Q. David Bowers
What Happened to the Profits?
As far as I know, the financial benefits which provided the reason for issuing the half dollars, "to rescue the various important points along the old trail from oblivion," to erect "suitable monuments, memorial and otherwise," etc., never came to pass, at least not from money provided by the sale of the coins.
The entire Oregon affair was poorly handled and was anything but a credit to those involved. Although numismatists of a later generation would desire to own individual specimens to illustrate the type or different varieties to fill in a collection of dates and mintmarks, at the time the coins were issued, many numismatists simply refused to buy them, not wishing to contribute to flagrant exploitation and profiteering.
Dispersal of the Raymond Hoard
In an interview with the author, John J. Ford, Jr. recalled Wayte Raymond's involvement with Oregon Trail half dollars: (Interview conducted February 20, 1991.)
"In December 1950 I made a deal with Charles M. Wormser, and I became a partner in the New Netherlands Coin Company. I started in January 1951. As New Netherlands was the successor to the Scott Stamp & Coin Company's coin business, we looked at a large amount of material from the public who came to our office at 1 West 47th Street where Scott's had been since the late 1920s. They knew the address, and, of course, they were directed to us as the coin people.
"The Scott business had been around for a long time. By the early 1930s Wayte Raymond took over the coin department. Scott had the whole third floor at 1 West 47th Street, the front part being Scott Stamp & Coin Company and the rear section being J. C. Morgenthau & Company, an auction gallery. The auctions offered many things. The coin sales were conducted by James Macallister and Wayte Raymond.
"The front part was a big room. You got off the elevator, and there were counters all around. One third of them displayed coins, the rest stamps. They had a great business going selling Scott's stamp catalogues and albums, classy envelopes, stamp tongs, hinges and everything else, including stamps for collectors. Wayte Raymond, of course, had the coin department and the guy behind the counter was Leonard Kusterer. In the 1930s Scott was the distributor for a time of the Oregon Trail commemorative half dollars. Actually, it was Wayte Raymond who was the under the-surface distributor, using the Scott name. Wayte Raymond had for years a tremendous supply of '33-D and '34-D Oregon commemoratives-really large quantities. I remember buying them from him in the early '50s for a couple of bucks apiece by the roll. He had even larger quantities of 1936-S. He had them all over the place. I think that Wayte took a position on these and actually owned the coins he was selling because otherwise he wouldn't have had them after they took the official distributorship away from him.
"Many of these were in bank-wrapped rolls of 20 coins each, with the paper rolled up tightly at each end so as to expose the center of each of the end coins. The end coins always had minute marks on them, which we didn't pay much attention to because they were badly tarnished on the ends anyhow and you couldn't easily see the marks. The machine that rolled them made marks at the end. I always remember I used to kid him that the coins at the end should be a little cheaper. I don't remember the prices, but vaguely they were two bucks apiece, some of them were two and a half, and we used to sell them by the roll.
"When he was running the Scott deal, Wayte Raymond had executive offices at Rockefeller Center. In other words, up on the 40th floor or someplace he had executive offices. He had a clerk and a girl working Scott's while he sat up in the ivory tower in Rockefeller Center, which was about four blocks away on 5th Avenue. Wayte Raymond sold me, up to his death, large numbers of Oregon Trail commemoratives, and after that his widow, Olga, had large numbers of commemoratives. I think she still had issues up to and including the 1936-S."
Collecting Oregon Trail
Although many if not most of the 1926 Oregon Trail half dollars were sold to the public, issues dated after that went primarily to dealers and collectors who preserved them. Accordingly, most surviving coins are in varying degrees of Mint State. Today the scandal surrounding the distribution has long since been forgotten, and the pieces are now collected with enthusiasm.
The quality of the surface finish on the various Oregon Trail issues is different, with earlier examples tending to be frosty and lustrous and later issues, particularly those dated 1938 and 1939, having somewhat grainy or satiny fields.
Arranged in a collection by date sequence, a set of the 14 different varieties associated with this long-lived series makes an attractive exhibit. However, relatively few individuals have attempted to form such except as part of a complete overall commemorative collection.
GRADING SUMMARY: Grading this issue is tricky. Look for friction or contact marks on the high points of the Indian and the Conestoga wagon, but, more important, check both surfaces carefully for scattered cuts and marks. Issues produced early in the series are often more deeply frosty and lustrous than later ones (which tend to be more satiny).