January 6, 2013 at 1:00 am

Hazen Pingree: Quite possibly Detroit's finest mayor

He changed the city's structure for the people's benefit

"It is always the big thief who shouts the loudest about the little thief." — Hazen S. Pingree

In the book "The American Mayor" published in 1999, Hazen S. Pingree was identified by U.S. scholars as one of the Top 10 mayors in U.S. history. As mayor of Detroit and later governor of Michigan, Pingree was not just responding as a businessman to the needs of citizens and the dysfunctional organization of city government, he was changing the social foundation of Detroit, forcing the city out of a 19th century socially rigged order toward a progressive, socially just 20th century.

In his four terms as mayor, Pingree got private corporations to lower the price of natural gas, telephone service and street car rates. He reconstructed the sewer system and improved Detroit's horrible unpaved streets that were considered among the worst in the country for a big city. He constructed public schools, the first public parks, and free public baths. He exposed corruption in the school board and bribery at the private lighting company. He initiated the first publicly owned transit company and city-owned electric company after he found that Detroit was paying nearly double the rates charged in Toledo, Cleveland, Grand Rapids and Buffalo.

He implemented equal tax policies for the city, and he forced down the rates for river ferries. He started competitive bidding for street car companies and he brought about electrified rapid transit. He did away with the old toll roads and began his nationally famous potato patch plan that helped feed thousands through a devastating economic depression.

Although 120 years later many would find themselves on the exact opposite side of Pingree in their beliefs about the effectiveness and purpose of the public sector versus the private sector, credit Pingree with devoting his sole focus on the betterment of Detroit and its common people.

Detroit in 1889

To understand Hazen Stuart Pingree's character, iron persistence, blunders and achievements, it is important to see the city that elected him in 1889 as its 43rd mayor.

In 1889 Detroit's population was 205,000 and growing steadily; the majority of Detroiters were foreign born and had arrived after the Civil War. The census of 1890 reported only 42,000 of Detroit's population were born of native parents; 78,000 were born of foreign parents and 80,000 were foreign born. Germans far outnumbered Irish Americans or other nationalities; the city supported eight German newspapers.

Detroit was 89 square miles (it is now 138 square miles), and it was divided into 16 ribbon shaped "wards." Each ward elected two aldermen to represent them on the Common Council for two-year terms. On the day Pingree was inaugurated, seven aldermen out of 32 were indicted by a grand jury for accepting bribes from public contractors.

Public projects such as the purchase of Belle Isle or the development of the new Grand Boulevard, located on the city outskirts at that time, were viewed as recklessly extravagant, privately motivated boondoggles and met with deep suspicion and frequently violent opposition.

The tax codes made public improvements such as paving streets difficult. When a street was paved, owners whose property abutted the street were taxed higher than the rest of the city; therefore, few wanted their streets paved or improved. Paving as well as other public utilities were run by "rings," contractors who paid "boodle" — bribes to aldermen on the Common Council. Pingree's predecessor, Mayor John Pridgeon, was linked to scandal after scandal involving the Common Council, city commissioners, grand jury investigations, and prosecutions for bribery and graft.

Mayors did not run Detroit at that time; the city was controlled by a "corrupt political machine, in the hands of a small group of men," as city historian George Catlin described it. The nomination of 32 aldermen was dictated by this machine; some of the characters nominated were capable, but many "were notorious for past political malfeasances and corrupt practices."

Detroit was politically a city of Democrats, but despite their lock on the ethnic wards, differences in nationalities, especially Germans and Irish, kept the council in a state of war. A large number were German saloon owners and bartenders, led by President John Chris Jacob. "Boss Jacob" was a cynical and tough-minded ward boss. His German accent was heavy and his language profane. If someone threatened to cast an adverse vote he would drown them out with his booming voice, physically intimidate them or make up some parliamentary rule to send everyone to a rule book and stall the process.

Jacob was quoted in the Detroit Evening News in 1889 as saying, "Dose Irisher altermanns what is always gombining against der Germans." Many Germans who by this time were socially rising in Detroit had nothing but contempt for the newly arrived Polish or other immigrants. Council's only concerns were with city contracts, rewarding allies with jobs, and hammering enemies.

