PHOTOS: Cheyenne Man Collects Wyoming License Plates For Decades
It was the early 1950s and Joe McKee was about eight years old when he and his four brothers were running through alleyways in south Cheyenne to get into town from their house. The boys and their family did not have much at all, seven people living in a one-bedroom space of a basement, and creativity and entertainment struck them wherever it could. More often than not, that meant when they came across someone else's refuse. To this day, all the McKee brothers find and make impossibly unique crafts from scraps or yard sales. You know what they say, one man's trash is another man's...
While young and running back and forth from town, looking for entertainment in alleyways as he did, little Joe came across a few garages that were left open and snuck peeks inside when he could. At the age of eight, he saw a garage wall lined with license plates and something clicked: "That's what I'm gonna do when I start driving", he thought. And, being an impressive visionary for an eight-year-old, that is exactly what he did.
Now, McKee has been collecting, trading, selling, and showing Wyoming license plates for over 40 years. He has built personalized display boards for them in his 1,000+ square foot garage, but also boasts a private workshop full of a hundred or more "traders" - plates he's pretty flexible about using, giving away, or bartering with for something better.
If you're not aware, Wyoming has a license plate society, which touts itself as aiming, "to preserve the history of Wyoming license plates and encourage camaraderie of fellow license plate collectors". Naturally, Joe has been a dedicated member for decades and vice president of the board for over four years. The group shows, exchanges, and discusses plates together, and hold two meetings a year, one in the spring and one in the fall. The 2020 fall meet is September 12, and will be held in Basin.
There aren't just your average four-wheel-vehicle plates, either.
"My biggest passion is motorcycle plates, but I have far more passenger plates, the earliest of which are from 1914", McKee commented.
In his workshop, a display and collection of rare motorcycle plates lines a wall, and stashed elsewhere in the room are both bicycle plates and the keychain-sized license plates issued by the Disabled American Veterans and Goodrich tags, referred to as "DAV tags". If it's a form of license plate - McKee wants it.
"I worry what he's going to do for entertainment when he has them all," Joe's wife, Marie, jokes beneath her breath.
Don't underestimate the alarming power of this hobby: Joe McKee has not only avidly entertained himself for decades with his pursuit of Wyoming plates, he has made a significant amount of money from them as well. The plates have been used to help finance large personal needs in the household in the past. At least one plate once sold for $5,000 alone.
A group of eight motorcycle plates dating from 1935-1944 cost McKee approximately $7,000 - a small expense that he earned back quickly from selling pieces he already owned.
McKee prides himself in offering and accepting fair prices for the valuable plates he reveres so highly. He has no problem offering $7,000 when the time calls for it, or $500 when he judges that to be appropriate. While less than amused at the couple times he has been spurned a little rudely for an offer (a seller once proclaimed his own son buys cheese that cost more than the hundreds of dollars McKee was offering for one plate), Joe is adamant that he pays what he believes plates are worth and never tries to oversell himself nor cheat a seller.
"If I gotta be ashamed of a license plate in my collection, I don't want it," he declared.
The photos below list out the impressive range of McKee's collection, but make sure to check for his special ones: the only year a porcelain plate was made, the first year the bucking bronco was suggested as an addition by Lester Hunt, the World War II era of cardboard and soybean-based plates, and so many more. Every plate has a story, they are endless, and they're always growing. That eight-year-old boy in an alleyway 60 years ago should be proud.