As unemployment rates nationwide hit numbers not seen since the Great Depression, small towns facing an economic slowdown due to the pandemic are looking for solutions to support local businesses and community members.
The town of Tenino, in Thurston County, has resurrected a Great Depression era economic relief program to help residents and local merchants through a time of low job opportunity and decreased business. The town created its own wooden currency.
But Tenino is not the only Washington town that weathered the Great Depression with help from wooden currency.
In 1933, after the local bank failed, a group of Blaine residents led by chamber of commerce president Albert Balch, found a temporary solution for the town’s economic strife. According to a previous article in The Northern Light, by setting aside non-interest-bearing warrants as security, the Blaine City Council created its own currency made of wooden coins. The city lined up work for unemployed residents and paid them with the wooden money. With all the businesses in town agreeing to accept the coins in exchange for merchandise, Blaine had made the wooden coins as valuable as cash.
One hundred and eighty five miles south, a small town in Thurston County with a similar story had already been circulating wooden money for a year or two.
In 1931, Tenino’s local bank failed. When the chamber of commerce received samples of slicewood, a paper-thin wood product that was actually developed by Balch (he was a wood products entrepreneur before his time on the Blaine Chamber of Commerce), they decided to cut the material into sheets of wooden money in denominations of $10, $5, $1 and 25 cents. Then, the scrip was issued to cash-paying tourists for use in town. But the wooden currency soon became a collector’s item, and tourists started taking it home. Eventually, the chamber ran out of slicewood and replaced it with thin sheets of plywood, selling $7,000 worth of the wooden money.
Tenino’s new wooden currency model, started in June, mirrors Blaine’s in the past. Residents who can show they have been impacted by Covid-19 are granted $300 per month of wooden money to be used only within the city limits. All local businesses have agreed to accept the wooden currency, said Joyce Worrell, president of the Tenino Area Chamber of Commerce, and can redeem it for cash at city hall. City hall requires residents to reapply each month before being granted another $300 worth of the wooden scrip.
About a dozen Tenino residents have applied to the program, but Worrell expects more soon.
“It’s not a rich community by any means,” Worrell said. “They’re on limited income, or they’re just not well-to-do, what you would think of as well-to-do.”
The return of Blaine’s wooden nickels seems unlikely. Representatives from the chamber of commerce did not return requests from The Northern Light in time for publication.
However, there is no law restricting cities from issuing their own form of currency, said John Millard, Tenino city clerk treasurer. Federal law only prohibits use of metal coins as acting currency, according to U.S. code.
Every denomination of Blaine’s wooden coins from the `30s features an image of the Peace Arch and the words, “Acceptable at par for MDSE. 1933” on one side and the words, “Peace Arch, Wooden 5 Nickel, Blaine, Wash.” on the other. Each coin was serially numbered and initialed by the town treasurer, Reverend Floyd C. Green.
The wooden coins can still be found in a glass case of local Blaine historical memorabilia inside Horseshoe Coins and Antiques, at the Blaine Public Library and in various personal collections.