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L'Anse man has hundreds of license tags 4-16-06

The Daily Mining Gazette (Houghton)

L'ANSE, Mich. (AP) - License plates, some of them rusty, hang in relatively neat rows, nailed on a board next to J&R Automotive Service.

Three of the plates swing in the wind on only one nail and a few are missing altogether.

``I should probably redo that board,'' Tom Menge said.

Menge started nailing plates up on the board years ago, when he owned the shop and it was called Dick's Service.

The plates on the board now belong to Ray Loman. They came along with the repair shop, which Loman bought from Menge in 2000.

But Menge has plenty more.

``I must have a thousand plates at home,'' Menge said.

He has collected them for years.

``Been saving them since I was a kid,'' he said. ``At least 40 years. No, I was a young man. I haven't been a kid in a long time.''

Construction of the outdoor display board sped his accumulation of plates.

``I just started nailing them up there and people started bringing them to me,'' Menge said.

He has plates from all over the world.

``I think the farthest away I've got is from Guam,'' Menge said.

He has old plates. The oldest is from 1914. That one is a Michigan plate made of porcelain with red letters on a white background.

``There's a lot of history in license plates,'' Menge said.

He used to have a matching set of 1929 plates, still in their original paper wrapping. They had never been on a car.

Menge said during the Great Depression, the state didn't require car owners to buy license plates. People who did buy plates early on in the Depression got a refund on the fee but got to keep the plates.

``People had brand new plates in their drawer,'' Menge said. ``They gave them their money back.''

He used to have in his collection a license plate made of coated cardboard.

``Back in World War II they didn't have the metal to make the plates, so they used other things,'' Menge said. ``I had one but it disintegrated over the years.''

Some of his plates reflect local history.

``I have the original Ojibwa plate from the tribe,'' Menge said. ``I think it was 1976 and the number was 001.''

Over the years, Menge developed a reputation as a man with a whole lot of license plates. He would get occasional visits from collectors as far away as Arizona and British Columbia, Canada seeking trades.

His latest license plate came from a German collector who now lives in Pennsylvania.

Some of the plates out on the board are custom, spelling out words like ``Youper.''

Loman usually won't give up a plate without a fair trade.

``A lot of people have asked 'Can I take a plate off of there' and I tell them 'no,''' he said. ``I like them myself.''

He did once make an exception for a man who stopped by several times asking about a plate from the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians in Minnesota.

Loman asked the man why he was so interested in that plate.

``He said 'My father is buried on that reservation and I don't have anything to show for it,''' Loman said.

Classic car restorers sometimes seek Menge out for vintage plates from the same year as their latest project. Loman needs a plate for his 1977 Jeep CJ-5. Trick is, Michigan didn't make a plate in 1977 - the state just issued stickers to update the previous year's bicentennial-theme plates.

Fortunately for Loman's CJ-5, Menge has a few of the bicentennial plates in his collection.