If you live in Detroit, or have visited, you’ve probably seen this guy.
Hazen S. Pingree, the “Idol of the People” and former Detroit Mayor and Michigan Governor. So, what’s up with that guy?
I only know a little about Pingree, but I’ve always found his story exciting. It’s a proud bit of Detroit history that I like to celebrate. I like to think of him as Detroit and Michigan’s own “Fighting Bob” (the nickname of Wisconsin’s former socialist Governor Robert LaFollette, whose story has been getting a lot of play recently because of the labor battle in Madison).
Pingree came to Detroit following his service as a soldier in the Union army. During the War other soldiers told him about the city’s vibrancy. So he came and worked as a leather cutter in a shoe factory. Soon he started his own shoe company that became known as one of the largest in the Midwest.
In the 1880s as the rift between the rich and poor grew enormous, both in Detroit and across the country, a bitter political battle was being waged between the Republican and Democratic parties. Rapid industrial change and vitriolic xenophobia and racism fed the growing unemployment and poverty. In Detroit, seeking to break the Democrat’s hold on city politics, a group of wealthy Republicans encouraged Pingree to throw his hat in the ring for Mayor. They expected that his experience as a wealthy businessman himself would ensure he would serve their interests.
They panicked, however, when he chose to kick his mayoral campaign off at a socialist-run bar named “Baltimore Reds.” They knew that his populist rhetoric about being “Mayor of the whole city, without regard for class faction or party,” wasn’t a scam. While campaigning he sought out ethnic and immigrant communities that were traditionally ignored by politicians, which served as an immense source of political strength. Newspapers, businesses, banks and even former wealthy friends began a massive attack campaign, which only served to make him more popular among the urban poor.
Upon being elected he began a massive reform campaign which further alienated him from his former wealthy backers. He rearranged the city’s taxes which were much higher for homes than they were for factories, downtown businesses and vacant lots owned by land speculators. He attacked utility monopolies saying they strangled the city with exorbitant rates through bribes and shady deals. To challenge the monopolies he opened municipally-owned providers and forced competitors to lower their rates. He also tackled corrupt city officials for accepting bribes and making deals against the public’s interest. Legend has it he once walked into a Board of Education meeting and had four members arrested for taking bribes from desk manufacturers and book publishers.
Most notably when the Panic of 1893 struck Detroit and food prices skyrocketed Pingree allowed the poor and unemployed to take over vacant lots being sat on by real estate speculators and grow their own food. These small farms became known as “Pingree’s Potato Patches.” This policy was copied by other progressive mayors across the country.
Pingree’s reform programs led to a massive opposition by news media, businesses and the church. Pingree’s family lost their pew at their church and newspapers refused to publish his proclamations. Instead of choosing to give in to the opposition, however, the Mayor had his speeches posted across the city for everyone to see.
To combat state laws that blocked many of Pingree’s reform ideas, he ran for Governor as a Republican and won in 1897. The Republican Party establishment hated Pingree’s psuedo-socialist politics, but they hated the idea of a Democrat holding onto the Governor’s seat even more. They figured that the Republican majority in the state legislature would be able to block most of Pingree’s proposals, and they were right. Pingree enjoyed little success as a Governor.
Pingree died in 1901 after falling ill following a safari in Africa with Teddy Roosevelt. After news of his death hit the streets of Detroit, the city’s poor clamored for a statue to commemorate the “Idol of the People.” A spontaneous fund for a monument emerged and within 3 years the money was raised to build the statue now sitting on Grand Circus Park’s west side. Donations, usually amounted to 25 cents to a dollar a piece (sound familiar, Detroiters?)
- Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State
- Hazen S. Pingree Monument (from The Buildings of Detroit)
PS. Interestingly, Pingree’s greatest political rival William C. Maybury, Pingree’s mayoral successor, had a monument constructed facing Pingree’s monument directly across the street.