During the terrible depression that followed the Panic of 1893, a transplanted Maine shoemaker came up with a widely ridiculed idea to feed the poor: a potato patch plan.
Hazen Pingree, mayor of Detroit, wanted to let poor people plant vegetable gardens on vacant city land. Though he was mocked by his political opponents, ignored by the clergy, lampooned by the newspapers and stonewalled by the city’s elite, Hazen Pingree’s potato patch plan was wildly successful.
The potato patch plan also inspired the victory gardens of World War I and World War II.
Hazen Pingree was born in Denmark, Maine, on Aug. 30, 1840. At 14 he moved to Saco to work in a cotton factory. At 16 he moved to Hopkinton, Mass., to work as a cutter in a shoe factory.
When the Civil War broke out he enlisted in the Union Army and fought a number of battles. When the war ended, he moved to Detroit, where he got a job as a shoemaker. He soon bought his employer’s shoe-making machinery and went into business, building Pingree and Smith into the second-biggest shoemaking company in the United States.
In 1889, Hazen Pingree was elected mayor of Detroit as a citizen reformer.
Detroit’s poor were suffering during the depression and the city’s treasury was almost empty. In many cases, Detroit’s poor were peasant farmers who had recently emigrated from Europe.
The Potato Patch Plan
Pingree came up with his potato patch plan, and tried to enlist the city’s leaders in helping him.
Pingree asked the churches to contribute money to buy plows, tools and seed.
One of his aides told a reporter, “The Mayor proposes to find out if those elegant churches are only for show or for doing some real good.”
They were for show. Detroit’s clergy ignored or mocked the plan, contributing $13.80 to the effort. Pingree tried to retaliate by repealing the tax exemption for church property.
Newspapers made fun of him. His conservative opponents charged potato bugs would invade the city. They said the city’s poor were too lazy to work. “They are willing to work, and we ought to give them a chance to do it,” Pingree said.
The city’s wealthy families refused to contribute anything to the project. So Pingree tried to shame them by auctioning off a horse for which he had paid $1,300. He got $387 for it.
Undaunted, Pingree found 430 acres of city land and levied a small tax on municipal employees to pay for seed and equipment. In the spring of 1894, fighting almost broke out among the 3,000 poor families who wanted one of the 945 half-acre plots.
That fall, Detroit’s lazy poor harvested potatoes and vegetables with a retail value conservatively estimated at $14,000. Pingree asked some of the city’s prominent merchants to display some of the best-looking produce, but the merchants refused.
“The unqualified success of the experiment has silenced the croakers,” Pingree said in 1895. That year, 1,546 families were assigned half-acre plots. Then the next season, nearly half of all families on public relief joined the plan. That year, the potato patch farmers had a cash value of $30,998, more than the $23,729 given out by the poor commission.
The potato patch plan was so successful it was adopted in such cities as New York, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, Duluth and Denver.
Pingree was elected governor of Michigan in 1897. In 1901, he and his son went on an African safari and came home by way of London. Pingree contracted peritonitis. King Edward VII of England, to whom Pingree bore an uncanny resemblance, sent his own doctor to care for the former governor – but to no avail. He died on June 18, 1901.
With thanks to Reform in Detroit – Hazen S. Pingree and Urban Politics
By Melvin G. Holli.
This story updated in 2022.