By Ian Ferguson
The early 1930s were tough years for Blaine, as they were for most small towns in America. The Great Depression hit when the stock market crashed in October 1929, and by 1933 many people were unemployed, banks were failing and money was hard to come by.
When the local bank in Blaine failed that year, a group of residents led by Blaine Chamber of Commerce president Albert Balch decided to do something about it. They started printing wooden coins.
According to a 1933 article in The Blaine Journal, under the direction of mayor C.V. Wilder, the Blaine City Council set aside non-interest-bearing warrants as security for the coins. The council lined up city work to be done by the unemployed, and paid them with the wooden money. Every business in town agreed to accept the coins in exchange for merchandise, and for a time Blaine wooden nickels, dimes, quarters, half dollars and dollars were as good as U.S. cash or better.
Blaine wasn’t the first town to issue wooden money. That distinction belongs to Tenino in Thurston County, Washington. Articles from The Seattle Daily Times in 1931 and 1932 tell the story: the only bank in Tenino failed in 1931, and it was a long drive to the nearest town. No one could cash checks or get money. The Tenino Chamber of Commerce had received samples from Balch of Slicewood, a paper-thin wood product he had developed, with promotional suggestions for how it could be used. The chamber decided to cut the material into sheets of wooden money in denominations of $10, $5, $1 and 25 cents. The scrip was to be issued to cash-paying tourists for use in town, but the wooden currency quickly became a collector’s item, and tourists simply took it home with them. The chamber of commerce ran out of Slicewood and started using thin plywood sheets, eventually selling $7,000 worth of wooden currency.
Based on the success in Tenino, Balch pitched the idea to his hometown and it caught fire. The Blaine Relief Association began printing money on thin sheets of spruce, and The Blaine Journal announced the new currency.
“The quarter, halves and dollars will be kept at parity with gold through restrictive coinage and by acceptance at par throughout 1933 for merchandise in Blaine,” reads an article from The Blaine Journal. The article claimed the value of wooden dimes and nickels, produced in smaller batches, had already risen by the time of publication.
Rodney Dement grew up in Blaine and was born in 1923. He remembers using wooden coins as a child.
“They were everywhere. We would play with them as kids, and I remember we learned not to carry them in our pockets because they were so thin they would break,” Dement said.
Every denomination featured 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, F.C.G. Tenino may have been the first town to tender wooden currency, but Blaine became famous for its wooden scrip.
“My understanding is that members of the Blaine Relief Association sent a few of the Blaine wooden nickels to President Roosevelt, and the national media got hold of the story,” said Bill Becht, owner of Horseshoe Coins & Antiques.
Blaine soon became synonymous with its unique solution for a lack of money. For obvious reasons, wood never took off as a currency material, and U.S. Congress outlawed wooden currency a few years later, but the popularity of wooden coins as tokens, souvenirs and promotional memorabilia continues to this day.
Patrick Alesse, co-owner of The C Shop, said the Blaine wooden coin story had once inspired him to print wooden tokens for his business.
“It’s a great story about a town working together to solve a problem,” Alesse said.
For the wooden nickel to work, people had to trust that the businesses they shopped at would honor the value of the currency, and businesses had to trust that the city would honor its warrants. They also had to trust that the coins weren’t faked.
“Money is only valuable because of our faith in other people,” Alesse said.
A few examples of authentic Blaine wooden coins can be found in a glass case of Blaine memorabilia inside Horseshoe Coins & Antiques on Peace Portal Drive.