Tenino’s Curious Currency, Part II

The city has resurrected its Depression-era emergency scrip to help residents through the economic consequences of COVID-19.

In the July/August 2019 issue of South Sound, we introduced readers to Tenino’s wooden dollars as part of our In the Know column.

In that piece, we discussed how the small Tenino community had produced its own emergency scrip to weather the Great Depression in what could be imagined as an It’s a Wonderful Life-like scenario. One can envision chaos in the streets as the Citizens Bank of Tenino ran out of cash.

“The bank failed,” Chris Hallett, financial advisor of Edward Jones in Tenino, told South Sound in that August 2019 column.

This scene plays in black and white in our minds as we conjure images of Tenino in December 1931. It seems in stark contrast to our modern world. One could hardly conceive a scene like that playing out today.

And yet, the city has once again turned to its historic wooden currency idea for survival. Fewer than seven months after that issue hit newsstands, the COVID-19 pandemic landed in Washington state, resulting in more than 20,000 Thurston County residents receiving unemployment by April, up from more than 2,100 residents just two months earlier, according to data from the Washington Employment Security Department.

It was in the face of this unprecedented economic crisis that the Tenino City Council met virtually on April 28 to discuss a possible “grant program to provide relief to both individual citizens of Tenino and Tenino business owners, similar to the original Tenino wooden money program of the 1930s,” according to a city council agenda from that meeting.

But, before we dive into these recent developments, a recap on the Depression-era wooden scrip.

“(The citizens of Tenino) needed a way to exchange (currency) in the town, so the first issue was paper,” recounted Hallett, who is an avid wooden money collector and is oftentimes the town’s de facto expert on the wooden currency. “You could sign a form to pledge your assets, and they would give you 25 percent of your deposits in the form of (a paper scrip).”

The printing of the money was done by Don Major, the publisher of the Tenino Independent, with the newspaper’s 1890 Chandler & Price printing press. At the time, Major just happened to be in possession of some super-thin sliced cedar wood that he purchased from a Grays Harbor-based traveling salesman some time earlier and hadn’t yet used for anything. And with that, the Tenino wooden currency was born.

Today, the Tenino Depot Museum prints souvenir wooden dollars like these to bolster tourism and promote local events. Photo by Joanna Kresge

From the first wood run in January 1932 to June that same year, when the town became solvent again, approximately $10,000 worth of wooden money was printed — in denominations of 25 cents, 50 cents, and one dollar — of which only about $40 was ever redeemed.

Those denominations are very different than today’s run, approved in that April 28 council meeting, which is available only in $25 multiples.

These modern-era wooden dollars are printed by the South Thurston Historical Society at the Tenino Depot Museum using the same antique press that the city used in the 1930s. They are printed with green ink with an artful design depicting President George Washington, the words “Tenino, WA,” and a cute but ominous bat with the words “COVID Relief” across its wingspan — no doubt a jab at the CDC’s confirmation that the virus could have originated with a winged rodent. Each piece of the currency also bears the bill’s denomination, a serial number to dissuade counterfeit production, and the Latin inscription “Habemus autem sub potestate,” which translates to “We have it under control.”

Like the scrips of the past, each piece should contain signatures from the mayor and the clerk/ treasurer of Tenino. This, Hallett pointed out, is how collectors like himself tell the real 1930s scrips from the fake ones. This likely will be a similar benefit to future collectors of this new scrip.

Applicants for the wooden money program must be a resident of Tenino, meet federal poverty guidelines, and be able to prove that their need is directly related to COVID-19. Each resident can receive up to a maximum of $300 in wooden money per month until the city exhausts its $10,000 grant. There is no limitation on how many times a recipient may be awarded a grant.

Participating merchants include restaurants like Brother’s Pizza, Don Juan’s Mexican Restaurant, and The Sandstone Café; retail stores like The Iron Works Boutique, Hedden’s Pharmacy, and Tenino Market Fresh; as well as several businesses that perform services, like Tenino Chiropractic, Tenino Massage, and Wilson’s NAPA Auto Parts. City residents also can use the dollars against their utility account.

There are, however, some restrictions on what the emergency scrip will cover. For example, residents may not use it to purchase alcohol, tobacco, or cannabis products. It also has no value outside city limits.

Visit the Tenino Depot Museum on Facebook for updates on when the museum will reopen in order to see the printing press and learn more about the history of the Tenino wooden dollar. Various souvenir dollars also are available for purchase at the museum.

is an assistant editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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