License plate gift goes to county museum

Courtesy photo: Dennis Johnson of Brookings, right, and Phil Wagner, president of the Brookings County Museum, display the first South Dakota license plate with the number “6” Brookings County designation. Johnson has given his collection of “6” designation plates to the Brookings County Museum in Volga.

Brookings County Now & Then

A rare collection of every South Dakota license plate with the Brookings designation “6” has been donated to the Brookings County Museum in Volga.

Dennis Johnson, 82, longtime mechanic and auto body repairman in Brookings and the area, amassed the 85 plates beginning with the first one issued in 1925. 

Brookings County was assigned the “6” designation because its population at the time was the sixth largest in South Dakota. While county populations have changed since 1925, counties still have their original 1925 numbers on the plates sold in that county. 

Johnson also gave the museum his collection of the logos of nearly every Brookings automobile dealership since dealerships existed in the community. These logos were usually attached in the trunk area of the new vehicles sold by that dealership.

“We’re thrilled to have these two rare collections added to our many collections that relate in so many ways to the history of Brookings County,” said Phil Wagner, museum president.  

Museum volunteers will be working this winter to prepare the license plates and dealer logo displays for public viewing when the county’s award-winning museum opens again on Memorial Day 2000.

Johnson is a native of Estelline. He doesn’t remember what sparked his interest in South Dakota license plates or when he started his plate and Brookings dealer logo collections, but he suspects it began about the time he started his hobby of restoring vintage automobiles. 

South Dakota first issued licenses, actually permits, for motor vehicles in 1905. James F. Biglow of Flandreau became the first vehicle owner to sport that unusual license, or permit. It wasn’t a colorful license plate, but a non-descript, round metal disc.  

Biglow’s automobile was a 4 1/2 horsepowered Oldsmobile. The small metal disc about the size of a silver dollar carried assigned vehicle numbers. 

And at that time, every vehicle owner was required to make the disc themselves, stamp on the assigned number, and display it on the rear of the vehicle, fastened with wire or a metal strap.  

It wasn’t until 1912 that the state issued actual license plates. 

Interestingly, in 1939 another Flandreau area resident, farmer Frank Weigel, gave his 1912 Model T Ford which still sports a replica of that 1912 license plate, to South Dakota State University. The future Bummobile became an iconic symbol of the university’s Hobo Day homecoming that was also started in 1912.  

Included in Johnson’s number “6” plate collection are exact copies of the paper plates or certificates that were issued by the state in 1944 and 1945 during World War II when metal was in demand for the war effort. 

These paper plates were displayed on the inside of the windshield. 

Johnson’s collection also includes the first plate on which Mt. Rushmore’s likeness was inscribed. It was issued in 1939, but it wasn’t until 1952 that the state made the “four faces” logo a permanent part of the plate.

The Johnson collection also includes the first plates that were treated with a reflective material that was developed by the 3M Company in 1957.

In addition to the number “6” Brookings County plates, Johnson also has in his garage a good start on collecting those very rare early plates from 1905 to 1924 that are not related to county populations.

“Maybe someday that collection will also be in the museum,” Johnson mused.

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