These bank notes, paper-thin light and unassuming, are weighted with many layers of history. Their existence is a result of the ‘Free Banking Era’ (1836-1865). A “wild” period without regulation of banking systems that allowed stand-alone businesses to mint and circulate their own currency.
So many banks sprouted in this era that these bank notes, and others like it, are called wildcats. Unlike today, where a dollar means a dollar regardless of state, city or shop you visit – these notes had no universal value. Still, they are an important step in the development of a city with the general concept of “when money flows, economy grows.”
What is interesting about this month's Collection Spotlight is not just that they represent a currency unique to a start-up country, but that they are Lumberman Bank notes. This is evidence of the importance of the lumber industry in the development of Dubuque. At one point, Dubuque had up to 15 different sawmills turning timber into lumber which fed other business growth such as wagon or cabinet companies. Near invisible today, the imprint of lumber’s impact can be seen in the shadows of the Millwork District, homes of the lumber barons (such as the Stout house across from the public library) and in these bank notes from an earlier time.
You can explore more about Dubuque’s connection to trees in a current exhibit on display in the Mississippi River Center – Rooted: Dubuque and the Forested History of Iowa.