Main Street merchants in small towns sometimes worry that local people are driving past their stores to get a wider selection and better prices in a bigger town.
That sentiment was in the air in Willcox, Ariz., in the fall of 1963 when Les Pinson, general manager of Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative (SSVEC), met with a group of business leaders. They insinuated that SSVEC employees might be part of the problem.
Pinson saw this as an opportunity to find out just how much of the co-op’s payroll—one of the largest in town—circulated in the local economy.
“Les was the sort of guy who loved to make a statement, and he came up with the idea of paying everyone in silver dollars,” recalls Howard Bethel, now 82, who was the co-op’s office manager at the time. Pinson reasoned that SSVEC employees’ purchases could be easily tracked if they paid with coins instead of bills.
Bethel had orchestrated cash paydays before as an Army paymaster stationed in Alabama. Back then, in the mid-1950s, enlisted men were paid in cash.
This time, he made arrangements with a local bank for both paydays in December to be in dollar coins, which had to be special ordered. “When the shipment arrived at Valley National Bank, I went there personally to pick it up,” Bethel says—all $45,000 worth.
Counting the money for the two paydays, December 1 and 15, was a lot of work, he says. Each employee received his or her wages in a blue shopping bag. A photo from SSVEC’s archives shows three office workers holding their bags; only one is smiling.
And after all that, Pinson’s stunt didn’t work very well.
Vera Cox, the wife of former co-op lineman Richard Cox, says the weight of the silver dollars made them impractical. She recalls needing to make two trips to town to pay her bills.
But the biggest problem was the novelty of the silver coins.
“There were lots of silver dollars that were never spent. Many employees rat-holed them,” Bethel says. He knew of one who held onto his coins until the price of silver “spiked” a number of years later. He suspects that some of the silver dollars may still be squirreled away in jewelry boxes and sock drawers.
The Coxes and other families remember a lot excitement over looking for valuable coins among the hundreds in each wage bag. At the time, it was rumored that one employee found a coin worth $75.
“I found a valuable one in our batch,” Vera Cox says 51 years later. “I kept it in my change purse a long time. Then one Sunday, at church, I realized I’d forgotten to bring my offering money. I emptied my change purse into the offering basket. Sometime later, I realized my silver dollar was gone.”
The merchants were glad to get the silver dollars that did actually circulate in Willcox and other towns in the co-op’s service territory, east of Tucson. But they were a pain in the neck to handle. They overflowed the paper dollar trays in cash registers and piled up on counters.
Drug-store owner Ted Tiemer made his own statement about Pinson’s stunt when he carried a sack of pennies with him to SSVEC’s office to pay his January electric bill.
Bethel succeeded Pinson as general manager of the co-op in 1971. He served on the NRECA board of directors from 1978 to 1982 and again in 1994 and 1995, the year he retired from SSVEC. He still lives in Willcox.