Pingree statue Grand Circus Park, Detroit, Michigan

According to his statue in Grand Circus Park in Detroit, Michigan, Hazen S. Pingree is the Idol of the People with a long political career. He served as Mayor of Detroit from 1889-1897 and as Governor of Michigan from 1897-1901. If Pingree had had his way, however, none of that would have happened. When approached with the Republican nomination for Mayor of Detroit, Pingree said, “Mayor? Why?” He claimed to be “too busy making shoes” to know anything about politics.

Hazen Pingree in a photo patch, circa 1893-1894

Hazen Pingree in a photo patch, circa 1893-1894

Humble Beginnings

Hazen Pingree was born on August 30, 1840 in Denmark, Maine. He worked for shoemakers in Maine and then Massachusetts until he enlisted in the First Massachusetts Heavy Artillery following the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Pingree heard about the business opportunities available in Detroit from homesick Michiganders while imprisoned in Andersonville. Following the end of the war, he moved to Detroit, and in 1866, he formed the Pingree and Smith Shoe Company. Pingree and Smith became the second largest shoe manufacturer in the United States by 1886.

Pingree’s Political Career

Pingree was a successful businessman but not politically active until his friends in the Republican Party nominated him for mayor in 1889. He initially turned down the nomination. However, he was convinced by former Governor John Bagley to run, and he won. Pingree’s popularity continued to grow, and he was reelected as mayor three times. As mayor, he fought corruption and monopolies, and helped the poor during the 1893 depression. He initiated public works programs similar to the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps that were formed during the Great Depression over thirty years later. One such program, known as the Potato Patch Plan, allowed poor people to grow crops on vacant land and gained Pingree the nickname “Potato Patch Pingree.” While campaigning for one of his many reelection campaigns, he had a potato flask made either for himself or one of his supporters, as a play on his nickname.

In 1897, while still mayor, Pingree was elected governor and intended to hold both offices simultaneously. The Michigan Supreme Court, however, ruled against him and he resigned as mayor.

Death of an Idol

After two terms Pingree left office and traveled to Africa for a safari and to study the Boer War. He fell sick and died in London before he could return home. Twenty-five thousand people attended his funeral in Detroit, and the aforementioned Pingree statue in Grand Circus Park was dedicated three years later. To many of his contemporaries, this early Progressive reformer was indeed an “idol of the people.”