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Collector buys 1911 Duluth license plate on eBay

Rob Wagner holds a Duluth license plate from 1911. From Duluth’s ordinances at the time, it could have been for a horse-drawn carriage or an electric vehicle. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service1 / 3
Rob Wagner holds his 108-year-old a Duluth license plate. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service2 / 3
Rob Wagner holds a pair of license plates from 1955. He estimates that he owns thousands of plates. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service3 / 3

DULUTH - Rob Wagner's collection of license plates runs to about a thousand, he said, but the one he found recently on eBay was unlike any he'd seen before.

It wasn't just the size and shape — much smaller than the plates we've become accustomed to, and arranged in a vertical, rather than a horizontal, rectangle. It was what the faded lettering said: DULUTH, and the year 1911, and the number 539.

"I thought, 'Whoa, that can't be a license plate because I never heard of that,'" Wagner, 42, related this week. "And I knew Minnesota came out with license plates in 1908."

The Lakewood Township man, who is a self-employed carpenter and Township Board supervisor, does his research before he makes a purchase. What he found in this case was a city ordinance first passed in 1910 and amended in 1911. The ordinance makes it illegal to operate vehicles in Duluth unless the vehicles are affixed with city-issued license plates. (Exceptions are made for "steam or street railway cars or tugs and vessels upon the harbor.")

License fees range from $3 for one-horse vehicles to $30 for five-horse, or more, vehicles and include a $10 fee for "electric cars" and $5 for motorcycles. Separate classes are set up for "automobiles, not otherwise classified herein" and "automobile trucks, coaches, busses (sic) and delivery wagons."

The mystery, so far, is which one of the categories Duluth 1911 539 fit in.

The back of the plate has leather on it, so perhaps it was for a carriage, Wagner speculated.

There's a hint in the language of the ordinance, which states that the plate must be affixed "in a conspicuous place upon the front or the right side of such vehicle or upon the right side of the horse drawing such vehicle; or if such vehicle be a motor bicycle or tricycle, upon the rear mud guard thereof."

Wagner has learned that some mud guards used to be made out of leather, he said.

So were license plates — a website called LeatherLicensePlates.com is devoted entirely to license plates made from 1901-10. It reports that Cleveland was the first city to require license plates on cars, in 1901.

In Minnesota, before the state began to issue license plates, some townships would issue plates consisting of metal numbers on a piece of leather, Wagner has learned.

Those so-called "pre-state license plates" sell for thousands of dollars now, he said.

Having been produced after Minnesota started issuing license plates, the Duluth 1911 plate isn't quite so valuable in the marketplace. Wagner bought it for $150 he said, and doesn't plan to resell it — although he'd reconsider if he got an offer in the neighborhood of $1,000, he said.

"It's worth more to me to have it than to make 50 bucks or make 10 bucks," Wagner said. "I'd rather keep it."

That's not true for all of the license plates Wagner collects. Inspired by the license plates his grandfather used to have displayed in a shed, he bought a box of license plates at an auction five or six years back. He posted their descriptions online at what he considered highball prices, Wagner said.

They sold at his prices.

"I'm like, wow, I could probably make a little money doing this," he recalled. "So I just started trying to find license plates through Craigslist, even eBay."

In the intervening years, license plate collectors have become more savvy, and it's harder to get a good profit on the turnaround, Wagner said. But he sees license plates as more of a hobby than a moneymaker anyway.

"I do make a little bit here and there, but at the same time I probably buy more than what I make," he said.

Money was a factor in the Duluth license plates, for a reason that still resonates more than a hundred years later.

All of the license plate fees paid to the city treasurer, the 1910 ordinance states, "shall be paid by him into the 'Street Maintenance and Repair Fund.'"