Hazen Pingree potato photo vintage community garden
Gardening, History

History of Community Garden Movement in America – Part 2: Pingree’s Potato Patches, Detroit

Hazen Pingree potato photo vintage community garden

History of Community Garden Movement in America – Part 2: Pingree’s Potato Patches, Detroit

Community gardens come in all stripes. We can reasonably assume that the gardens grown by Native Americans for thousands of years on this continent constituted the first form of community gardens on our continent (see Part 1, Hohokam Irrigation Canals). Likewise, the gardens grown in common areas by the white settlers in towns and cities along the eastern seaboard may have constituted a form of early American community garden. But when it comes to formal efforts to appropriate land for growing vegetables in urban settings, most researchers agree that the first modern day community gardens were the vacant land garden plots in Detroit, MI in the late 1800s.

Hazen Pingree's Potato Patch vintage photography early community gardens

The sudden financial crisis and resulting Depression of 1893 (see https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-depression-of-1893/) hit Detroit and other burgeoning industrial cities hard. Unemployment in Detroit suddenly exceeded 10% and thousands of families in the city were without the means to feed themselves. Hazen Pingree, the city’s progressive mayor (and later governor of Michigan), had the idea to use hundreds of acres of vacant land on the city’s fringes that were being held for speculation to grow potatoes and other food staples. The idea was to give the distressed workers of the city (primarily newly arrived Polish immigrants) free use of the land, seeds and tools to grow food for themselves and their families as well as to raise much needed cash. Pingree arranged for the use of 450 acres of vacant land and appealed to others in the city for money to buy tools, equipment and seeds for the project.

At first, Hazen Pingree received little support for his idea from the city council and other civic leaders, including churchmen. Lacking the necessary donations to buy needed supplies, Pingree auctioned off his own prize race horse to demonstrate his personal commitment to the plan. Eventually, enough money was raised to buy tools and seeds for the first plots of vacant land to be cultivated by the city’s poor in the summer of 1894. While more than 3000 applications were received, the program could only accept 975 participants.

Individuals were assigned plots of land as close to home as possible. The gardener’s name was written on a wooden stake, and a garden manager supervised the planting schedule. The organizing committee provided potatoes, beans and other seeds. Planting instructions were printed in three languages. Even with a dry first year and a late planting, a good crop of potatoes was harvested (an average of 15 and a half bushels per plot). Gardeners produced approximately $14,000 worth of produce.

Hazen Pingree's Potato Patch vintage photography and early community gardens

After this first successful year, the mayor garnered the support of the city’s aldermen and city council. In the second year, the city provided $5000 to the project, with 1546 gardeners participating — fully 25% of all citizens on public relief. The crop was valued at $44,000. Pingree’s potato patches continued for a third successful year. When a report was written about the food assistance program a decade later, it stated that it had reduced the number of people on the poor rolls by 60 percent, at a cost of $3.60 per family.

News of the “Detroit Experiment” quickly spread and a similar project was started in New York City, soon followed by projects in Philadelphia and other large cities. Vacant-lot cultivation associations appeared in cities throughout the country. By 1898, 19 cities had such associations. The largest program was in Buffalo, NY. 2118 gardens were cultivated there on 700 acres of land.

For more info. see: http://www.hourdetroit.com/Hour-Detroit/April-2015/Pingrees-Patches/

Sources:
City Bountiful: a century of community gardening in America by Laura J. Lawson, University of California Press, 2005

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