By Stacy Bronec
In the late 1980s, First State Bank in Fort Benton (now First Bank of Montana) began offering Christmas Promotion loans and a local currency option years before the trend caught fire: Levee Gold. They no longer offer the Christmas loans, but they still have their Levee Gold.
Ron Young, branch president, says, “We wanted to find a way to promote hometown shopping. Other banks have started similar programs, but I believe ours was one of the first.”
Levee Gold acts as local currency, and any individual or business can come to the bank and purchase Levee Gold in denominations of $10, $20, and $50. The currency can then be used at most businesses in Fort Benton. Businesses who receive Levee Gold as payment then come to the bank to exchange the Levee Gold for cash or deposit it into their account if they bank at First Bank of Montana.
Debby Vielleux, assistant vice president says, “A lot of local individuals come to buy them to give as gifts. Some businesses give them out as Christmas gifts or bonuses.”
Many organizations use them as raffle prizes in local events, such as the Pheasants Forever annual banquet. In December, local businesses participating in the Christmas lighting contest (sponsored by the Fort Benton Chamber of Commerce) will have an opportunity to win their own Levee Gold. Winners of the lighting contest are announced during the Winter Celebration.
Bethany Monroe DeBorde, Owner/Publisher of The River Press, has purchased Levee Gold to give to employees and volunteers as gifts.
She says, “It’s more unique than just giving cash, and I appreciate that the money stays in the community. I like that the recipient can choose anywhere in town to spend it, whether that be the grocery store, the local clothing boutique, or a restaurant. It keeps my gift-giving local, but saves me from running all over town buying gift certificates and guessing which store or restaurant each person would most enjoy.”
A few years ago the Levee Gold was becoming tattered, as the “money” is reused the same as regular currency, and they reprinted with a new look. But if you’re hanging onto the old currency, the bank will still accept it.
Young says, “We don’t really advertise much for it; people just know about it by word of mouth.”
The name Levee Gold is a nod to the importance of the levee in Fort Benton. For locals, levee is a common word. But what is the actual definition of a levee? It’s defined as an embankment built to prevent the overflow of a river, in this case the Missouri River, which flows through town. The first steamboat arrived at the levee in 1860, and gold was discovered in 1862, taking the levee from a quiet fort with a few canoes lined up to the world’s innermost port. Thus, Fort Benton was granted the name “The Birthplace of Montana.” Buildings popped up along the levee—changing the entire dynamic of the area, allowing people to enter Montana in a way they had never been able to before. With the discovery of gold, many people made the trip upriver in hopes of striking it rich.
Today the levee is lined with signs and statues marking the path—giving locals and visitors alike a walking history tour. Ideally, Levee Gold gives people another reason to tour town through the local businesses.
For the bank, it serves an additional purpose.
“Whether it’s being purchased for an occasion or deposited by a local business, the bank employees have the opportunity to provide great customer service that benefits the community,” Vielleux says.
Levee Gold is much easier to come by then the days of mining for gold. You can stop by First Bank of Montana at 1502 Main Street in Fort Benton to purchase it. Then head down to a local store to exchange your gold for goods.