There’s talk in the Legislature about getting us new license plates. We’ve had the same one for 20 years, so it’s natural someone in the Legislative or Executive branch of state government would be getting antsy about getting new ones. We’ve never gone so long without changing plates before. In the early days of automobile travel in North Dakota, from the time we issued our first plates in 1911 until about 1959, we issued new plates every year, and they changed the color every year so it was easy for a patrolman to spot a car with expired plates.
Starting in 1959, we began issuing stickers to affix to the plates, and from then until 1993, we changed designs every four or five years. In the early 1980s we had red, white and blue plate with a montage of a bunch of North Dakota icons on it, a plate that was generally disliked by most North Dakotans. Our excuse for dumping it was that we had a centennial approaching and we wanted a new centennial license plate. Motor Vehicle Registrar Bruce Larson and his staff came up with a color scheme pretty much like the one we have now, gold on the bottom and blue on the top. With the word “Centennial” stamped on it above the letters and numbers.
By 1991, the centennial was a couple years gone, and it was time for a new design. Bruce favored keeping the same color scheme, just getting rid of the Centennial reference. Those were my State Tourism Director days, and I decided to stick my nose in the process. Bruce and I were good friends. We had been through some political wars together, and Bud Sinner, upon his election as Governor in 1984, had hired us to run a couple state agencies. I guess one of our perks was working on new license plates. I’m surprised our successors in the Schafer, Hoeven and Dalrymple administration haven’t taken advantage of it.
Bruce liked the color scheme we were using in 1991, and I did too, but he wondered if the Tourism office had any interest in using the license plate to promote the state. Well, sure, I said. I’ve even got an idea. My friend Burt Calkins, one of our state’s better-known artists, had done a western North Dakota landscape during our state’s centennial year of 1989. It was a watercolor of a buffalo in the foreground and Sentinel Butte in the background. He called it “Two Sentinels.” I showed it to Bruce, and said it could easily be adapted into the blue and gold motif of the current plate. Bruce liked the idea, but was a little gunshy about the buffalo part. We had just gone through Frank and Deborah Popper’s Buffalo Commons scheme and he was afraid it would trigger a negative response, even though we agreed most North Dakotans would, like us, be proud to be identified with a buffalo image, a real image of the Old West.
Bruce (a wheat farmer by profession) suggested we put a stalk or two of wheat on it along with the buffalo to recognize our “rich agricultural heritage.” I thought that was a pretty good compromise, and I also suggested we put our tourism marketing slogan, “Discover the Spirit,” at the top in kind of a cloud-like font. So we sent a check to Burt (not a very big one, as I recall) gave the painting and our tourism logo to the folks at the 3M company who did the license plate designs for a number of states, and they brought back some sample designs, among which was the design we have used for the last 20 years.
I believe the Legislature had appropriated the money to make the new plates to be issued in 1993. I know we rushed the process as fast as we could because we had no idea what the next governor would think of our design, and we knew we’d be gone by the beginning of 1993. Turns out we didn’t have to worry. New Governor Ed Schafer liked the design so much he used it for his campaign material, sans buffalo, numbers and letters.
I’m frankly surprised it has lasted this long. I know that the Registrar subsequent to Bruce, though, entered it in the “new license plate design” contest that held by the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (click on the link to see past ND license plates) and it won the prize for best license plate design in 1993, the first year it was issued. It was one of the first plates to really incorporate artwork into the design, a trend which has gained traction nationwide now. But the slogan “Discover the Spirit,” which we adopted when I became Tourism Director in 1985, has long been dismissed in favor of “Legendary.” Still, people like the color scheme, and I think that is why it has remained.
So, my choice would be to issue everyone who needs one—I do, mine has been on at least six different cars and is pretty well bent out of shape–a new plate, but keep the “Two Sentinels” design. Okay to get rid of “Discover the Spirit” I guess, although Tracy Potter, Greg Ness, Guido Hanson and I are pretty proud of it—it’s been around in one incarnation or another since 1987, when we adopted it as our tourism slogan. That makes it pretty legendary.