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The Potato Patch Mayor : Detroit’s Original Urban Farmer

Annette Kingsbury, Economy, Find Local Food, Southeast Michigan

In1890, Detroit was a place where a man could go to seek his fortune. Its boundaries were expanding, its population swelling. That’s the year wealthy factory owner Hazen S. Pingree was elected mayor.

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Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, [reproduction number, LC-D4-40050]

But the boom quickly turned to bust. By 1894, thanks to a financial panic, Pingree was struggling to feed the city’s growing number of poor, which in those days was the city’s responsibility. Pingree put some of his own money and considerable political capital into what was then a novel approach: using vacant land to build gardens for the poor. Pingree (1840–1901) began life on a 40-acre farm in Maine.

Educated to the eighth grade, he found work in a cotton factory, then cut leather in a shoe factory. After enlisting in the army during the Civil War and spending time as a prisoner of war, he came to Detroit seeking opportunity. He returned to shoemaking; eventually, he and a partner bought the factory.

By the time he became mayor of Detroit in 1890, the company was making $1 million a year. The self-made man immediately went to work bringing down the price of services needed by everyday citizens: transportation, utilities and government. When the recession came along, he turned to feeding the families of the unemployed while, at the same time, putting them to work. In his annual address to the city council in January 1895, Pingree described how the garden program got started:

“The idea was simply that of utilizing idle land in the outskirts of the city for cultivation by the poor in raising food for themselves. A committee was appointed by me to carry out this project. Donations of land by citizens were liberal, several thousand acres being offered. About 430 acres were accepted, plowed, harrowed and staked off by the committee into lots of one-quarter to one-half acre each. About 3,000 applications were made for lots, but owing to lack of funds the committee was able to provide for only 945 families.”

That first year, the city went begging for donations to pay for plows and seed. City employees put up half the money, and Pingree even sold his own horse.

“Although the plan itself was based upon the soundest common sense, it was treated by some with indifference, by others with ridicule, and by many as a huge joke,” he reported to council.

“Criticisms were profuse and caustic—the season was too late; the crops could not possibly mature; the people would not work; even where anything was raised, the fields would likely be pillaged and the vegetables stolen; the whole project was a ‘political scheme,’ and no practical results were seriously looked for.”

The critics couldn’t have been more wrong. “The committee estimates that the potato crop averaged about 15 bushels per lot, which would give 14,175 bushels of potatoes alone,” Pingree reported. “The result is that about a thousand families will be enabled to pass through the winter without having recourse to the poor commission, and a large sum will thus be saved to the taxpayers.”

That first year, in addition to potatoes, families planted beans, turnips, beets, corn, cabbage, squash and pumpkins, radishes, lettuce, cucumbers and other small vegetables. For several years, Pingree asked council to appropriate $5,000 annually so the program could expand. Word spread; the Detroit News called him “Potato Patch Pingree” and the New York Times called him “Detroit’s remarkable mayor.”

“In some respects, Hazen S. Pingree is one of the most unique figures in public life,” the Times gushed in 1896. “Even those who love him least cannot but admit that he has accomplished much that is good, both for the city of Detroit and the people at large.” Pingree was mayor from 1890 until 1897, when he was elected governor.

Upon his death in 1901, his colleagues in Lansing said in a resolution that “His sense of justice was, perhaps, the ruling quality of his mind.” Kami Pothukuchi, associate professor in Wayne State University’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and director of the SEED Wayne urban gardening program, says there’s a lesson here: “I think the biggest lesson is there is a history in Detroit of civic leadership” surrounding food access, she says. “In today’s case, there’s a lot of vacant land people want to put into agriculture. There is a grievance on the part of residents that the city responds to overtures from wealthy individuals.”

At the same time, small initiatives go on under the radar. “There are lots of squatters gardening on land they don’t own and the city is ignoring it because it’s preoccupied with bigger issues,” she says. “Remember that in Pingree’s time, more people farmed. Today there is a pretty good increase in capacity in the neighborhoods.”

Pingree’s potato patches haven’t been forgotten. During the Great Depression, Detroit Mayor Frank Murphy brought the idea back, enlisting Pingree’s daughter Hazel to raise funds. Again the city staked out plots and prepared the soil. This time, residents were also encouraged to plant their own backyard gardens, and thousands did. First proposed by Murphy in 1931, the Thrift Gardens continued through 1936. Pothukuchi says residents of today would embrace a similar initiative. “People garden where they live, and gardens improve neighborhoods.”

Annette Kingsbury is a freelance writer and regular contributor to edibleWOW. This Article was originally published in Edible WOW Spring 2013. Find more stories at ediblewow.com

Header Photo Credit: The Detroit News

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