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MONEY TALKS: Civil War story told through rare tokens

June 27, 2012

Post & Mail photo / Nicole Ott Olivia Shearer, left, and her brother Peyton hold their parents’ Civil War tokens.

COLUMBIA CITY ­— Some wives hope their husbands will lavish them with chocolate, flowers or jewelry, but Amy Shearer receives bullets, swords and, most recently, store tokens.
Chad Shearer, Amy’s husband, collected six Civil War tokens to give to Amy as a surprise. With Amy being a U.S. History teacher at Indian Springs Middle School, any Civil War artifact is special to her, but given how rare these tokens are, added to the fact that they originate from Columbia City, makes it a gift she won’t soon forget.
Amy said, “I didn’t even know that he had them until Thursday night. I get presents that tie in to the Civil War like bullets and a civil war sword, but these tie in locally to our city and our state. I thought it was pretty cool that he had the entire set.”
These token coins were minted in Cincinnati between 1862 and 1864 and mainly distributed in the Midwest and Northeast. Stores started minting the coins when, during the second year of the Civil War, people started hoarding coins with gold and silver and eventually copper-nickel cents. This had a negative impact on the amount of transactions businesses were able to conduct.
In response to the shortage, and wanting to stay in operation, businesses started minting tokens that could be used as currency in its stores. By 1864, there were 25,000,000 Civil War tokens consisting of approximately 7,000 varieties.
In 1864, the tokens became illegal and the U.S. Congress passed a law prohibiting private minting. The Coinage Act of 1864 is most remembered as the time when “In God We Trust” was added on the two-cent piece, but it also ended the use of the Civil War tokens.
Chad first decided to locate the tokens to not only surprise his wife, but to also give her something to take to her class for them to see.
Chad said, “I was trying to come up with a way of getting the class more involved in the Civil War. I was looking for a way for them to get a little more hands on and have something that could relate to their community. Since there was actually only one Civil War battle fought on Indiana soil, this is the only way. Its because of the Civil War that these were minted.”
After two years of searching, the Shearers now hold six tokens from Columbia City. Only six were made for Columbia City merchants, which is an interesting fact when one considers that Fort Wayne, being a more populated town, only had eight.
The six tokens were from Gaffney and McDowell, a grocery, liquor and cigar store; Harley and Linvill, a hardware, stove and tin store; W.W. Kepner and Son, who sold dry goods and groceries; Dr. C Kinderman, a druggist and book seller; S.S. Lavey, a watchmaker and jeweler and John Washburn who sold dry goods and groceries.
Although a great number of these coins were minted, today the tokens are hard to come by, but the internet provides a good resource when reaching out to connect with token owners.
“I did a Google search for Civil War and Columbia City. These popped up. I went to a coin dealer in Fort Wayne because he had all eight of the store tokens for Fort Wayne,” said Chad. “I asked him if he could help me find the ones from Columbia City. He just looked at me, smiled and said, ‘Good luck.’ I think he knew how hard it was going to be to track them down.”
Chad said locating the tokens is just one of the obstacles in acquiring such relics.
“Once you track them down, it doesn’t mean you’ll get them. You have to really want them and be willing to pay. Some people just don’t want to sell them.”
Stores that could afford it had two dies made with both advertising and patriotic symbols on them. Tokens that bore the name of an army unit or regiment, but did not display a private business, were called sutler tokens. Minted during this era were also patriotic tokens which had pro-Union slogans on them. Of the three types of coins, the sutler coins are the rarest.
Based on the Fuld rarity scale, a scale created to deem the value and rarity, the tokens from Columbia City are very few and far between.
The majority of tokens from Columbia City rate an R-6 or R-7. This means that there are 20 to 75 in existence for the R-6 coins and only 10 to 20 in existence for the R-7s.
Chad said he knows the current value of the coins, but did not want to disclose that number. He did share that when the government outlawed its use, the tokens could be traded in exchange for a U.S. penny.
Amy said, “I think the kids will really like it. They could be a descendant of these people or their family could know of these stores. It will be interesting to share it with them.”
Chad’s next project is to locate some information on the merchants who used these tokens.
“I am looking for information and locations of where they (merchants) were located at that time. I would like to make an aerial map where I could pinpoint the places and match it up with the tokens,” said Chad.
To learn more about these and other Civil War tokens, George and Melvin Fuld’s book entitled, “A Guide To Civil War Store Card Tokens,” is the reference book of choice.

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