These alderman candidates were seldom known by the general public. Caucuses and any political business were held in the back rooms of saloons. Some of the wards, such as the First Ward, were in dangerous slums like the "Potomac" that ran along the river. Many of the inhabitants of the Potomac were veterans of the Civil War who were now dock workers or day laborers; some were "floaters" — flop house bums.

The slum's odd name came from a popular song of the Civil War, "All Quiet Along the Potomac." (It is said the song inspired the translated title for the World War I epic novel and movie, "All Quiet on the Western Front".)

Boss Jacob was accused of using "floaters" in his re-election campaign by his Republican challenger for alderman of the Fifth Ward. In a fit of fury Jacob beat his accuser, choked him, and pitched him over a stairway railing.

The arrival of Pingree in Detroit

Hazen Pingree was nearly 50 when he ran for public office for the first time. He was born to a poor family in Maine in 1840. He worked on a farm, had little education, and got a job in a shoe factory as a leather cutter. In 1862 at age 22 he and others in the town enlisted in the Company F, First Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, to fight in the Civil War. He saw a lot of action.

Pingree first heard of Detroit when he was a prisoner at the Confederate Andersonville prison in Georgia for six months. (Problems with his stomach that started with the starvation diet at Andersonville would trouble him all his life.)

He listened to a few fellow homesick prisoners from Detroit who enthusiastically loved their city and extolled the business opportunities for young men. During Gen. Sherman's march to Atlanta, Pingree was transferred to another prison but managed to escape. He returned to his unit and continued fighting and was even present at Appomattox Court House and Lee's surrender of the South.

On Aug. 15, 1865, Pingree was mustered out and a few months later came to Detroit. He began as a cobbler for R.H. Fyfe on Jefferson Avenue, then took a sales job with another shoe company, H.P. Baldwin. He was unhappy there and soon quit. He met Charles H. Smith, an accountant, and they formed a partnership buying and selling produce.

In 1866 it was announced that H.P. Baldwin was going out of business, so the two men bought up the old shoe manufacturing machines. Pingree rebuilt them and the partners formed the Pingree and Smith shoe firm with $1,360 and eight employees, which in 20 years grew to 700 employees making, in 1886, 490,877 pairs of boots, shoes and slippers for men, women and children. The company brought in nearly a million dollars a year, and was the second biggest shoe manufacturer in the U.S., according to Silas Farmer, Detroit's city historian.

During the 1870s and '80s, while Pingree built up his shoe business, he stayed to the side of politics as a donor. He was part of the group called the "Big Four": wealthy businessmen in the state who donated large sums to the Michigan Republican Club.

Republicans were searching for a man to run for mayor in a race they didn't expect to win in 1889, because Detroit was in the hands of Democrats. Pingree was not their first choice, but through consensus they hoped that a level-headed yet forceful businessman might have some appeal, so they nominated him. These same men, among whom were U.S. Sen. James McMillan, former Mayor William G. Thompson, and Michigan Central Railroad lawyer James F. Joy, would later become his most implacable, bitter enemies.

Candidate Pingree

Pingree refused at first. "Mayor? Why? What the hell do I know about politics? I'm too busy making shoes."

Then, after pressure from the Republican Club members, he reluctantly accepted. He had no experience but he had ferocious energy, which is how he built his shoe empire. He was well dressed in his black silk top hat and full-length black frock coat. Newspaper reporter John C. Lodge, who later became mayor in the 1920s, wrote that Pingree "was always the last word in attire."

He was portly and strong like a Maine farmer, with a high-pitched voice and a bald round head with pale, somewhat pinkish skin. Historian Catlin said Pingree's blue eyes gave him a vacant stare which reporters described as either dreaming of the future or vacuous, depending on where they stood with him.

