving, Garden City, said.
Loving has been collecting license plates for about 25 years, and at one time, had about 24,000 plates. His current collection includes plates from 1913, the first year the state of Kansas required numbered plates be attached to the rear of each vehicle.
Monday marks the 100th anniversary of vehicle registration and license plates in Kansas.
Duane Johnson, Topeka, and president of the Kansas License Plate Collectors Association, said the 100-year mark adds a bit of color and a footnote to the state.
Johnson is also a collector and said there are about 225 to 250 active collectors in the state. Twice a year, the KLPCA holds trading sessions, where collectors swap plates, similar to baseball card collectors swapping cards.
Loving said that is how he acquired many of his plates.
"You can also get them at garage sales, estate sales, auctions, other collectors. There are so many ways that you can accumulate them, if you really get into it," he said.
The format of the tags has evolved over the years, but tag collectors can distinguish features of all the tags that many are oblivious to.
For instance, prior to 1921, the year a tag was issued was distinguished only by the way the letters, KAN, for Kansas, were displayed.
"They didn't date a tag until 1921. Prior to that, the only way you could tell what year the tag was was by the color and the location of KAN on it," Loving said. "They had KAN on the right side at an angle for your first tag, and then in '14, they were kind of touching together and straight down, and then in '15, the KAN was slanted the other way."
The 1913 tag was white with black numbers. The black on white tags were used in several other years, as well, including 1918, 1929, 1934, 1961 and 1963. Other color variations included white tags with red numbers, orange tags with blue numbers and green tags with white numbers.
Loving has a whole wall in his basement filled with every Finney County license plate since 1913. Like a historian, Loving can cite the history behind the plates from memory.
"In '43, we didn't get tags. At the end of the war, we were saving metal, so they bolted a little '43 tab onto the '42 tag," he said.
The 1944 tag was a smaller tag, for the same reason.
From 1930 to 1950, the tags tell a story about the population of the state, when the 105 counties in Kansas had designated numbers based on their ranking in population. Finney County was No. 71 at the time. Loving said Haskell County was 101, Wichita County was 102, Grant County was 103, Stanton County was 104 and Greeley County was 105.
"We were all the high numbers out here because there was hardly anyone out here," Loving said.
Ford County was No. 35 during the 1930s, when the county numbering system started, and Loving said that all of the counties kept their respective numbers until 1950, despite population shifts.
Loving said that the Finney County tags also hold a lot of local history.
In 1951, the year the state changed from the county numbering system to letters, a statewide contest to design a new license plate was won by a Garden City resident, Claude Wright, who designed a tag that was shaped the same as the state.
"In those years, everybody wanted a low number, so they went up to the courthouse at the crack of dawn. The courthouse steps would be loaded with people, and everybody would be up there wanting the low numbers. There was no prize or anything given for the winner of this statewide contest, so the county treasurers here decided that they would do something for Claude, so they reserved tag No. 1 for him. He drove that tag for the five years that he lived after that, No. 1 around town. He had some sleigh bells — a lot of people remember this — he had sleigh bells hooked on his windshield wipers, so he would drive down the street with tag No. 1, ringing his bells," Loving said.
Both he and Johnson said that single digit tags are highly sought after by collectors. Johnson said the No. 1 priority for collectors is to find plates in good condition.
"And then the next consideration is getting that low number," Johnson said. "Or as an alternative, we like numbers that are consecutive like 333 or 444, or a pair of numbers, 33 or 44."
Johnson said that the original license plates were issued not only for purposes of generating revenue for road maintenance, but for identification purposes.
"Some of those 'horseless carriages' that displayed the first Kansas license plates 100 years ago shook the ground as they clugged down the street, rattling windows, terrifying horses and scaring more than a few pedestrians. What's more, at 15 mph, they were going too darn fast. Irate citizens helped bring about the state law requiring an identifying number to be hung on the rear of those 'dreadful devil wagons,'" Johnson said in a letter to The Telegram.
Some other facts collected by Johnson about the centennial of Kansas license plates:
* March 12, 1913, was the day the Legislature completed debate and enacted legislation providing for vehicle registration, registration fees and numbered plates to be attached to the rear of each vehicle owned by a person, firm or corporation. The law set July 1, 1913, as the date registrations and plates were officially required.
* The registration fees were $5 for passenger cars and trucks and $2 for motorcycles, with $4.25 and $1.50 to be returned to each county road fund and $.75 and $.50 to be paid to the state general fund.
* Motor vehicles required to be registered included, "... all vehicles propelled by any power other than muscular power, excepting, however, traction engines, road rollers and any vehicle which runs only on rails or tracks." Departments of municipal police and fire were also excepted.
* 1913 Kansas license plate No. 1 went to W.W. Web, Topeka; No. 2 went to J.R. Burrow, Topeka; No. 13 went to Dr. J.C. McClintoc, Topeka, but the doctor had to return it because his family refused to ride in a horseless carriage with an unlucky number. No. 13 was then mailed to Roscoe Mitchell, Kendall.
* Other states celebrating 100 years of license plates are Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming.