In a time when technology is so advanced that one only needs to hold her phone or watch against a credit card machine in order to pay for coffee, groceries, and clothing, it’s hard to imagine what life was like during the Great Depression era.
In 1931, there was no Apple Pay, no debit cards, and no automatic teller machines. There was just the city bank and a teller with a cash drawer. So imagine walking into your local bank to withdraw some money to buy groceries, only to find that the bank has no money. None at all.
This is what happened at the Citizens Bank of Tenino in December 1931.
“The bank failed,” Chris Hallett, financial advisor of Edward Jones in Tenino, said in a matter-of-fact manner.
Hallett arrived in Tenino in March 2002 to open the Tenino branch of Edward Jones and immediately took an interest in the city’s history, especially the Depression era: What made Tenino a unique place to be during that time was the fact that the town began issuing its own currency.
“They needed a way to exchange (currency) in the town, so the first issue was paper,” Hallett said of the first run of the Tenino Chamber of Commerce’s 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 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 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.
From the first wood run in January 1932 to June of 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.
Tenino isn’t the only city to print emergency scrips during the Depression. Places like Ellwood City, Pennsylvania; Cleveland, Ohio; and Selma, Alabama also did. Some were made on sliced cedar like Tenino, while others were printed on paper or wooden nickels. There was even an instance in Crescent City, California, where the city’s Chamber of Commerce issued 10-cent notes on a clamshell.
But what made Tenino’s currency so unique was that it was ostensibly the only currency officially approved by the United States government, according to Hallett and members of the Tenino Historical Society.
Once the emergency was over, the remaining currency remained in private hands and quickly became a collector’s item. Today, wooden notes can go for several hundred dollars or more on sites like eBay and Amazon.
The Chamber of Commerce, seeing how quickly the pieces became collectible, began to print replicas and sell them as souvenirs. How does one tell the difference between the real thing and a re-creation? Hallett said it’s easy.
“You can tell if it’s real money by the signature,” he said. “(The originals) are all hand-signed with three different ink pens. The ones that are not original, they are stamped.”
Those re-creations aren’t the only wooden souvenirs floating around Tenino and in private collections. The dollars were so popular that making new ones for every occasion became a bit of a town tradition.
Today, that 1890 printing press resides inside the Tenino Depot Museum a few blocks from Hallett’s office. That is where anyone can buy souvenir wooden dollars and where local resident Loren Ackerman has been operating and maintaining the press since the early ’90s.
Whenever the museum wants to promote a city event or milestone, Ackerman orders a laser-etched magnesium stamp on a wooden block from an East Coast stamp maker. He will then print a limited quantity in a certain color before retiring the block entirely to retain exclusivity and encourage collectors to purchase the new design.
In fact, this was something Hallett took advantage of during the grand opening of his Edward Jones office: a limited run of his very own Tenino wooden dollars.
But the most popular dollars are the ones that are printed for Tenino’s Oregon Trail Days in the summer, according to Ackerman, though he admits the income does not cover the amount that is spent on materials. “Is (the cost) worth it? No. But is it worth it to promote the museum? Yes, absolutely,” he said.
Hallett collects the special-edition souvenir notes, but he has a healthy collection of the original wooden dollars from 1932. How many does he have? He can’t even guess. But he said the collection is so robust that he one day hopes to open a wood currency museum, perhaps in partnership with the historical society.
“Someday I would like to build a building — maybe over by the museum — and maybe donate to the city or something,” he said. “Bring (the wooden dollars) back to Tenino and share them with the community,”
Visit the Tenino Depot Museum on Facebook for hours of operation 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.