Candidate Pingree got coached by some political old hands who saw he had potential; he seemed sincere, friendly and likeable, and once he threw himself into a challenge he was relentless. They showed him tips on how to give a speech and very soon he drew crowds. He liked people and spoke directly to them. He referred to himself as "just a plain shoemaker — old baldheaded Ping." However, Lodge added that "Pingree fairly blew up as he always did when his sense of justice was outraged."

In his 1965 book "Reform In Detroit," Melvin Holli explained that on a deeper level, what Pingree saw and exploited was Detroit's new immigrants who had arrived after the Civil War. They made up the largest percentage of Detroit's population but many felt unrepresented, particularly the Polish. He acted on that and used that strategy throughout his political career.

He courted the Poles with a translator at his side, and drank red eye whiskey with the Irish voters, squashing rumors he was a temperance supporter. He spoke to German societies. He fraternized on street corners, asked his shoe customers to vote for him, and enlisted his shoe factory employees to get out the vote. When he didn't get favorable reviews in the English language daily newspapers, he secretly bought a German paper, Sonntags Herold, replaced the editor and immediately got the paper's enthusiastic endorsement.

Pingree won the election by a slim majority.

The first year

Pingree wisely had hired Alexander I. McLeod, an easygoing former newspaper writer from Mt. Clemens, to act as his secretary and right hand man. McLeod wrote his speeches and smoothed feelings when Pingree "had blood in his eye." McLeod typically entered the council chamber first, smiling and greeting aldermen and others. The Common Council chambers were at times jammed with as many as 200 people: businessmen, corporate lawyers, reporters, citizens with complaints, spectators, and policemen. Shouting, horn blowing, brawling and even riots were not uncommon. Everyone smoked cigars and the air was gagged with blue smoke.

Pingree entered Chris Jacob's Common Council for the first time as the elected mayor. He spoke directly without the flowery introductions and asides that characterized Victorian speeches. He listed five reforms he wanted to address, starting with the streets. Detroit streets in 1890 were among the worst in the nation with only four paved streets and miles of rotting cedar block.

Secondly, the public franchises, such as the street cars which were privately owned, were poorly maintained and the fares too high. He also complained of contracts with gas and electric companies showing Detroit's rates far exceeding even smaller cities such as Grand Rapids. He finished with a list of jobs he needed filled in his office and recommended who he saw as the most fit for each job.

Council was stone silent. Just as silent were the Republican businessmen and lawyers sitting in the gallery, investors in the lighting, paving and city street cars, listening to Pingree's every word.

"Ya, vell," Chris Jacob said. "Vee dink about this den." He adjourned the session.

As George Catlin wrote, each alderman retreated to his respective ward saloon, determined to bring down this dreamy new mayor.

Taking it to the streets

Pingree soldiered on. He took the hidebound aldermen, cynical newspapermen and others to the street to look at what he was talking about. Four streets were paved with brick and what was then called asphalt: Jefferson, Lafayette, Second, and Cass. Other streets, like Grand River or Woodward, were made up of cedar block, paving material that first appeared in 1836.

The Detroit Journal described the streets as "150 miles of rotting, rutted, lumpy, dilapidated paving." In summer, sections of streets oozed pitch and resin and occasionally caught fire from discarded cigar butts.

Graft and corrupt contractors resulted in the sewer scandal of 1890. Pingree took a group of aldermen down into the sewers where he showed them concrete as soft as mush, bricks falling from the wall at a touch, crumbling mortar, mud and effluence pouring through the walls. Pingree declared that the fault lay with the city's cement supplier, who sold unsuitable cement. The contractor threatened to sue. Pingree turned his office into a concrete testing lab with jars and bottles with sand, brands of cement, water, pressure gauges, and tensile testing equipment. The contractor backed down when Pingree showed that the contractor's cement crumbled in his fist.

Pingree led the entire common council plus newspaper reporters on junkets to other cities to see electric powered street cars. In 1890, Detroit continued to rely on dusty horses pulling cars on old worn oak stringers (rails) topped with strap iron — basically no different from the rails of the 1840s.

