Pingree's Potato Patches
DescriptionWhen mayor Hazen S. Pingree (1840-1901) began his term, he did not plan to make Detroit a garden city. An influential reformer on many fronts, he became a major proponent of vacant lot cultivation during the economic crisis of 1893, which left him searching for solutions to help unemployed laborers in the city, many of whom where recent Polish and German immigrants. Could the seemingly humble reworking of the landscape through gardens help to quell the economic, social, and environmental challenges of urban life in nineteenth century Detroit?
Pingree thought so. His idea for unemployed residents to cultivate “potato patches” with the assistance of the city came as riots and civil unrest seemed an ever-present possibility in Detroit, with cries for “bread or blood” heard outside the Board of Public Works building. Amidst this backdrop, devising a way to provide sustenance to those acutely affected by the economic crisis was a priority for Pingree.
On one of his excursions around the still unfinished boulevard project encircling the city, Pingree developed his idea to use some of the thousands of acres of vacant and idle lands in the city for subsistence gardens. In Pingree’s eyes, it seemed to be the perfect way to occupy idle lands and idle hands, all while saving taxpayers the cost of aiding the poor through direct charity. Early in 1894, he created Detroit’s Agricultural Committee, and charged them with the responsibility of acquiring land, tools, and people willing to garden for food.
Many were skeptical of Pingree’s “potato patch plan,” as the program came to be called. There were charges that potato bugs would invade the city, to more practical concerns about the willingness of the city’s unemployed to grow food for themselves, who would donate land, and others who saw it as a “free land scheme.” One editorial cartoon, printed in the Detroit Evening News, even humorously suggested that the state of Michigan change its motto, coined in 1835, from “if you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you” to “if you seek a beautiful potato patch, look around you.”
Despite these concerns, the program moved forward. During the first year, Pingree and his allies were able to garner enough support to acquire 430 acres of land to temporarily use for cultivation on the outskirts of the city. The Agricultural Committee plowed and harrowed the land, and staked it off into numbered parcel that ranged from one quarter to a half acre. To ensure participation, many were compelled to apply for the program under the threat of not receiving charity relief from the city if they did not participate. Two thirds of the lots were generally planted with potatoes, but the gardeners also raised beans, squash, pumpkins, string beans, cabbage, cucumbers, corn, and beets.
While by no means reaching all of the unemployed, the program was a relative success. In 1894, 975 families raised $14,000 worth of crops on 430 acres of land. By 1897, the program in Detroit reached its peak, with 1563 families participating, before tapering off by 1901 as economic conditions improved.
More than any other achievement, Pingree’s idea for vacant lot gardens defined his legacy and drew national attention. Delegations from Buffalo and Boston visited Detroit as early as 1895 to learn about the plan and similar project spread to cities across the United States.