PEKIN — Ethan Cain has his own version of the license plate game. An interest in geography and a nudge from an uncle led 10-year-old Cain to start collecting license plates. Now they cover his bedroom walls and, once in a while, get switched out for different license plates.
The fascination began when Ethan was in first grade.
“Uncle Evan (Bonnett) had license plates from when he was a kid and he let me pick one,” Ethan said.
The one he chose was from 1924. It sparked an interest, and now he has plates from all 50 states and one from Washington, D.C.
He acquired them when his parents’ friends learned about his interest in license plates. His dad, Matt Cain, is a member of the military, and many of his out-of-state friends sent plates.
“I have no doubt in my mind that those will stay up until he moves out,” Matt said.
Ethan’s birthday cake in first grade was decorated as a license plate, and cupcakes with edible pictures of license plates were also served to guests.
“On the first day of first grade he knew all the states and capitals,” said Ethan’s mom, Kyle Cain.
In fact, Ethan’s teacher once asked him to let the other students have a chance on the computer to try and pair the correct capital with each state.
Ethan said he really likes history and geography. With this in mind, his parents take him and his younger brother Owen on family vacations to different states. So far Ethan has visited 42 states, including all the states east of the Mississippi River.
When they travel, Ethan brings his portable license plate game. It is a sturdy map of the United States with tabs to flip on each state once he has spotted a license plate from that state. He pointed out that the easiest one to find is Illinois because that is where his vacations begin.
He’s even helped plan a future vacation for his family: driving to the West Coast by way of North Dakota. During the vacation, he hopes to stop at quite a few stadiums to watch Major League Baseball.
Ethan’s favorite stops from vacations he has already taken include Las Vegas, because he got to visit his aunt and go sightseeing, and Boston because he went to a baseball game at Fenway Park. Baseball hats, cards and the baseballs themselves are another budding collection of Ethan’s.
The license plates that adorn his walls are not haphazardly placed. There are groupings by category, including one section dedicated to plates from Canada — Ethan has been to Ontario and visited Niagara Falls.
Another wall has vintage plates, with the oldest from 1918. One section has plates from Great Britain and Germany. And, because Ethan is from Pekin, he also has Pekin Marigold Festival license plates.
He even has unusual plates made from soy. Ethan said they were made around the time of World War II, but because they were made from an edible source, goats ate them, so there are not many left today.
His largest bedroom wall houses his 50 states plates, all arranged in order of statehood, beginning with Delaware.
Ethan’s parents have bought some plates from eBay, and they also look for them at flea markets. The Nebraska plate was the one that completed his collection. When a state updates its license plates, Cain updates his collection with the newest version. The old plate comes down and is either moved to a different wall or put away.
Picking a favorite is not easy. His two favorites along his 50 states wall are Maine and Arizona.
“Maine’s just looks cool and Arizona has a desert on the plate and I like it,” Ethan said. “My favorite in my whole room is the Michigan 1976 plates.”
Ethan just started fifth grade, and he said he plans to keep all these license plates forever.