He attacked the pavement tax laws, offering to issue a bond to pay for the improvements, then spread the payment out across the city and over time. Conservatives, many of them his own neighbors, opposed it, saying it would encourage wasteful spending. However, like the good businessman that he was, Pingree showed that similar tax code changes in other cities did not do that and that cities with more than 50,000 citizens had much better street quality.

But his efforts for reform went nowhere. Even his appointees were rejected and the positions filled with council cronies. Boss Jacob outmaneuvered the inexperienced mayor, calling special late night "rump" sessions of the council to reject the mayor's proposals; it was completely illegal and the Michigan Supreme Court ordered them stopped, but Jacob simply disregarded the order.

Arresting the school board

Exasperated, Pingree threatened to expose "boodling" (bribery) and those who were "raking off" percentages from contractors' bids. He went directly at the boodlers. One was the Detroit school board, which was notorious for graft. Pingree learned they awarded lucrative contracts at secret school board meetings which the state said were illegal, but they ignored state law.

When they dismissed Pingree's legal mayoral veto of their contracts, he arranged a special board meeting. He called for the guilty parties to resign and save the city from disgrace. When he heard nothing in return, he took out a list of their names and read the charges to each and a warrant. He then called in a squad of police officers from the wings and had them all arrested and taken to jail. Earlier he had set up private detectives to pose as salesmen and recorded their demands for bribes using a stenographer hidden in an adjacent room.

Two were sentenced to prison, one jumped bail, one was acquitted, and one committed suicide. Pingree was praised for the result but also sharply criticized by many Detroiters for what the Detroit Free Press called "his 'grand stand play' manner of executing the warrants for the arrest."

Beginning in 1844, private turnpike companies attempted to fill a void in public roads with a network of toll roads, portions of which were constructed with wooden planks. At various points along a toll road, such as Grand River Avenue, travelers were charged a fee. By the 1890s most private toll roads were out of business, but a few lingered in Detroit. Pingree attacked the companies that collected tolls from people traveling down the main streets of Detroit. He saw it as an antiquated remnant of a time long past. Some of these toll companies were owned by personal friends of Pingree. He went at them nonetheless.

He had paving teams tearing out cedar block and replace it with brick for long hours, seven days a week. But things were still moving too slowly for Pingree until a riot of thousands, including J.L. Hudson, played into his hands.

The street car riot

In February of 1892 the journal Street Railway Review called Detroit's horse-drawn street car system "one of the poorest equipped street railway cities in the country." In his opening address to the Common Council, Pingree demanded rapid transit and expansion of the lines.

The Detroit City Railway was privately owned by George and Strathearn Hendrie of Ontario, who were determined to keep their horse-drawn lines. They would convert to rapid transit only if the city renewed their 30-year contract, which was coming up for renewal in less than a year, and they refused to put in writing when they would convert from horses to electricity.

In April of 1891 a strike was called by transit workers, which pushed Pingree into the center ring and brought him the attention of the national press. Twelve union members were fired by the Hendries for organizing the Street Car Employees Association and the support of a 10-hour work day. The drivers and conductors were working 81 hours a week and wanted it reduced to 72 hours a week.

It was a three-day riot made up of mobs of workers and citizens in a vengeful mood, set on destroying the City Railway's cars and tracks. On Jefferson Avenue crowds grew with other union members who walked off the job from stove and shoe manufacturers and surrounded the rail cars. The Detroit Tribune reported the strike leaders shouting, "Break out the windows. Give them a volley of anything you can lay your hands on. And if you happen to hit the cops and the scabs it'll be all right!"

The Detroit Free Press quoted Cameron Currie, treasurer and secretary of the line, saying, "The city is in the hands of a mob. And we can do nothing until sufficient police protection is assured." He then ran to Field's store, where he purchased a number of revolvers and cartridges, and passed them out among the employees.

The mob threw bricks and stones at the street cars. They began ripping up rails. Strathearn Hendrie, described as "wild with rage," leaned out of another street car, screamed, shook his fist at the crowd and pulled out a revolver. From the crowd at least a half a dozen men pointed shotguns and pistols directly at Hendrie. He took cover but the crowd was now shouting, "Kill the Cannucks! Kill the Cannucks!"

