The Oregon Town Where Money Grows On Trees And Wood Is As Good As Cash
Pat Choat Pierce remembers working at Duke's Drive-In, a restaurant in North Bend, Oregon, off Highway 101, in the late 1940s. A high school senior at the time, Pierce came of age in one of the most prosperous decades in U.S. history, which just so happened to follow the worst economic downturn the nation had ever faced.
“After the first week, Mr. Duke was not able to pay us. There was not enough money coming in at that particular time," she said.
Instead of her first week's pay, her boss handed over a pair of coins.
“So Duke said … ‘I'll give you this coin that is more than 2,000 years old — from Europe — and here's one of these $5 pieces that North Bend used to use — myrtlewood pieces. And you bring those back to me next week and then I'll give you your salary.’”
Pierce, whose mother was a coin collector, took the coins without any debate. She figured the Roman coin would make a valuable start to her own collection. She had no idea.
The Roman coin turned out to be junk, not worth much due to its pervasiveness. But the myrtlewood coin — a $5 wooden piece given to her in 1948 — she still has it. It’s the anchor piece in her collection of North Bend’s one-of-a-kind currency, known locally as myrtlewood money. A local form of money that is still as good as cash in the boundaries of North Bend.
Hard Times And Creative Measures
Myrtlewood money’s story began in the early months of 1933. Life in America was hard in those days. The nation was in the midst of the Great Depression. Banks were foreclosing on farms and homes. Businesses were closing. Unemployment was estimated as high as 25 percent nationwide. And North Bend, a small timber and shipbuilding city on the Coos Bay, was not immune to the nation’s woes.
In early January of that year, the town’s only bank announced a 30-day closure. It was intended as a measure to shore up the institution’s assets. But in the following weeks, no word came about when the bank would reopen.
Thirty-eight days after the First National Bank of North Bend closed its doors, the local newspaper ran a story about the Depression hitting the county jail. The jail was laying off its only cook.
“Prisoners in the county jail will do their own cooking or starve,” Coos County Commissioner Chas Doane told The Coos Bay Harbor. With news of the bank’s reopening still elusive, the directors and city leaders worked on a plan to save depositors’ money.
Finally, it was revealed that the bank was securing a loan on the value of its building to make good on its commitments to depositors. According to the paper, the First National Bank of North Bend would then either reopen on its own merits or be transferred into the control of one of two banks in nearby Marshfield, the modern-day city of Coos Bay. But still, no official date of reopening was available. By this point, citizens of North Bend had gone 51 days without access to their bank accounts.
“The city had to scramble,” said retired North Bend High School teacher and Coos History Museum historian Steve Greif. “It had to pay its employees. It had firemen; it had police officers and city officials, a city manager; and they had to do something.”
On March 10, 1933 — 59 days after the First National Bank closed its doors— the city announced a plan: North Bend would issue its own currency. The city planned to print $1,000 worth of its own scrip to help stimulate the flow of commerce.
This wasn’t an original idea. All across the nation, towns and cities were dealing with a shortage of cash and a run on banks. Communities, municipalities, banks and community organizations began issuing their own currency to stimulate commerce. Most printed their money on paper or even wood. A few places got inventive.
In Morrow County, Oregon, the town of Heppner printed money on strips of sheepskin. In California, the town of Pismo Beach decided to use clamshells as cash. North Bend settled on wood. But not just any wood. A rare type of beautiful hardwood grown locally made this small coastal city’s money a cut above the rest.
“North Bend did it in a beautiful, artistic unique way,” Greif said. “I know other places made wooden money, but I don't think anybody did it as beautiful as North Bend and did it quite as well.”
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