Tenino plans to recreate famed Depression-era wooden currency during COVID-19 pandemic

TENINO, Wash. - A small town in Thurston County said it’s potentially facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Now, the City of Tenino is using a piece of its own history from that era to keep the economy afloat during the coronavirus outbreak.

Mayor Wayne Fournier said the city is printing up a plan to help those who are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tenino City Council approved an ordinance to print $10,000 worth of wooden scrip for one of the city’s “COVID-19 Emergency Relief Grant Programs.” Fournier said this program will help people who are struggling with financial hardships.

“All of our businesses are shut down. There’s no trade, there’s no commerce going on. So, that is a recession, in my mind,” said Fournier.

It’s almost as if history is repeating itself in Tenino. During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, the town’s only bank ran out of money. Back then, city and chamber of commerce leaders decided to create their own, with the approval of Congress, by using wood for currency. Tenino was the only city in the United States to print wooden money and received worldwide recognition. Some of those original pieces of are now displayed in the Tenino Depot Museum. Other pieces of wooden money are displayed in financial advisor Chris Hallett’s office, which happens to be the town’s old bank.

“In 1931, they had to do this to keep the town going. 2020, we have businesses hurting and citizens and hurting,” said Hallett. “It’s very tough for the small businesses in our community to make it. We rely on tourism, we rely on tourism dollars, people coming into different shops. And none of that is happening right now.”

The original press to make the wooden money during the depression era is from the year 1890. It’s located in the Tenino Depot Museum. For the last several years, the press was making novelty collector’s items and gifts. Now in response to the pandemic, the city will use the piece of their past to save their future

“We’re not going to wait until doom and gloom sets in or people are panicking to try and come up with some response,” said Fournier.

The wooden scrip program will help those who can’t afford resources in these tough times. Each certificate will be worth $25 dollars to pay for goods like groceries, gasoline and even used towards a utility bill. Fournier explained the wooden money cannot be used for items like cigarettes, lottery tickets, alcohol or marijuana. He also mentioned people cannot use the scrip to buy items like gum and expect to receive $24 back in cash and said customers can only receive up to 99 cents in change.

The mayor said they are ready to launch the program as soon as the plan is approved by the Washington State Auditor’s Office. The city is also working with Washington State Office of Attorney General. If the plan is approved, those who need the financial support will have to apply to the city’s program and show documentation proving how COVID-19 has affected their income.

“You’ve lost your job, you’ve lost income, you’ve lost some ability to provide for yourself, you would come in and apply. And then based on your income level, it would determine how much you’re eligible to receive up to $300,” said Fournier

Businesses will turn in the wooden money to city hall in exchange for a check. Each certificate will have a serial number. The mayor said by using the original 1890 press, a distinct print block and other specific tools, their control measures in place will make it nearly impossible to counterfeit the wooden money.

By taking a page out of their own history book, Hallett said the wooden money will help save the town once again.

“The city stepped up with some money to help the citizens and the business community and we’re using our resources working together. It takes a village and the village is coming here to work together,” said Hallett.