Historic Detroit

Hazen S. Pingree Monument

Seated in Grand Circus Park, silently watching crowds scurrying across Woodward, is a soldier who fought for his country, a mayor who saved his city, and a governor who served his state. For a generation, however, he was simply known as the “Idol of the People.”

The Hazen S. Pingree Monument honors a man who served as Detroit mayor from 1890 to 1897, leaving office only after being elected governor of Michigan. Old Ping, as he was known, was named one of the 10 best mayors in U.S. history in a poll of scholars for Melvin Holli’s 1999 book, “The American Mayor.” In it, Holli writes that Pingree’s “role as an advanced social reformer was unmatched by any big-city mayor in the last half of the 19th century.” His tough-love form of social reform, historians note, was the forerunner for the reforms of the Progressive Era. Besides his social reforms, the Republican mayor is best known for turning vacant land into vegetable patches to feed the city’s needy during the economic downturn of the 1890s.

A legend rises

Hazen Stuart Pingree was born Aug. 30, 1840, in Denmark, Maine. At age 14, he left school to work as a hand in a cotton mill in Saco, Maine, before going to work in 1860 in a shoe factory in Hopkinton, Mass. Two years later, he enlisted in Company F of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery and fought for the union in the Civil War. He was captured and confined at the notorious Andersonville Prison, where he met Michigan soldiers who told him about how lively Detroit was and about its bustling factories.

Following a prisoner exchange, he went back to fighting in Virginia in the spring of 1865 until being discharged from the Army that August. Listening to his fellow prisoners, he moved to Detroit, taking a job as a clerk and cobbler in R.H. Fyfe’s shoe store. In 1866, at age 26, he partnered with George Smith to form Pingree & Smith. The Detroit shoe-making business became nationally known and was one of the largest in the Midwest with 700 employees. He also became pals with John Judson Bagley, who was one of Detroit’s biggest political names. It was Bagley, who served as governor of Michigan from 1872 to 1876, who got Pingree interested in politics.

Pingree was a plump, short man, standing 5 feet, 8 inches tall with blue eyes and a huge beard under a bald noggin. He was generally regarded as energetic and tough as nails, a man’s man. But the tough guy from Maine was also a tad dull and stodgy. He was unschooled, but he was known as a man of courage and compassion with a fighting heart. The portly Pingree was often seen in a black Prince Albert frock coat and black bow tie.

In the 1880s, Detroit was a city badly in need of reform. The city leaders too often had little respect for the sufferings of the unemployed or cared that Detroiters were working long hours for little pay. This led some of the city’s influential citizens to look for a man of change to run for mayor in the election of 1889. They settled on the shoemaker and urged him to take on the corrupt political machine running the city. The Detroit News wrote in a “Michigan History” piece in 2000 that his initial reply was, “I’m too busy making shoes,” but he eventually agreed. A major turning point in his campaign, the newspaper wrote, “came at the Larned Street auditorium, where a mass meeting was packed by cohorts of the opposition. Pingree stood before a hostile mob for 90 minutes, refusing to be shouted down, and the machine’s strong-arm tactics roused the city into a turnout at the polls that became a landslide victory for Pingree.” He was 50 years old.

Pingree relished a good fight and swung a broad ax. As mayor, he exposed shady practices in departments of city government, reportedly walking into a Board of Education meeting and having four members arrested on accusations of taking bribes from desk and book manufacturers. No monopoly was safe. He forced the city’s utilities to lower their rates and accused them of having a stranglehold on Detroiters through bribery and threats. He fought telephone companies by encouraging competition. He built a municipal electric plant that saved Detroiters the equivalent of more than $2 million a year. He lowered taxes for the common man while taking on the powerful railroad lobby, saying they should pay taxes like every other business. The city’s Public Lighting Commission was formed under Pingree’s watch, putting streetlights under public control. What kind of guy was Pingree? At a time when Detroiters were literally counting their pennies, he campaigned on shaving 2 cents off the 5-cent fares for the horse-drawn rail car lines. When he ushered in 68 miles of municipally owned rail lines, he signed the ordinance with an 11-inch souvenir pen marked “Just for fun.” He once declared that “huge corporations and private monopolies are the greatest threat to this nation.”

Journalist and author Ida M. Tarbell, one of the leading muckrakers of her time, told the Detroit News in March 1927 that “Detroit at that time was being exploited because, though it was getting public service, it was paying more than it should. But Pingree’s fight broke the control.” She researched Pingree’s “attempts to save Detroit from exploitation” and championing of municipal ownership.

