Washington city helps residents, merchants with wooden money

TENINO, Wash. (AP) — The blue-cheese salad dressing, butter, ground turkey, cans of grain-free dog food and new toothbrush came to $24.97.

Laurie Mahlenbrei handed the cashier a slice of wood marked $25, and walked out.

The wooden currency is good only in the small city of Tenino, Washington, part of an effort to help residents and local merchants alike get through the economic fallout of the pandemic. Decades after it created a similar program during the Great Depression, the city is dipping into its emergency accounts to give people in need up to $300 per month in wooden currency to spend.


In this May 21, 2020, Loren Ackerman holds a piece of wooden money he printed on an 1890s-era press in Tenino, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Just about every business in town, from the gas station and auto-body shop to Don Juan’s Mexican Kitchen, is accepting the wooden scrip. The currency, made of maple veneer, is about the thickness, size and flexibility of an index card and printed on the same 1890s-era press that once printed the Depression currency and the local newspaper. It can’t be used for alcohol, tobacco or marijuana.

The businesses can redeem the scrip for real dollars at City Hall -- or sell them on the side. Some merchants said they’ve been offered three times the face value from coin collectors around the country.

“The city could have given out debit cards or cash, but we don’t know where that money is going to go,” said Tyler Whitworth, past president of the local chamber of commerce. “This is one of the ways we could keep the money here in the community.”

Tenino, population 1,800, is about a 25-minute drive south of the state capital, Olympia. Around the turn of the 20th century it became a boom town, with four hotels and 11 saloons, as the stone from its several quarries was in demand to help rebuild Seattle and San Francisco following devastating fires.

Nowadays there are no hotels; the quiet downtown is a row of single-story shops.

“We’re a small community that relies on a lot of tourism during the summer,” said Mayor Wayne Fournier, who devised the plan to use the wooden currency again. “Now everything’s been shut down. Our businesses, our restaurants, antique stores, they’re not going to have the traffic. There’s no assistance available for them. We are on our own.”

Mahlenbrei, one of about a dozen people who applied for the assistance in the program’s early days, is a school bus driver. The company she works for has continued paying her for her normal routes, she said, so she can’t collect unemployment. But the extra trips that usually double her base income -- driving students on field trips and teams to games -- have dried up, along with their compensation.

She had to begin taking Social Security early, reducing the payments she will receive. And the company that provided her hearing aid has repossessed it because she can’t make the monthly payments.

She used $150 of her first monthly aid to pay her utility bill.

“When they came up with this, I was the first person in line down there,” said Mahlenbrei, 63. “I have no money. This really helps.”

Maria Williams, the owner of Tenino Coffee Bistro, said she was proud of the city for taking the initiative to help its own residents.

“Most cities go to the next level up when they need help -- ‘Hello, Governor,’” she said. “But this is all about what we can do for ourselves.”


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