Financial History Issue 113 (Spring 2015) - Page 31

By Julia Bricklin The plight of Detroit’s unemployed during the Depression of 1893 — triggered in large part by the collapse of the Reading Railroad and then the failure of the banks that depended on it — had a profound impact on its mayor, Hazen S. Pingree. During the early months of this downturn, thousands of workers in his town had their wages cut, and they soon faced even worse problems. The city’s leading employers, including the Detroit Stove Works, the Michigan Peninsula Car Company and the Pullman Company, either suspended or drastically slashed production, forcing footsteps, obtaining mixed results. “Pingree’s Potato Patches,” as the Empire State press dubbed them, were proclaimed as an effective buffer against the hunger and poverty brought on by the Depression. Community gardens were the most widely adopted and supported self–help concept during the Depression of the 1890s. There were others — farmers’ railroads, food and goods cooperatives, labor exchanges and intentional communities — but gardens were characterized as a “useful emergency measure” to help those who are temporarily out of work to immediately sustain their families with nutrients, by way of “honorable toil.” the value of the prior year’s goods was produced, and while these goods still consisted mostly of potatoes, beans and turnips, citizens also raised other vegetables. Detroit worked out kinks in its system, too. The Common Council, for example, paid $5,000 for 48 plots, instead of depending on private donations, making the program less vulnerable to private land sales. It justified the cost by earmarking the farms for future park use if they became unnecessary. Papers in New York took notice. On September 27, 1894, for example, the Herald-Tribune wrote that there seemed to be “good margin of profit for the poor in the New York’s Response to Unemployment in the 1890s about a quarter of the city’s labor force into unemployment. This economic disaster brought distress to both urban and rural populations. There were few social safety nets for the poor and destitute; programs like Social Security and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — food stamps — came much, much later. Fortunately for both Detroit and the nation, Mayor Pingree was not only sensitive to human suffering, but also devised an immensely popular and effective response that soon bore his name, “Pingree’s Potato Patch.” He formulated a plan to raise private funds to buy seed and tools, which would be used to turn his city’s vacant lots into g \