While such sticking up for the little guy enamored him to many Detroiters, Pingree wasn’t without his enemies, even within his own political party. To keep dissenters and leaks from escaping City Hall, he often held private meetings in a large room in his house on Woodward Avenue, between Farnsworth and Warren avenues. His family lost its pew at church, and he was booted from a directorship of Preston National Bank. Retailers canceled orders for his shoes. Yet Ping kept on swinging. When newspapers refused to print his proclamations, he bought a printing press and had cops tack up his bulletins around town.

Potato Patch Pingree

The 1890s were a tough time in America. The Panic of 1893 hit Detroit hard, and by the spring of 1894, the city’s poor fund was depleted. Factories faced months of shutdowns. Unemployment, homicides and crime were up. Robert Conot, in his history of Detroit, “American Odyssey,” wrote that Pingree was struggling against incredible odds: “While Detroit’s millionaires warmed themselves by their fires and contributed parsimoniously to charity, the mayor dispatched teams of house-to-house surveyors to search out the needy. For the unemployed, he initiated a large-scale program of public works. Gangs of men were put to work on the streets. Others were assigned to improvement projects that, ultimately, turned Belle Isle into one of America’s most beautiful parks. Without money, the people of the cities were unable to buy the produce of the farms. As prices plummeted, farmers lost money on every ear of corn or kernel of wheat they shipped. While children were crying with hunger in the cities, farmers burned their crops in the field.”

With that backdrop, Pingree really started to worry about the next winter.

Pingree made a public appeal for the authority to use vacant land – much of it held speculatively – for gardens and potato patches. The response was huge, and applications for garden plots poured in. Pingree, “the dynamic mayor of a city not yet dynamic, turned to the lowly potato as Detroit’s weapon to fight the depression of the ’90s,” the Free Press wrote in October 1935. “Pingree’s potato patches broke the back of hunger. They were nationally acclaimed and copied. They revealed a city of boundless energy and industry unwilling to live on doles.”

Ol’ Ping’s daughter Hazel Pingree Depew told the News in March 1936 about the origins of Pingree’s potato patches: “The potato patch idea was mother’s. She and father were riding about the city in the surrey one day when, commenting on the unemployment that was as widespread than (as it was in the Great Depression), mother observed that it was too bad that the many vacant lots scattered about the city couldn’t be employed to raise garden truck for the poor. And that’s the way it happened.”

The mayor appealed to churches to help finance the cropping. But the appeal may have been ill-timed: He got only $13.80, about $337 today, when adjusted for inflation. He offered his valuable Kentucky-bred saddle horses at auction to help raise money for the project. He lobbied business associates, and even political enemies, for donations until he had the money. Then the mayor enlisted the appropriately named Capt. Cornelius Gardener of the 19th U.S. Cavalry at Ft. Wayne to drill and train his hoe-wielders. Tons of food was stored for winter, and the mayor’s plan helped whip the depression. Pingree’s plan also helped to make him one of the country’s most-talked about leaders.

Pingree was a three-term mayor when he decided to run for governor, beating Democrat Charles R. Sligh of Grand Rapids in 1896. But ol’ Ping didn’t plan on giving up his job in Old City Hall: He planned to do them both. It took a March 27 state Supreme Court decision to pry him loose, with the justices ruling that he could not hold both offices at the same time. Ping resigned as mayor and went on to serve two terms as governor, but he found life in Lansing wasn’t so easy. A group of anti-Pingree state senators, known as the Immortal Nineteen, killed every major Pingree reform bill that reared its head. To add insult to injury, Pingree’s arch-rival, U.S. Rep. William Cotter Maybury, had succeeded him as mayor of Detroit. Saying Pingree and Maybury were mortal enemies is an understatement: They hated and loathed each other. Pingree viewed Maybury as corrupt and nothing more than a baby-kisser who was in the hands of the very interests Ping had fought so hard against. Pingree had hand-picked a GOP successor, Capt. Albert E. Stewart, as his candidate, perhaps hoping that he could control him from Lansing. At a Stewart campaign rally in an old auditorium on Congress Street, Pingree lashed into Maybury, telling a bubbling throng of supporters, “Gentleman, all I gotta say is that what Detroit needs is a man for mayor who will tell those public utilities to kiss something besides babies.” Maybury won easily and spent seven years in City Hall with Pingree roaring obscenities at him from Lansing.

