“… one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure.”
– William and Robert Chambers (1879).
Charles Harbaugh IV knows the proverb very well.
He has rummaged through garages, antique stores, flea markets, websites, attics and car shows looking for rare Northern Shenandoah Valley city and town add-on metal license plates.
They were phased out in the mid-1970s and replaced with cheaper-to-make window stickers and now are collector items.
“People hated to have to buy them and hated to put them on,” Harbaugh said. “And when they replaced them they just threw them away.”
Harbaugh is the 31-year-old mayor of Middletown and an avid collector of the area’s town and city license plates, having a 1941 plate from Berryville and a 1976 one from Middleburg that matches the year up with his 1976 canary yellow Cadillac Eldorado.
“There is nothing about them on the web,” Harbaugh said. “You almost have to go door to door based on word of mouth.”
“There is an infinite amount of detail” on the old metal tags, he explained, displaying some of his collection recently with his friend and mentor, retired neurologist Dr. Robert (Bob) Kendall, who has some of the old tags on his antique cars. Former Middletown Mayor Ray Steele and Frederick County Sheriff Lenny Millholland have also helped Harbaugh with his license collection.
Typically, most measure 12 inches long by 3 inches tall – half the size of the 12-by-6-inch Virginia state plate, although the Winchester plate was 12-by-4 inches.
“They were attached to the top of the state plate and always on the front of the car with white tags in an even year, black in odd years,” Harbaugh said, adding “although in 1953 state tags were colored orange and blue to honor the state and the University of Virginia.”
The year was stamped in the upper left and the registration number in the right corner.
“Some have been in my family since 1964,” said Harbaugh. His grandfather, who was a World War II pilot, had a junkyard with 225 cars, many with local tags. “I just took an interest in them. They are very rare today.”
Stickers followed the demise of the metal tags, with only Stephens City still using them. Registration fees today are most often attached to personal property tax bills, with Winchester and Berryville eliminating their stickers as of Jan. 1 this year.
In 1943 and 1944 Virginia tags were made out of soy due to the need for metal during the war.
Harbaugh has both a 1944 state car and motorcycle tag made of soy.
“In hard times you could eat those,” laughed Kendall.
Harbaugh added, “They are very, very rare, since they are much more biodegradable than metal.”
Some tags were adorned with more than just the date, tag number, locale name and registration number.
The 1960 Front Royal tag said “Where the Skyline Drive Begins.” Jamestown tags had tall ships. Winchester tags often included a red apple but not in 1948 and a 1976 Middleburg tag had a red fox.
And from 1961-1965, while celebrating the Virginia Civil War Centennial, the state tag was gray and decorated with a cannon.
In a phone survey of local jurisdictions, none of the treasurers or directors of finance knew when their jurisdiction stopped using the metal license tags.
As for when the metal tag was discontinued, Strasburg Director of Finance Dottie Mullins laughed, “I don’t remember that and I have lived here all my life.”
The only local jurisdiction Harbaugh doesn’t have a metal tag for is Stephens City.
“It’s an important town to me, lots of memories,” he said. “It would make me happy to get all – at least one of all – the local ones before I branch out and collect other tags.”
Of course, “Middletown tags mean so much more to me,” said Harbaugh, who is in his second term as mayor.
“It’s always cooler to get a lower number tag,” he said. His lowest numbered tag is 41 for a 1964 Berryville tag.
The tags connect Harbaugh with the history of the Shenandoah Valley.
“I was born and raised a local guy and that’s why I like history around here,” said Harbaugh, who graduated from Shenandoah University in 2011 with a master’s in Business Administration.
“I like to find out the history of our (surrounding small towns) and as you drive through them with a tag, it’s a good way to be part of it,” he said.
“I look up the mayors at that time and find out what was going on then.”
Those who have the tags, including some individual collections, charge more to sell one from a smaller city/town because as a smaller entity, they produced fewer tags.
Kendall laughed and said, “He can look at a tag and he is smitten, and he will go to any length to get it.”
The tags helped spur Harbaugh into launching an Antique Car Show for Middletown. This year it will be held Aug. 19.
In past years the show has attracted as many as 220 cars that take up five blocks on Main Street and for five hours regular traffic is re-routed onto parallel Interstate 81.
However, at the car show, “Nobody shows up that’s 20-30 years old,” said Harbaugh.
Like those who tossed away their metal tags, Harbaugh ponders, “When today’s 20-to-30-year-olds get into their later years, they will wonder what they had that they should have kept.”