It wasn't only the working men destroying property in the street, it included some respected citizens, such as future mayor and U.S. Senator James Couzens. Joseph L. Hudson sent out clerks from his department store to collect money to support the strikers. City bakers provided free lunches. The Detroit Free Press wrote: "The railway company is reaping the harvest of its indifference to popular sentiment."

The railway company ordered Pingree to call the governor and bring in state militia to force the end of the melee at rifle point. Pingree refused, saying that city forces were adequate. He rode his chestnut mare into the middle of the strikers and tried to speak amid the deafening shouts. He smiled and waved.

"Tell these men to break up and go home," shouted the chief of police to Pingree.

"Why?" he smiled looking around. "They're not doing any harm, are they?"

"Yes, they are destroying property and attacking City Railway employees!"

Pingree moved a bit further and was surrounded by hundreds of rioters, who quieted down. The mayor counseled order and good behavior and the mob dispersed but the violence continued elsewhere.

Pingree convinced the railway company to arbitrate with the strikers, a revolutionary strategy. They did and the strike ended.

Pingree in his book "Facts and Opinions" wrote that calling U.S. soldiers to suppress or harm American citizens for a private corporation or trust was morally contemptible. Interviewed sometime later, George Hendrie confided that when the mayor of Detroit refused to call in state soldiers to defend his railway, he knew the corporation as he and his brother had maintained it for years was not defensible.

Making enemies

The victory over the privately owned city railway didn't actually come for several months, when Pingree's veto of the 30-year contract for the Hendries was unanimously sustained by the Common Council, a humiliating defeat for Chris Jacobs. It cost powerful men in the Republican Party a lot of money, especially Michigan. Sen. James McMillan, as he was a major stockholder in the railway. He was head of the Republican Party and was quoted as saying he wanted "to run him (Pingree) into the ditch."

Other wealthy Detroiters began to close ranks on Pingree. He lost his place on the board of Preston National Bank. His family was denied its traditional pew at the Woodward Avenue Baptist Church. The family was being isolated by the church, by neighbors and even business colleagues.

Pingree remarked, "It takes a lot of pluck to see your old associates pass you by without speaking and not get disheartened and want to give up the fight," reported the Detroit Tribune on Nov. 4, 1893.

Pingree had little regard for the church after that. He said the "goo-goos'" (a derogatory name for Christian do-gooders) efforts at reforming society through temperance and closing whore houses was a waste of time; it was part of human nature. Pingree believed the only way to reform men was to change the structure of society through popular support. As one plumber shouted to him at a rally: "The Detroit 400 may be trying to down you but there are 40,000 to stick to you." The Free Press wrote in 1894, "There are thousands of plain, thoughtful citizens of Michigan who love Mayor Pingree for the enemies he has made."

The potato patch solution

The panic of 1893 and the depression that followed in 1894 had a severe effect on Detroit's financial and banking sectors. All manufacturing entities laid off workers to the point that the state census of the time estimated male labor force unemployment at 33 percent. Especially hard hit were the foreign born, who were 50 percent unemployed.

A Polish mob forced a street repair gang to throw down their shovels and give them a chance at work. Police put the mob down with clubs and drawn revolvers. Another 500 men armed with shovels attacked Sheriff C.P. Collins and two deputies who emptied their revolvers into the charging mob, but soon shovels came down on them and beat them into a "senseless bloody mass," according to the Detroit Tribune.

Foreigner turned against foreigner. The Michigan Catholic asked for "severe punishment against a savage mob of howling Poles."

Pingree applied pressure to bakeries to reduce the price of bread, which at that time sold for a nickel a loaf. He eliminated trucks at work sites to allow for the hiring of more men to hall stone by wheelbarrow. In the second summer of the depression Pingree initiated his novel idea of urban farming, turning vacant city land into garden plots. The city's poverty commission was exhausted so Pingree took his idea to the churches to raise money for tools and seed.

