In the 18 or so years I've lived in Maryland, I've noticed organizational license plates for the "Free State Square Club." It seems to be the most popular plate offered by the state. I've never been able to determine just what the Free State Square Club is, though. Is it a Masonic group? Is it a square dancing club?
Arthur C. Adams, Laurel
Every now and then, Answer Man receives a question that he knows the answer to without lifting a finger or dialing the phone. He was certain this was one of those questions. He had seen the numerous Free State Square Club license plates himself. And not one to underestimate Marylanders' affection for square dancing, he had always assumed that's what the plates honored.
But bitter experience has taught him that it's always best to check these hunches.
Eva Murray, a local square dance caller, hadn't heard of the Free State Square Club but speculated that perhaps it was connected to the modern western square dance side of things, as opposed to the traditional square dancing side. (The square dancing world is apparently riven by this modern vs. traditional schism.)
Joe Goglas, secretary of the Washington, D.C. Area Square Dancers Cooperative Association, said: "We know all of the clubs, and there isn't one that has that name."
My prey was proving elusive. And that's because I was barking up the wrong tree. The Free State Square Club is a Masonic organization, the carpenter's square being, along with the compass, a part of the ancient fraternal organization's distinct iconography.
In Maryland, nonprofit groups with at least 25 members who are registered to drive in the state can apply for a plate. Groups charge a little extra for their plate as a way to raise money.
Jack Biggs is a Mason from Baltimore County who got a Free State Square Club plate years ago. He said the simple plates -- they say "Free State Square Club" on the bottom -- were among the first announcing a Masonic group. He thinks that fewer Masons are getting them now because in the mid-'90s, Masonic groups started offering organizational plates that included a nifty logo, such as the crown and cross of the Grand Commandery of Maryland's Knights Templar and the scimitar and crescent of the Boumi Temple.
Lest you were worried, Marylanders can get dancing license plates. In fact, they can choose from Mason Dixon Square Dancers Federation plates and Country Pride western dancing plates.
Maryland has far and away the most organizational license plates of any state in the Union, with a whopping 704 types of tags available. (For the record, Maryland has only one "commemorative" license plate. It's the one that says "Treasure the Chesapeake." The orange-yellow agricultural plate is known as a specialty plate.)
Marylanders can choose from Masonic groups, sororities and fraternities, college alumni associations, hobbyist organizations or just about any other interest or profession.
There are plates for the Fraternal Order of Bomb Technicians, La Leche League, the Hubble Space Telescope (and the Next Generation Space Telescope), the Lost in the '50s Custom Car Club, the Maryland State Beekeepers Association, the Professional Disc Golf Association and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States.
Maryland MVA spokesman Buel Young said more plates have been issued bearing the logo of the State Firemen's Association than any other, about 44,300.
Virginia offers about 180 organizational plates, none dedicated to dancing, square or otherwise, although it has one for fox hunting. About 12 percent of Virginia's 7 million registered vehicles bear organizational plates, said Marcia Meredith, DMV spokesperson.
None is on her car. "I was tempted by the Parrothead plate," she said. That's the one for Jimmy Buffet fans.
The District has a mere 11 organizational plates, said DMV spokesperson Anne Witt, but then again there are only 242,000 vehicles registered in the District. (One of the plates is for something called the Bad Boys Club, although Anne didn't know what that was, exactly.)
As with just about everything else under the sun, controversy has visited the world of organizational license plates. Maryland and Virginia were engulfed in legal battles over plates for the Sons of Confederate Veterans and its Confederate flag logo. Courts eventually ruled that blocking the logo violated free speech.
Maryland drivers now can choose between Sons of Confederate Veterans plates and Sons of Union Veterans plates. Virginians can only get the former.
Frankly, I've always been a little disturbed by Maryland's profligate ways with organizational license plates. It strikes me as a bit disloyal to offer Penn State or Clemson license plates when, in my opinion, everyone should be pulling for the Terps.
Although I had ascertained that the Free State Square Club has nothing to do with it, I asked Jack Biggs if he went square dancing.
"We used to," he said. "My wife and I did almost all kind of dancing. . . . That's one of the main reasons we joined the Shriners. They had such great dances."
Answer Man's column is for entertainment purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for consultation with a trained professional. If you have a question about something in the Washington area, send it to email@example.com or write John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071.