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But what did they look like?!

If you're looking for an image of the original North Bend myrtlewood money, you'll have a tough time, and you won't find it here. That's because it would be so easy to make a convincing fake from an image. Given the value of the originals, that's a powerful incentive for owners of original coins to never allow their images to be made available.

The coins pictured above are a commemorative series of prizes given out by the South Coast Geocachers. Each of the 500 "GeoCoins" is unique and made by Oregon Connection — The House of Myrtlewood. (Ironically enough, The House of Myrtlewood, founded in 1929, was a competitor to the company that made the original coins.)

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Wooden “D.I.Y. dollars” spend like the real thing in North Bend

The myrtlewood "so-called dollars" are still legal tender there, and have been since they were made during the Great Depression — but not many are used today because coin collectors treasure them.

Postcard image of downtown North Bend, circa 1960
This postcard image shows North Bend's Sherman Street as it looked in
the mid-1950s. At this time, myrtlewood coins were still regularly being
redeemed at City Hall and at local banks.

Downloadable audio file (MP3)

In early February, 1933, the mayor and city council of North Bend, Ore., had a big problem on their hands.

It was, of course, the depths of the Great Depression. Former Oregonian Herbert Hoover was still president, but he’d been voted out of office three months earlier and was the lamest of ducks. Banks were closing and collapsing apace as nervous depositors flocked to withdraw their funds.

Town's only bank closes its doors

One of those banks was the only bank in North Bend, the First National. It wasn’t insolvent, but it soon would have been if it had stayed open, so it locked its doors. Bankers promised they’d reopen soon.

For the city government in North Bend, this meant making payroll would be a tough trick.

License to print money

To get by until the bank reopened, mayor Edgar McDaniel and local businessman Irvin Ross came up with a plan: They’d mint their own currency. The business Ross worked for, Duncan’s Myrtlewood Crofters, would cut hundreds of coin-shaped disks of myrtlewood, and Harold McDaniel would print the chosen designs on these blanks using his father’s newspaper press. The finished coins would be hand-painted with shellac to protect the finish, and then they’d be ready to use.

Postcard image of North Bend as seen from the air, circa 1975
This postcard image shows an aerial view of North Bend and its sister
city, Coos Bay, circa 1975. For a larger image, click here.

This, by the way, was technically illegal under the U.S. constitution, which reserves the right to mint coinage to the federal government alone. But under the circumstances, nobody minded. Something had to be done, and the city was following the spirit of the law by making no effort to establish a competing currency — it was strictly a temporary measure.

No wooden nickels, but quarters are OK

A popular joking admonition at the time was, “Don’t take any wooden nickels.” That might be why the city didn’t make any. Denominations ranged from 25 cents up to $10.

Now, $10 in 1933 was worth more than $150 in today’s dollars. It’s hard to imagine someone handing over $150 worth of merchandise in exchange for a quarter-inch-thick piece of wood that the city promises to back with cash someday — especially at a time when institutions both public and private were going bankrupt left and right. Yet if anyone did refuse to recognize this new money, I’ve been unable to find any record of it. In fact, businesses seemed to be clamoring for it.

People refuse to give them up

North Bend issued two printings of $1,000 each – the second one using a different design so that fewer of the coin “blanks” would break under the weight of the press. Within a few months, the city had enough cash to redeem all the coins, but by then they’d developed a special cachet and many people were reluctant to give them up. After making several appeals to coin holders to bring them in and swap them for greenbacks, the city gave up the quest and announced that the myrtlewood money would remain legal tender in the City of North Bend forever; any time someone wanted to come cash one in, the money would be ready.

Redeemable for cash, any time

And until a few dozen years ago, this happened from time to time. But the coins have become rare enough to interest collectors, and they’re now worth considerably more than their face value. Particularly desirable are the $10 coins, which — because they represented a large amount of money — were far more likely to be redeemed for cash in the early 1930s when the city was still destroying redeemed coins.

Fewer than 10 full sets survive

As for complete sets of all 10 (five from each printing run) — fewer than 10 survive, probably fewer than 5. One of them is in the collection at the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, which acquired them as soon as they were minted.

Because these sets almost never change hands, fixing a value is impossible. But one thing is for sure: If you bring one in to City Hall, they’ll give you $35.75 for it — face value.

(Sources: Myrtlewood Factory Web site, www.realoregongift.com (“Myrtle Tree Story”); Baskas, Harriet. Oregon Curiosities. Guilford, Conn: Globe Pequot, 2007; www.oregonencyclopedia.com (“Myrtlewood Industry”); Ross, Winton. “North Bend turns 100 …,” Eugene Register-Guard, July 5, 2003)

TAGS: #MyrtlewoodMoney #SoCalledDollars #StillLegalTender #NorthBend #Depression #HerbertHoover #BankRun #FirstNationalBank #EdgarMcDaniel #IrvinRoss #DuncansMyrtlewoodCrofters #WoodenNickels #HarrietBaskas #WintonRoss