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Book explores license plate history in Colorado

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Posted at 8:34 AM, May 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-09 14:36:28-04

If you drive in Colorado, you've seen dozens of them -- specialty license plates. There are more than 80 different license plates in Colorado for everyone from military service members to college alums to owners of certain dog breeds and sports' fans.

You may not realize it, but license plates are part of Colorado's history.

License plates don't go back to the state's founding in 1876, but as vehicles showed up in the early 1900s, governments figured out how to make license plates, according to license plate collector Jim Hucks.

"They were homemade at first, then there were porcelain ones," Hucks said. "As populations changed, the number of registrations increased from the Eastern Plains, to the Front Range, to mountain towns, as each area grew."

"Vehicle registrations don’t lie, it’s a unique look at Colorado history," Hucks said.

As a child, Hucks' family moved to Colorado in 1972. When his parents changed the license plates on their two cars, Hucks and his siblings each got one of the old New Jersey license plates. That was the start of his collection.

As he delivered newspapers, he added more to his collection.

"When I was delivering newspapers, all these people from out of state were moving to Colorado, within about a year I got my first collection of all 50 states," Hucks explained. "By the time I got all 50 states, I was hooked."

Like many kids, on road trips and camping trips, he and his siblings would watch for different license plates.

"When we went to Rocky Mountain National Park -- how many states could we find just looking out the window?" Hucks said. "I think the most interesting ones were ones you never saw -- Alaska, Canadian provinces, the ones that were rare."

Hucks didn't collect in college, but in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the old "green plates" in Colorado were being replaced, Hucks got hooked again.

"I decided Colorado plates were pretty cool, and I should gather up as many of the old green plates as I could because they were disappearing," Hucks explained.

He found them at antique stores, salvage yards, flea markets, estate sales.

"Just going places and asking around," Hucks said.

That's about the time he started going to collector's meets.

"We have a very active chapter of ALPCA -- the Automotive License Plate Collectors Association," Hucks said. "You can usually find any Colorado plate you’re looking for at ALPCA meet."

Hucks said two collectors -- Thomas Boyd and George Sammeth -- wrote the first Colorado license plate guide in 1991.

"They self-published it with pictures in black and white," Hucks said. "It was basically the unofficially history of Colorado license plates through the late-1980s."

Hucks said Boyd & Sammeth created 400 copies in Tom's living room and they sold out quickly to collectors.

"As they learned more about certain types of Colorado plates, and more showed up that they had never seen before, then the specialties plates came out in the 2000s, they decided to do another book," Hucks said.

Hucks, a professional photojournalist, said, "I knew I was the person to be the photographer and re-shoot the pictures in color."

Hucks said there were a lot of trips to the library, trying to find public records.

"It’s information the state doesn’t really have anymore, but we found information and photos in libraries and public records and drew it into one place," Hucks said.

"The state doesn’t employ a historian, so we’re the three volunteer historians for the history of Colorado license plates," Hucks said.

Hucks said he shot 900 photos, did the photoshopping and editing.

"We put in uncountable numbers of hours," Hucks said.

The trio is trying to reach beyond collectors with this new book, in hopes of breaking even.

"Tom and George, combined, have the most thorough collection and complete collection of Colorado license plates," Hucks said. "George is a porcelain fanatic, plates made from 1913 to 1915. He has the biggest collection of Colorado porcelain plates."

"Tom has everything else  -- 1913 to current plates," Hucks said. "His motto has always been, 'every year, every style.'"

"If you see his collection, you see things you didn’t even know existed," Hucks said about Boyd.

Hucks said his collection is, "a lot of stuff nobody wants."

He admits to a pretty good collection of 1992 Colorado plates -- the last of the embossed, green, face plates with a county code.

"Denver plates started with AAA once upon a time," Hucks explains. "Old green plates were the last issue that had county specific assigned letters. My quest is to make sure I have every county code plate from 1992."

He also wants a full collection of the "demin" plates -- the white on blue plates.

He's still looking for one of those from Mineral County.

He said while many plates, including the popular, 1958 license plates with the skier on them, can be found on eBay.

"For me, it’s about finding one in rural Colorado somewhere," Hucks said. "It’s about 100 years too late to find them in pristine condition driving down streets, so the challenge is finding them out in the world. And that’s the fun part about being a collector."

Hucks said becoming a collector now is harder.

"The state has changed how they make plates," Hucks said. "A lot of specialty stuff is ordered, instead of in stock. That’s how they cut down on inventory."

Hucks said The Colorado License Plate Book is an element of history in Colorado.

The book is $34.95 plus $6 postage. It can be ordered online.

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