A license from every state -- it was a long but fun road

News-DemocratMarch 2, 2014 

Leo Voss has a complete set of license plates, at least one from every state. They hang in rows inside his neat garage, arranged roughly by region.

"I started with Route 66," said Leo, 84, who first acquired plates from states the Mother Road passed through. "It seemed natural to continue. ... I had a hard time getting Oklahoma. I finally got it. Getting them all was a little over two years' work."

Leo and wife Mina live on a quiet street in east Belleville. They're the parents of nine and grandparents of 17. A network of family, friends and acquaintances helped him collect plates. His nine children found some online and gave them to him for Christmas.

"They knew what I wanted," said Leo, who drives a 2002 Buick LaSabre.

Lucky for him, he has a grandson who lives in Alaska.

"There's a motorcycle plate from him, then I ended up getting a full-size plate," Leo said. "My granddaughter lives in Austin. I told her I am saving the license plates. They were happy to look around."

Nieces and nephews are scattered in states out West. They helped with Washington, Oregon, California and Colorado.

A relative was also responsible for Leo's interest in license plates.

"When I was growing up, my uncle had personal license plates mounted on the wall," said Leo, whose family owns Voss Pattern Works, a Belleville machine shop. "That gave me the idea. I got the idea of Route 66 because I've always been interested in it."

He traveled Route 66 three times.

"I enjoyed it," he said. "I was only 17 years old the first time and that was a thrill. I remember the diesel truck smell. You shouldn't breathe that too much. It was mostly two-lane road then."

He and his older brother went West in June 1946 on a motorcycle.

"He got out of the service in 1945," said Leo. "We rode all the way out to L.A. to see a friend of his, then to San Francisco to be with his fiancee."

That September, they went back with their parents in the family's '36 Chevy for his brother's wedding.

"We came home on the train and he came with his wife in the '36 Chevy."

His third and final Route 66 trip was in 1951.

Leo, who has always enjoyed driving, has at least 30 Illinois plates, including the last one his mom bought.

He attached a note to the back of each state plate that tells how he acquired it. Take Pennsylvania, for instance.

"Across the street from my business is a metal recycling plant. Vern Nguyen has given me a number of license plates. That's where this one came from."

Georgia came to him by way of his son Joe who has a friend named Bill Irwin, who asked his parents who live in Georgia.

The Missouri plate has just the letter N on it.

"That stands for Natalie, director of the Cole County History Museum in Jefferson City," Leo said. "It's right across from the governor's mansion. She saw the governor occasionally and knew him very well. That's how she got that one. We make bronze plaques for her at the museum."

He let her know he was collecting.

"I told everybody," he said. "at least I did till I got all 50."

Any favorites? "Colorado strikes me. They have the mountains and the scenery. And Maryland is awful pretty."

How many people helped? Twenty-two

How many states have you visited? Thirty-two

What's next? "Well, I am working on Canada. I was thinking of Mexico, and Russia. This niece has been to Russia several times. I am not going to put too much effort into a definite category."

Any trips planned? "Spirit Lake, in the northwest corner of Iowa. I'm hoping it's going to be in June. The Indian motorcycle plant is up there. I want to tour that plant. I went to a plant in California. It's just so interesting to see the production line of how machinery is put together. I like to watch the process to assemble a machine, then see the finished product at the end of the line. (In California,) I said to th guide, 'If you let me sit on that, my wife will let me have it.' He said, 'No way.' We had our fun."

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