published Sunday, September 25th, 2011

License plate collectors gather in Cleveland, Tennessee to show off auto tags

Visitors discuss license plates Saturday at the East Tennessee Auto Plate show Saturday at Cleveland State Community College. Vendors brought a variety of tags, both common and rare, from every state and several countries.
Visitors discuss license plates Saturday at the East Tennessee Auto Plate show Saturday at Cleveland State Community College. Vendors brought a variety of tags, both common and rare, from every state and several countries.
Photo by Jenna Walker.
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CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Automobile tag collectors gathered by the score here Saturday to swap, buy, display and talk.

Collectors from Ohio to Alabama set up their boxes and display cases in rooms at Cleveland State Community College. It was not just license plates, though. There were tag holder and ornaments, too, changing with the years.

Most of the participants are members of the American License Plate Collectors Association, said Joe Sharp, a collector and organizer of MainStreet Cleveland's summer cruise-ins. But for this meet, they don't have to be.

Why license plates?

"I think a lot of it has to do with the appearance; the beauty of them, if you will,'' Sharp said. "They are historical artifacts, too.''

Jim Finley and his wife started the meet here 22 years ago.

Finley, 85, remembered his uncle placing tags on his garage wall. After his uncle died, Finley continued building the collection.

Taking a break from the crowded room, Finley said his collection goes back to 1916, the year after Tennessee began issuing its own plates.

Before that, Sharp said, a 1905 state law just required owners to have an identification plate. Those plates were made from whatever material was available, from leather to ceramics and a kit sold by Sears Roebuck and Co.

Brent Whittaker was wearing a T-shirt that identified him as part of the "Cookeville Tag Mafia.''

He and his family scour the region for old plates, sometimes using a list of early Tennessee tag registrations as a guide.

"We search just about everywhere,'' Whittaker said. "We do research, too.''

Among the Cookeville Mafia's 3,000 tags, some are very rare. Whittaker had two plates of local interest in a display case.

Half a century ago, special plates were issued to state government reporters. These two were issued to Bob Carr, a reporter with radio station WCLE in 1957 and 1958. The tag bears registration number, 854, and in large letters, "Capital Press.''

Finley has some rarities, too. There are plates that honor POWs. But one of his says "Enemy Evadee.''

"That's for the ones who got away,'' he said.

about Randall Higgins...

Randall Higgins covers news in Cleveland, Tenn., for the Times Free Press. He started work with the Chattanooga Times in 1977 and joined the staff of the Chattanooga Times Free Press when the Free Press and Times merged in 1999. Randall has covered Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Alabama. He now covers Cleveland and Bradley County and the neighboring region. Randall is a Cleveland native. He has bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Technological University. His awards ...

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