John Stalick’s favorite number is 11.
“I just like the way it looks,” Stalick, of Cody, said last week.
That’s fortuitous for him, since he’s also an avid Wyoming license plate collector, and Park County licenses begin with the county’s assigned number, 11.
His favorite license plate number? Wyoming 11-11, of course.
“I get a little obsessive-compulsive with the Park County stuff,” he said.
Stalick, who moved to Cody from Douglas earlier this year, is a fourth-generation Wyomingite.
Wyoming is in the family’s blood. So, when his grandfather and father began collecting old cars, it seemed appropriate to collect Wyoming license plates manufactured in the same years to put on the old cars.
Stalick’s work in Wyoming’s oil and gas fields took him to several different areas of the state, so collecting a bunch of old cars wasn’t practical. But license plates — that’s another matter entirely.
“My first one was a 1956 [county 4] No. 9 plate, for my 1956 Oldsmobile,” he said. Then I collected all the counties for 1956, then I decided to do other years. I started [numerical] runs of all 23 counties, and it got out of control at that point.”
His wife, Natalie — then his fiancée — encouraged his growing hobby. Together, they traveled to counties around the state, looking for more old license plates.
“We visited with people and came home with boxes full of them,” John said.
Without thinking twice, he can recite the numbers assigned to each Wyoming county, and his young sons, John Paul Stalick III (Tres, 5) and Thayne (3) are learning them too — and they have their own collections of small-sized ATV license plates. Daughter Afton, 1 1/2, loves “helping” her dad with his collection, too.
Stalick said he values the people he meets and the friends he makes as much as he does the license plates.
Stalick said he always pays a fair price for license plates.
“This hobby is all about the people,” Stalick said. “One time, we made a lady cry” when they bought some historic license plates from her. She told them, “I didn’t know they were worth that much.”
“I told her I can restore them and make my money back,” Stalick said.
He restores the license plates by cleaning and polishing them. He soaks most of them in Barkeeper’s Friend to clean them. But that solution won’t work for all license plates; it will dissolve the paint on plates manufactured in a few specific years. Linseed oil is the best way to bring out the color for those years’ plates.
Stalick never repaints license plates, though a few of the older plates in his collection were repainted by their previous owner.
Once restored, he stores the plates in sturdy plastic bins in numerical order for every county.
It is particularly difficult to find a 1944 license plate in good condition, Stalick said. That year, Wyoming’s plates were made of cardboard to conserve the metal. The cardboard got wet and degraded in the weather, and state license plates were made of metal again in 1945.
Today, Stalick owns about 3,000 Wyoming license plates — down from the 10,000 he had at one point.
“I traded some and sold some big runs to friends in different counties,” he said.
Stalick has a computer record of every license plate he owns, how much he paid for it, what its current estimated value is, and if sold, how much he sold it for.
But selling license plates isn’t his primary objective. It’s getting long runs of numbers for each county, and collecting plates for as many years and counties as possible.
He particularly loves it when he can find runs of a low number that belonged to the same family, sometimes spanning three generations.
For instance, he has a run of Park County license plate No. 14 dating back to the 1950s, and a single-number run from Albany County he describes as “one of the nicest single-number runs in existence.”
“Wyoming is way different than other states,” he said. In most states, the license plate number goes with the car. “But in Wyoming, the number goes with the person. That’s unique in Wyoming.”
Stalick owns license plates dating back to 1922, before license plates were assigned by county, and before Wyoming’s now-famous and trademarked bucking horse and rider was put on the plates. Back then, the state’s license plates varied in color, such as cream and green (1922); navy blue and white (1923); red and white (1924); green and white (1925); yellow and black (1926); and maroon and red (1927).
This year, as people replace their old license plates with new ones, Stalick has asked them to send their old plates to him rather than throwing them away.
He’s working on runs of numbers for Park County, starting with single digits, then 10s, 100s, 1,000s and 10,000s — using a strategy similar to the card game “Racko.” He has 10 of each numerical column from 71 through 40,000 (the highest numbers manufactured) for car license plates displayed on his garage wall, and a similar display for truck plates, leaving blank spaces for those he still needs.
Stalick said people’s initial reaction when they learn about his collection and his passion for license plates is, “That’s a weird hobby.”
“Then, a couple of months later, they start looking at plates,” and begin collecting license plates themselves, he said. “Then they call me and say, ‘Man, I’m mad at you,’” because they realize it will be hard get a collection equal to Stalick’s.