Hazen S. Pingree: Mayor, Governor, Potato Tycoon
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Hazen Pingree was the mayor of Detroit from 1890 through 1897, and a poll of historians during the late 1990s judged him one of the top 10 mayors in American history. Pingree fought in the Civil War, spending time as a POW at the infamous Andersonville prison camp, and made his fortune in Detroit's shoe business. He was a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, as well as a Freemason. He ran against the dominant political machine of the time, and is considered to have been a forerunner of twentieth century Progressive politics; he established a Public Lighting Commission to break a street lighting monopoly, and had the entire Board of Education arrested for corruption. Pingree left the Mayor's office in 1897, after winning a race for Governor; the state Supreme Court ruled that he couldn't simultaneously serve in both posts, so he had to say goodbye to Detroit. In an exchange reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln's decision to grow a beard after receiving a letter from a young supporter, Pingree sent a violin to a young girl who called him on a promise he made during his gubernatorial campaign. Pingree passed away in 1901 in London, attended by the physicians of King Edward VII, though many current reports claim he died while on safari in Africa with Teddy Roosevelt.
In view of Pingree's impressive history, it is somewhat amusing that the initiative for which he is best known was his "Potato Patches". The Panic of 1893 had resulted in a severe decline in the national economy, and by 1894 roughly a third of the male workforce was unemployed. Pingree, having established his political success through the support of the working class of the city, attempted to relieve the suffering and starvation afflicting the citizens by establishing a program of public gardens. Placing a call to the public for vacant lots, he auctioned his prize brood mare "Josie Wilkes" to raise money to buy land, organized a fundraising circus on the grounds of the Detroit Athletic Club, and converted the lawn of his own home to cultivation. Public employees managed the plowing and harrowing of the land purchased for the program, but the thousands of families which participated in the program then provided the labor to actually plant and cultivate a wide variety of vegetables, using seeds and plantings provided by the city. Impressively enough, Pingree himself helped with cultivation throughout the life of the program.
The end results were very impressive: in the first year alone, $4000 in initial public expenditures resulted in the families raising approximately $14,000 worth of produce (nearly a half million in 2009 dollars), including 40,000 bushels of potatoes. Over the next several years, the number of families continued to climb, and didn't decline until the national economy had largely recovered. The program continued until 1901, the year that Pingree himself passed away.
Mayor Pingree can serve as a symbol of many things Mythkateers may want to celebrate, such as honesty in politics, the great potential of the people of Detroit, local agriculture, and even rockin' facial hair. In a fictional context he could serve well as a secret benefactor of heroes in the city, entruster of historic secrets to the Detroit Freemasons, or a target of timetraveling assassins. And of course, there's always the possibility that his statue in downtown Detroit may be parceling out wit and wisdom like the Mighty Favog.
The Detroit News has a picture of the Pingree monument in downtown Detroit, as well as a much more detailed history of Pingree. The story of the Potato Patches came from Pingree's Potato Patches: A Study of Self-help during the Depression of the 1890's in Volume 4, Number 2 of Detroit in Perspective.