Pingree farmers cropped

The Potato Patch Scheme

Image: Farmers in the late 19th century in one of Pingree’s Potato Patches stand behind signs in Polish and English. The sign on the right reads “The Name of the man who Originated this System will be handed down to Posterity.” From Hazen S. Pingree, Facts and Opinions: Or, Dangers That Beset Us (Detroit: F.B. Dickerson Company, 1895).

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In 1895, while still serving his last term as Detroit’s mayor, Hazen S. Pingree wrote an autobiography entitled Facts and Opinions: Or, Dangers That Beset Us. Far from laying out some nostalgic, narrative arc from his boyhood in rural Maine to his career as the populist mayor of a burgeoning industrial city, Pingree writes almost exclusively of his time as a mayor and conveys the gravitas with which he wielded his mayoral power to curtail the increasingly monopolistic influence of corporations.  One chapter, near the end of the book and after an exhaustive description of his struggles with greedy capitalists, highlights the potato patch scheme that gained Pingree significant national acclaim: a vacant-lot gardening program that successfully employed the unemployed in subsistence food production during the economic downturn of 1893.  This chapter may seem odd at first situated as it is alongside chapters pertaining to challenging railroad and telegraph monopolies but Pingree would be the first to expound upon the glories of the triumphant experiment that was the potato patch scheme.

In 1893, Detroit was faced with a growing number of unemployed, unskilled laborers in the wake of a nationwide economic downturn.  The Pingree administration, flying the flag of populist saviors, decided to initiate a vacant-lot gardening scheme in which the city donated unused plots on the edge of development to poor, mostly immigrant laborers so that they could be employed in growing their own food. After only a few years the program was considered a resounding success, as the monetary value of the produce grown on these vacant-lot gardens far exceeded the money allotted to the program in the city budget. This success inspired many other American cities such as New York and Chicago to start their own vacant-lot gardening programs so as to deal with urban poverty and unemployment, and was a huge political win for Pingree.  However, as the economy started to improve and employment increased, interest in the program began to wane and it would be abandoned in 1897.  Pingree would always return to the success of the potato patch scheme and tout it both as a personal political victory and as one of Detroit’s primary claims to fame and he was not alone.

Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree’s successful scheme to employ idle hands in the cultivation of subsistence gardens on vacant lots during the economic downturn of 1893 was the first such program in the nation. Despite its short tenure as a facet of the urban environment of Detroit, city plots abounding in vegetables would flourish in the public imagination for years to come. In 1908, during a hard winter for employment, an editorial in the Detroit Free Press calls for the redeployment of a vacant lot gardening scheme. It makes an appeal to the resounding success of the Pingree program and stresses the fact therefore that as a measure for reducing unemployment it would not require any experimentation. The author also points out the existence of vacant lots as a space in which imagined gardens could thrive. Almost a decade later, in a 1917 Detroit Free Press article, Pingree’s potato patches are again referred to as a potential solution for a city-wide food shortage.  The mayor at that time is stated as expressing his belief that a contemporary take on Pingree’s plan would resonate with the poor of the city as it would allow them to help themselves combat the famine.  Again, the success of the potato patch scheme is emphasized and its legacy is further elaborated upon.  It is evident that, far from vanishing after the termination of the program in 1897, Pingree’s potato patches lived on, populating vacant city lots with potential and imagined potatoes.

Returning at last to the chapter in Pingree’s autobiography, we find herein a side to the potato patches that is not instantly visible in all of the editorial praise. In the chapter, Pingree opts not to relate the story personally and instead reprints a public address by the aptly named Captain Cornelius Gardener who officially ran the program for its duration. Gardener, being a practical-minded man, does not embellish much in his post-operational breakdown of the successful program as he focuses on economics and logistics and positive press. He does, however, betray some overtly paternalistic and problematic conceptions of those who participated in the program, emphasizing their simplicity and that “they can be managed as easily as children.” This type of demeaning language, coupled with a photo in the chapter that depicts a family of farmers arranged in a stilted manner behind a handwritten sign in their garden that states “The name of the man who originated this system will be handed down to posterity” and a caption that explicitly labels them as Polish immigrants expose a darker side to the much lauded potato patch scheme.  Not only are immigrant communities and the poor being portrayed as simple and ignorant but they are also being used, objectified, as props in a propagandistic manner serving a political end wholly detached from their labor in the soil.

Here we see displayed something that potentially undermines the legacy of Pingree’s potato patch scheme or at least demands our critical examination.  To be honest though, it should come as no surprise that a philanthropic scheme in the late 19th century would have to play into prevailing notions of how to conceive of and treat the poor and immigrant populations.  Despite Pingree’s populist stance and posturing as a man of the people we should not fool ourselves into thinking that “people” meant quite the same thing then that it does to us now, and even today many programs developed to combat poverty and benefit immigrant communities come under intense criticism from those who still maintain that these populations must be made to be industrious and useful due to ingrained idleness or ignorance.  This is where urban farming as a means of social welfare must be incredibly careful to empower individuals without being paternalistic and demeaning or using that empowerment as a ploy for good press.

Click here to see all narratives about agriculture and gardening

Click here to see further reading on agriculture and gardening

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