Great Depression Gardens

Thrift Gardens & the Great Depression

Image: “Detroit Thrift Gardens,” 1931, Detroit Historical Society.

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In 1931, the Mayor’s Unemployment Committee (MUC) established the Detroit Thrift Gardens program to provide vacant lot gardens for the many people whose lives were shattered by the Great Depression. Inspired by Hazen Pingree’s potato patches, Mayor Frank Murphy decided to establish the “vacant lot gardening,” which had the two objectives of feeding the needy and preserving the  work habits of the unemployed. In 1931, the MUC allotted $10,000 to the program, supplying land, equipment, gardening instruction.

This type of program was nothing new for the city of Detroit, which had pioneered the concept of vacant lot gardening programs in the United States during the economic downturn of 1893. However, the bureaucratic vision of it was something that was, if not new, at least enhanced in the Detroit Thrift Gardens program.  The vacant lot gardening program of the 1890s was concerned with tracking economic input and estimating output, but the thrift garden program was far more meticulous in collecting these statistics. In addition to a registration form that mirrored a census data form in the nature of its queries, each Thrift Gardener had to sign an official pledge that laid out the ground rules for participation in the program, including an agreement not to sell any of the produce grown, to design and manage the plot in a specific spatiotemporal manner, and an agreement to statistically track the progress of the garden plot, among other things.  This contributed to a much more strictly controlled program than the original potato patches: whereas gardeners in the 1890s were not only permitted but encouraged to sell their surplus produce, such sales were forbidden for the Thrift Gardeners. This increase in bureaucratic management could be read in a variety of ways, but something that should be considered is that while both programs were framed as a consumptive alternative for poor urban dwellers who could not afford produce, the vacant lot gardens of 1893 were also understood to be a means of naturalizing and potentially ruralizing recently immigrated Eastern European populations.

Despite these differences, by the end of its first year, the gardens profited each worker by about $50, justifying a continuation of the project for another year. Between 1931 and 1932, the height of the program, the gardens supplied food and benefits for about 20,000 people.  Experienced gardeners would create model gardens for thrift gardeners to follow, who were either welfare clients or those near the verge of dependency.  Experienced gardeners also seemed to manage and oversee the workers and land, sitting outside of sheds on the perimeter of the land.  They were dressed well, considering that it was the time of the depression, wearing white button-down shirts, ties, brimmed hats, and slacks. Plots were located between dirt roads near shack-like houses, surrounded by some of Detroit’s factories and smokestacks.  Corn appeared to be one of the more popular crops to grow.

It is startling what can be gleaned from the most seemingly mundane bureaucratic documents.  Often, the unexpectedly fascinating history of faceless government agencies is obscured behind the veil of boring that seems to pervade bureaucracy.  However, what is being concealed, beyond simply the untold history of the mundane, is the assumptions and social logic that serve as frameworks and operating principles for these institutions.  More importantly, the operation of power and the central role that institutions, even small-scale institutions such as the Detroit Thrift Gardens program, serve in shaping the way people live and interact with the world.  The thrift gardens, for instance, were a highly managed form of urban land-use that, through bureaucratic tools and channels, shaped the appearance of urban agriculture and shaped people’s relations to it.

Similar to Detroit’s economic standing today, the Great Depression forced thousands out of their jobs.  Thrift Gardens, however, seemed to be a successful solution to maintaining the city’s work morale, encouraging the population to be involved in their community, and stimulating the economy.  Due to the parallels between Detroit in the early 1930s and today, the thrift garden program may be a viable source and inspiration for making future changes within the city.

  • Detroit Thrift Garden application form, 1933, in City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America, ed. Laura Lawson (Berkley: University of California Press, 2005), 166-7.
  • Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), 71-2.
  • Sidney Fine, Frank Murphy: The Detroit Years (The University of Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1975), 284-285.

Click here to see all narratives about agriculture and gardening

Click here to see further reading on agriculture and gardening

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