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Washington town plans to use wooden money to boost its economy amid the pandemic

Tenino, a small town in Thurston County, Washington, has approved a plan to print its own money on strips of wood. Again. 

It’s a response to the COVID-19 crisis that’s modeled after how the town responded to a prior crisis — the Great Depression.

Back then, Tenino devised a plan to print wooden money in order to keep cash flowing after the local bank collapsed. In the years since, the Depression-era currency has become a collector’s item.

This time, after the COVID-19 crisis hit, Tenino Mayor Wayne Fournier called Clerk/Treasurer John Millard and asked if he could adapt the program for modern times. “You know the minute it left his lips," Millard said, "I was like, yeah, that’s a really good idea.”

The program will give small grants to residents who can prove they’ve been reduced to a certain percentage of the federal poverty threshold because of COVID-19. It could be used at participating local businesses, who need the cash flow. And there was a connection to local history. As Millard said: “what’s not to like about it?”

The city plans to print $10,000 worth of wooden money, in denominations of $25 The money is backed by city funds and can be redeemed with the city for actual U.S. dollars. The program will begin as soon as the town gets approval from the state auditor.

Individual recipients could get up to $300 per month. Millard acknowledges it’s not a lot. "But $300, to a family that's really having a hard time — $300 is $300."

In this case, of course, $300 actually works out to 12, 3-by-5 strips of cedar wood.

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Posey Gruener is a former KNKX producer who worked on All Things Considered and Sound Effect.