"Most of the unfortunate would be glad to raise their own food," Pingree argued. "They are willing to work, and we ought to give them a chance to do it."

The Detroit newspapers mocked Pingree and the big churches treated the idea with sarcasm and contempt; in all he raised an insulting $13 from the churches. (Soon after Pingree advocated repealing the churches' tax-exempt status.) Undeterred, Pingree sold his prize horse at one third of its worth to kick off the potato patch program, and got access to farm 430 acres of city land.

In 1894, 3,000 families applied to work on the plots but there was only money for 945. In the first year those families grew $14,000 worth of produce, so much it was a surplus. In 1895 the number of farm plots grew to 1,500 and in 1896 to more than 1,700. The value of produce exceeded $30,000, more than the outlay of the city poverty commission.

It was an unquestionable success and Pingree became a national hero. The potato patch scheme was copied in such cities as New York, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle and Denver. But Pingree's vision of social justice became keener; he doubted the long-term effectiveness of charity. In 1896 he told the Terre Haute Benevolent Society, "Charity, in short, is the handmaid of economic oppression."

On to the governorship

However, Pingree grew more convinced that it was the state Republican politicians' support for the railroad trusts that was the real problem for the public, so he ran for governor. It took him some time, twice failing to obtain the gubernatorial nomination in 1892 and 1894, but in 1896 he was elected. The Republican controlled state house viewed Pingree as an enemy. A New York Times editorial voiced a common view:

"Considerable anxiety is expressed, even by the men who voted for him, over the probability that he will use the powers of his new office to put into execution the many eccentric schemes of which he is known to approve. Mr. Pingree's ability is denied by none, but he is said to have an insane hatred of railroads, and on many social and economic subjects to be far more heretical than the Populist gang whose financial absurdities he opposes."

He was at the time still mayor and wanted to hold onto the office to ensure passage of key programs he had started; however, the state Supreme Court refused to allow him to be both mayor of Detroit and governor of Michigan, so Pingree resigned as mayor. Unfortunately for Pingree, Sen. McMillan and the Republican Legislature and the railroad lobby in the state were too dominant, and their hatred of Pingree was unremitting. They blocked every effort Pingree made to tax the railroads. Many consider his governorship ineffective.

Embittered and in need of rest, he decided to travel. In 1901 he went to England, Europe and Africa, riding the steamer Melbourne on a continental tour that included an elephant hunt in South Africa. With him were longtime friend and political ally Col. Eli R. Sutton and his son, Hazen Pingree Jr., known as Joe. Joe had been a star halfback on the University of Michigan football team, class of 1896. His photograph on the Egyptian pyramids or posed with hunting gear and rifle were carried on the front pages of Detroit newspapers.

As the tour was coming to an end, Pingree suddenly became painfully ill and was rushed to a hospital in London. King Edward VII, Pingree's famous look-alike, even sent his own physicians to London's Grand Hotel to assist in his recovery. Unfortunately, he died in London at age 61 with his son at his bedside.

A huge crowd gathered at the Michigan Central Depot for the return of his body, and an estimated 60,000 to 75,000 people filed by his casket. His funeral in Detroit stretched for many blocks and included both friends and political enemies. It was considered the most remarkable funeral which ever took place in Detroit.

Today his memorial statue can be seen in Grand Circus Park, sculpted by Austrian artist Rudolph Schwarz and unveiled in 1904. Many of the 5,000 donations received for the monument came from common people who survived by farming his potato patches. The monument reads : "The citizens of Michigan erect this monument to the cherished memory of Hazen S. Pingree. A gallant soldier, an enterprising and successful citizen, four times elected mayor of Detroit, twice governor of Michigan. He was the first to warn the people of the great danger threatened by powerful private corporations. And the first to awake to the great inequalities in taxation and to initiate steps for reform. The idol of the people. "

A statue of Hazen S. Pingree was unveiled in Grand Circus Park on May 30, 1904, financed by donations from 5,000 people. / David Coates / The Detroit News
Hazen Pingree served four terms as mayor of Detroit, 1889-1897, and was ... (Detroit Publishing Co.)