It started with a simple offer: Steve Johnston’s mailman said he could find him a 1916 Wyoming license plate for his Model-T of the same year.
The hefty, porcelain-coated metal license plate sported four numbers and the Wyoming state seal.
Two decades later, Johnston’s collection of 20,000 license plates, many from Wyoming, fills the walls of his garage. There’s a sample from 1913 — the first year Wyoming issued license plates — and a cardboard plate from 1944, when metal was saved during World War II. He has a collection of Wyoming bicentennial plates from all 23 counties. Cardboard bins of license plates fill several shelves he built to house more of his collection.
Johnston became hooked on collecting the plates because he enjoys learning about the history of Wyoming through this slice of automotive Americana.
“I’m really kind of into this thing and I really like them,” the retired dentist said. “There’s a lot of interesting history that goes with a lot of these plates.”
The staff at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center agreed. They met him a couple years ago when he brought his Model-T to the museum, said Jason Vlcan, a Bureau of Land Management interpreter who works at the center.
An exhibition from his collection, “Wyoming License Plates: A Brief History,” will be on display next month at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center.
Within the colorful variety of shapes and sizes, the Wyoming plates on display span a history tied closely with the development of the automobile, according to a museum press release.
“The license plates tell a story of Wyoming,” Vlcan said.
Unique lens on history
Johnston’s collection includes other states and countries, but the Wyoming plates continue to captivate him the most, he said. Wyoming’s license plates are one of the most sought-after license plates in the world, Johnston said.
The state’s small population and extreme weather that wears the metal surfaces make the plates relatively scarce compared to other states, he said. Wyoming’s bucking bronc icon also draws international enthusiasm.
“Wyoming’s ones are more unique, because we’re the smallest state and we’ve got the Wyoming icon,” he said. “And so it makes them a little bit more special.”
Wyoming started issuing plates in 1913, Johnston said. One of those first plates hangs on a wall in his garage, sporting white paint and a nickel-plated state seal. The state created 1,500 of the plates for that year.
Before that, people often painted their numbers and other information on the vehicle or on leather plates they made.
License plates fees went toward building Wyoming’s roads, Johnston said. In 1917, the state issued 15,000 plates, which grew to 50,000 by the 1930s.
The county numbers were assigned in the 1930s based on the assessed value of each county. Natrona was designated as number one in part due to the Amoco refinery, Johnston said.
One of his plates is for the state of Absaroka — a new state proposed in 1939 that included the Black Hills, the Bighorn Mountains and Yellowstone National Park.
“Playground for proposed state of Absaroka,” the plate read as Johnston held it up. The idea never got much further than a banner, a Miss Absaroka pageant and the plates, which were made in jest, he said.
“He decided this would be interesting just take the best of Wyoming and make it into a state,” he said. “And you know the rest of it, forget it.”
Johnston’s collection also features a cardboard plate made in 1944, when metal was conserved during World War II. The plates didn’t hold up well in Wyoming weather and were made for just one year, he said. Steel plates were later replaced by the lighter aluminum used today.
Wyoming has come a long way from 1,500 plates in 1913 to more than 100 different styles today, he said.
“So Wyoming has changed, and this is a good recording of it,” Johnston said.
Passion for plates
Johnston finds his plates everywhere from eBay to local garage sales, he said.
His collection of dealer plates is the best he knows of. One of his most rare items is a 1921 dealer plate featuring a copper tab that was made for only one year. He found the plate at an auction in Casper and discovered its matching tab online, which somehow ended up in Florida, he said.
“I’ve never seen anybody’s collection that has that plate in it,” he said. “As far as I know, that’s a one-of-a-kind collection.”
Johnston is a member of the Wyoming License Plate Society, which is open to anyone interested, he said. Among the 100 members are some who are even more serious about collecting than he is, he added.
His wife, Kathi Johnston, has been a secretary of the club and helped write a book about the history of license plates. She took an interest in license plates, though he’s the collector, she said.
“I would never have gotten into it, lets put it that way,” she said, laughing.
Her favorite plates are the sample plates – often hung on the wall where people buy their plates to showcase upcoming designs. His set of sample plates isn’t complete, but so far features most years from the 1930s.
Along with the plates, Johnston’s garage houses classic cars and auto history memorabilia including traffic lights, street signs and railroad signs.
“But license plates have definitely taken over,” he said. “And it’s fun. It’s a great time.”