In 1931, the nation was gripped by the Great Depression. The emergency struck close to home when, on Dec. 5, 1931, the Citizens Bank of Tenino failed, an act that tied up depositors' accounts while the affairs of the defunct bank were being adjusted.
"Thus the shortage of money became acute," wrote Don Major who, in 1931, was the publisher of the Tenino Independent.
It was this shortage of paper money that became Tenino's claim to fame for a while.
"The Tenino Chamber of Commerce met to meet the emergency and agreed to issue scrip to permit the depositors to assign 25% of their bank accounts to the Chamber. The printing press at the Independent office was soon running out assignment forms and depositors signed for definite amounts of money within the 25% limitations."
Scrip, the first of the money replacements printed in Tenino, was done in $1, $5 and $10 denominations on engraved pieces of paper the size of actual money. F.W. Wichman, D.M. Major and A.H. Meyers, trustees of the Chamber of Commerce Committee, signed each piece until that became too large a task and they began stamping their signatures.
"The scrip printed in December, 1931 totalled $3,255, of which $1,279 was circulated. Eventually the Chamber redeemed $1,079.75 of this scrip."
The next money printed in Tenino was called, by one account, "A 'stunt' that gained Tenino world wide publicity and also helped tide some of its citizen through the bank failure during the early 1930s was the issuing of Tenino's wooden money."
Then Tenino began using "slice wood," upon which to print its money. It was, "a new printing material (that had) been received from Albert Balch of Seattle, who was promoting it for Christmas cards and other items. This was made in a special machine at Aberdeen by a man named Eckersley. Sitka spruce and Port Orford and red cedar wee used.
"The first pieces were flimsy sheets of 1/80th of an inch thick. The 25 on hand were sufficient to put Tenino in the wooden money business. Later the slices were sandwiched with a paper in between. One issue of a thousand even carried a 'watermark' reading "Confidence makes good; Money made of wood," which could be seen by holding it up to the light. This was supposed to guard against counterfeiting."
"The publicity of Tenino Wooden Money began to snowball in February, 1932, the old Seattle Star carrying the story early that month, followed by the Tacoma News-Tribune, Oregonian, Seattle P-I and others.
"The Halls of Congress heard of the unique method of meeting the money shortage and in March it was featured in the Congressional Record. Thousands of stories and comments appeared over the world in newspapers and magazines. Orders from collectors and souvenir hunters came in increasing demand and eight issues were printed thru 1923-33, mostly in 25 cent denominations, but also in 50 cent and $1.00. In all $10,308 worth of wooden money was issued of which about $40 was redeemed by the Chamber of Commerce."
One collector asking for samples of Tenino's wooden money was a Lucy Houghtaling of La Crosse. Wis. On March 11, 1932, she wrote to a Kathryn Moses of Tenino, "Please excuse me for taking the liberty of writing you a stranger, but I would like very much to have some of the wooden money you are using there just now for a keepsake.
"I saw your picture and name in our city's daily paper The La Crosse Tribune and Leader-press so decided that you might be kind enough to write me and say you would send me some of the same. You can tell me what denomination you can get it in. Then I will send you the money by return mail to cover the amount I want you to send me."
The letter hangs in the Tenino Depot Museum today along with the two pieces of wooden money believed to have been sent to Houghtaling all those years ago. Houghtaling enclosed a dollar bill in a subsequent letter, and asked for one 50-cent and two 25-cent wooden sheets.
"The 25-cent pieces she received are almost certainly the same ones sent by the La Crosse Historical Society, although the society could not say who donated the money to their collection," reports Loren Ackerman, president of the South Thurston County Historical Society.
Especially significant to Ackerman is the fact that the two pieces are consecutively numbered.
The two wooden sheets, each representing 25 cents in currency, were returned in 2002 to the Tenino Depot Museum by members of the La Crosse County Historical Society. The museum at 399 W. Park Ave. in Tenino is open from noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, April through October, and is an all-volunteer organization.
It doesn't end here, however. On May 1, 1934, Tenino again became involved in wooden money - this time, wooden tokens. This time, it was in response to a 2 percent Washington state sales tax to be paid by customers.
"The state had started issuing fifth-cent aluminum tokens to enable payment of the tax on small purchases, but they could not coin them fast enough. The Tenino merchants issued their own tokens on wood, agreeing to redeem them on demand. Twenty thousand of these pieces were issued."
Samples of this wooden tax money can also be found at the Tenino Depot Museum. Also on display at the museum is the 1890 Chandler & Price Platen Press once belonging to the Tenino Independent. Those wishing tours or information should call 360-264-7273.
Items used for this article were taken from the Lewis County Historical Museum, Chronicle files, and the files and collections of the Tenino Depot Museum.