The city of Detroit is rife with nods and tributes to ghosts of its past, legendary and sometimes infamous individuals who have helped shape the city for hundreds of years. Names like Woodward, Lodge, Fisher, and Cass are so synonymous with the thoroughfares and buildings they represent that many people don’t even associate the names with the actual individuals they represent.
However, one name that doesn’t appear on any major road signs or building facades is that of a man who may be the greatest and most influential political figure in the city’s history.
In fact, Hazen S. Pingree was once ranked the four best Mayor in American History by a collection of scholars however the only major public recognition of him is a commanding statue that sits in Grand Circus Park and gazes proudly yet discerningly down Woodward Avenue.
A true “Idol of the People” (as the statues inscription reads) Hazen ran on the campaign slogan “Equal Rights to All, Special Privileges to None” and throughout his time as Mayor he embodied that mantra.
What interests and impresses me most about Hazen Pingree is how relevant his work and beliefs are in today’s political and social climate and so I’ve decided to share some of my favorite nuggets of Pingree lore in the hopes that you will be inspired to do your own digging at places like the Detroit Historical Museum and Detroit Public Library to learn more about Hazen and some of his peers and predecessors.
Hazen the Urban Farming Pioneer
Perhaps the most well known aspect of Mayor Pingree’s time in office was his encouragement and advocacy for farming within the city of Detroit. When the Panic of 1893 struck he opened up tracts of land to the public, including the poor, and encouraged them to use the land for farming and harvesting their own food. This initiative earned him perhaps his most endearing nickname; Potato Patch Pingree.
Hazen the Entrepreneur
It’s still highly debatable whether great businessmen make great politicians but this was certainly true in Mayor Pingree’s case. Before becoming Mayor, Hazen was in the shoe and boot making business and he was damn good at it. By 1886 he was running a million-dollar company that was the second largest shoe manufacturer in the United States.
Anti-Corruption & Monopoly
Hazen despised corruption and monopolies and notably took on the Electric, Telephone, and Railroad lobbies to expose their corruption and bribery and sought to give control of those services to the public, successfully doing so with the Public Lighting Commission which was formed under his administration.
Big Fan of Public Works
We love to talk about placemaking and investment in public projects these days in Detroit, and rightfully so. Hazen recognized the importance of this over 100 years ago and invested heavily in schools, parks, and public baths (the “urban beaches” early 1900’s).
He Looked the Part
Finally, Hazen was a trendsetter for his time not only civically in appearance as well. He was known to get the “last word on fashion” amongst his peers in the city and bore a striking resemblance to England’s King Edward VII, so much so that when he was fatally ill the King himself sent his own physicians to assist in his recovery.
Still want more Pingree bits? I’ve only scratched the surface on what a fascinating individual “Potato Patch” was; did you know he was present at the Appomattox Court House for the Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Confederate Army, or that he was also elected Governor while he was Mayor and attempted to serve both positions?
If you want to get the full story of Hazen S. Pingree and all of his amazing anecdotes and accomplishments I suggest you check out these sources: