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Collection built in land of 10,000 license plates

Calvin Tormanen's collection of vintage license plates numbers somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000. "I couldn't tell you," he said. He's acquired most of them through flea markets and swap meets. (Photos by Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)1 / 2
Tormanen's oldest license plate is a three-year issue from 1912.2 / 2

Calvin Tormanen, a retired biochemist and chemistry professor, is an avid enthusiast of an uncommon hobby.

He collects vintage license plates from every state in the U.S. and all the Canadian provinces.

Tormanen’s attempting to amass a “state run,” or one license plate per year from 1930 through 1999 from all 50 states.

“I started collecting plates in 1956,” he said.

As a young boy on his father’s dairy farm, old Minnesota license plates scattered throughout the barn, granary and sheds captured his attention.

“I thought, ‘Wow, they’re pretty,’” Tormanen recalled.

He tacked the license plates to a wood shed wall, and so began his first compilation.

“Of course, that wood shed is gone,” he said. “Isn’t that something? To take an interest at 9 years old and continue your whole life?”

In 1958, another collector in Cokato, Minn. gave him license plates from about 20 states.

“That prompted interest in other states,” Tormanen said.

Today, he estimates he owns between 2,000 and 3,000 license plates. Some are from far-flung places -- Brazil, Japan, El Salvador and Europe, to name a few.

The Tormanens retired to the Dorset area four years ago. His wife, Susan, grew up in Park Rapids. (At one time, her parents owned Oak Grove Resort on Fourth Crow Wing.)

Tormanen belongs to the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA). With over 10,000 members, it’s the world’s largest license plate collectors organization.

There are several hundred ALPCA members in Minnesota, but none in Park Rapids.

Minnesota has had its fair share of famous collectors, though, Tormanen says, perhaps due to its agricultural heritage.

“Farmers don’t throw anything away,” he said. “Because those plates are steel, they’re rugged. Of course, they rusted, too.”

Dale Swenson of Le Sueuer was world-renowned for his half a million license plates.

Tormanen toured Swenson’s colossal agglomeration about 20 years ago when Swenson hosted ALPCA meets.

“He gave me Minnesota plates with my initials on them,” he said.

Tormanen’s oldest plate harks back to 1912. It’s from Minnesota and made of bare aluminum.

The first motor vehicles (cars, trucks and motorcycles) were registered in Minnesota in 1903. The fee was $2 -- half of which was retained by State Boiler Inspectors, while the other half went to the county.

The first license plates were homemade.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Initially, license numbers were required to be painted directly on the back of the car. Car owners, however, preferred metal numbers riveted to a piece of leather, according to “Plates,” the official, bi-monthly magazine of ALPCA.

“They made them out of leather and a house number,” Tormanen said. “I’ve only seen a couple in my lifetime. They’re so scarce, so rare and so expensive.”

In 1909, a law was passed giving the state of Minnesota authority to register all motor vehicles on an annual basis. In the early years, various private companies manufactured Minnesota license plates through state contracts.

Minnesota issued its only porcelain plate in 1911. It was subject to chipping, so it was only used one year.

In 1949, the State Reformatory for Men began license-making operations, which included state prisons in Stillwater and St. Cloud. Today, the function is done at Minnesota’s newest prison: Minnesota Correctional Facility-Rush City.

It wasn’t until 1950 that the slogan “10,000 Lakes” appeared on license plates. Today, it’s one of the oldest slogans still in continuous use.

Tormanen doesn’t collect license plates prior to the 1930s.

“You’d have to be a millionaire to start collecting from 1903,” he explained.

Rare license plates are remarkably expensive. A 1921 Alaska sold for $40,000 in 2000. It was one of only four known to exist.

Tormanen isn’t interested in a plate’s market value. “Most of us aren’t in it for that. It’s a hobby,” he said.

He has gaps in his “state run” sets -- a 1956 Arkansas plate, for example -- but he’s unconcerned.

“I can live the rest of my life without them.”

He keeps track of his purchases in a small, worn black book.

“My collection was built from flea markets and meets,” he says.  

Years ago, he bought a box of license plates at $1 each. “People didn’t know these old plates would be valuable.”

Occasionally, he receives plates from friends or family.

“You never turn down a gift, even if they’re old and rusty,” he joked.

His Michigan license plates earned awards at ALPCA conventions. “I have a lot of Michigan plates -- when you live there 31 years,” he noted.

Tormanen recently shared a portion of his vintage plate collection with the public when the Headwaters Center for Lifelong Learning hosted a “Collector’s Extravaganza.”

“There’s a story behind every one,” he says.

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