After finishing up his second term, a frustrated Ping decided he had had enough and retired. He went to Africa to study the Boer war and do some big-game hunting. During this time, the fiery Ping came down with jungle fever. On his way home, while in London, he died June 18, 1901, at age 60. The cause was reported as dysentery and peritonitis. The following day, the Detroit News eulogized Pingree saying, “Other men had opinions. He had convictions. … He was the type of man behind whom half of medieval Europe might have marched. … In another state of society, he might have founded a religion or an empire.” The Free Press recalled him in November 1941 saying, “If he had lived he might have been president for by (the time of his death) he was a national figure.” When his body arrived in Detroit, all business stopped for two days. His body laid in state for two days at Old City Hall, and the grand building was decked in mourning bunting and banners reading, “Ambitious,” “Brave,” “Energetic,” “Fearless,” “Staunch,” “True” and “Untiring.” The line to pay respects stretched for six blocks. He was interred at Elmwood Cemetery.

Honoring Ping

“Within minutes after the first edition” of the newspapers reporting Pingree’s death “hit the street, readers were calling The News with offers of donations for a Pingree monument,” the News wrote. A committee was formed to explore how to honor Ping. Carl E. Schmidt, the group’s chairman, thought of erecting on Campus Martius or Cadillac Square an equestrian statue given the former mayor’s love for horses. Much of the money for the bronze monument came from the hungry he had fed with his potato patches. In all, more than 5,000 people donated to the fund, most averaging donations of 25 cents to a dollar. Sculptor Rudolph Schwarz was commissioned for the job, and the statue was unveiled May 30, 1904.

The plaque on the front of the monument reads: “The citizens of Michigan erect this monument to the cherished memory of Hazen S. Pingree. A gallant soldier, an enterprising and successful citizen, four times elected mayor of Detroit, twice governor of Michigan. He was the first to warn the people of the great danger threatened by powerful private corporations. And the first to awake to the great inequalities in taxation and to initiate steps for reform. The idol of the people. He died June 18, MDCCCI, aged 60 years.”

The statue has moved at least twice and has been in the middle of west Grand Circus Park along Woodward, at the corner of Park and Woodward across from the David Whitney Building, and now its current location on West Adams and Woodward.

Pingree’s shoe business was liquidated in the days of World War I.

Immortal enemies

When Maybury died May 6, 1909, another civic drive was started to build Ping’s rival a monument of his own, appropriately standing on the other side of Grand Circus Park, divided by Woodward. While the common people didn’t come forward like they had for Pingree, the statue was erected anyway, with money from Democrats and Maybury’s cronies. Today, the two enemies stare coldly and silently at one another even in death.

In early 1955, when Grand Circus Park was torn up to build a parking garage underneath it, Pingree’s arch-nemesis moved in on his turf. The Maybury statue was temporarily moved from the east side of the park near Pingree’s monument on the west.

On March 23, 1956, workers found a time capsule under the Pingree statue. The black box – measuring 16 inches long by 10 inches wide and weighing 7 pounds – contained a 117-page ledger with the names of those who made donations, a copy of an article in the Philadelphia North American on Pingree and copies of the Detroit Free Press, the Evening News (now the Detroit News), the Detroit Tribune (which folded in 1915) and the Detroit Times, which was closed in 1960. The box was opened March 26, 1956, by his daughter Mrs. Wilson W. Mills, who said at the time: “It has always been a matter of great pride to us that the building of this statue was done mainly through the contributions of Detroit’s young people and schoolchildren. Our family did not contribute one cent.” Copies of current Detroit papers were added to the box when it was sealed back in the statue.

In June 1984, Calculus Construction Co. of Farmington Hills sandblasted the Pingree Monument and the Russell A. Alger Monument to clean the oxidation of the metal. The move was decried. Carol Forsythe, then the objects conservator for the Detroit Institute of Arts, told the Free Press at the time that the drastic move was “equal to taking a metal bristle brush or steel wool and removing the whole top layer of the sculpture. You lose all trace of small, intricate work.” Charles Ganss, vice president of Calculus, told the paper that it was a necessary move because “it looked like they had been through a paint rain.”

A year later, in June 1985, Ping and the Alger and Maybury monuments were removed from the park for restoration at Belle Isle and given a brownish shade to give the appearance of their original patina and were coated with lacquer. Ping and company were returned to their rightful perches in Grand Circus Park on Aug. 7, 1985.