The Shoemaker Who Looked Like a King

“Pingree Square,” the corner of Gratiot and Randolph in 1898. Pingree’s shoe shop can be seen at lower left. The large buildings in the background are the Majestic, left center, and the J.L. Hudson Co., right.

King Edward VII did his best for the stricken visitor from Detroit. The king sent his own physicians to the tall-ceilinged suite in London’s Grand Hotel where Hazen S. Pingree was fighting for his life in June, 1901.

It was more than a courteous gesture to an honored guest who had served multiple terms as mayor of Detroit and governor of Michigan. The king was genuinely concerned. On a previous visit by Pingree to England, the London press and public had been delighted by the marked resemblance between Pingree and the future monarch, then still the Prince of Wales.

Caricaturists of the metropolis had a field day drawing the distinguished look-alikes. They pictured “Ping” wearing the British crown, and Edward in a hat to match the Detroiter’s well-worn campaign fedora.

ImagePingree, left in both rows, was pleased with his resemblance to the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, and newspaper caricaturists had a field day with the pair. Pingree even trimmed his beard to more closely resemble the prince.

Michigan’s favorite son enjoyed it. He even changed the style of his chin whiskers a bit to further the effort. And there was no doubt that Edward was pleased, too. He admired such forthright American leaders as Pingree.

For weeks, The Detroit News carried dispatches with Pingree’s by-line. They came from exotic places like Lorenzo Marques, Madagascar and Aden. Pingree was a duly accredited correspondent.

He was making a tour around East Africa on the steamer Melbourne, with jaunts inland from ports en route. In June, 1901, a picture of the Pingree party on camelback in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza appeared on page one. In an accompanying article, Pingree told of a strenuous climb of the pyramid. He explored the interior extensively.

On the same page, another story announced elaborate plans by Detroit Mayor William C. Maybury and the City Council to greet Pingree on his return home, with a public reception at the City Hall.

The first word that all was not well with Pingree came in a cable to The News from his son, Joe, on June 15. Stricken with peritonitis, his father was too ill to leave London and to embark for America, Joe reported.

The next day Pingree was much worse. Mrs. Pingree and their daughter, Hazel, left Detroit to catch a transatlantic liner in New York. Pingree failed to rally, and on June 18 it was over. Word of her husband’s death reached Mrs. Pingree in New York in time to turn back before sailing.

In Detroit, the Council quickly adjourned. Newsboys cried the extra with the same magic word that had sold papers for a decade: “Pingree.”

In a page one editorial, The News suggested that the citizens’ welcoming committee become a committee to build a monument. Carl E. Schmidt, the group’s chairman, who was a close friend of Pingree, agreed. Schmidt’s first thought was for an equestrian statue, on the Campus Martius or Cadillac Square.

Drawings in the paper that day recalled dramatic highlights of Pingree’s career:

One portrayed his beginnings in politics. A successful manufacturer of footwear, Pingree was urged by a committee of leading citizens to run for mayor against the corrupt political machine which dominated City Hall .

ImagePingree, second from left, dressed for hunting in Africa.

His first reply was: “I’m too busy making shoes.”

But he did run, and the sketch showed a turning point of the campaign. That came in the Larned Street auditorium, where a mass meeting was packed by cohorts of the opposition. Pingree stood before a hostile mob for 90 minutes, refusing to be shouted down, and the machine’s strong-arm tactics roused the city into a turnout at the polls that became a landslide victory for Pingree.

For many readers that day, the most poignant drawing of all was labeled “In Memoriam.” It recalled the hard times of the l890’s, when thousands in the city would have gone hungry except for the “Pingree potato patches” that provided food for the needy.

The winter of l893-94 was difficult. Because of the money panic of 1893, some of Detroit’s biggest industries were forced to shut down. The railroad car shops and the stove factories were among them.

It was estimated that 25,000 workers were unemployed, in a city whose population was less than 250,000.

Pingree was the first American mayor to hit upon public works as a means of reducing unemployment. His projects helped, but when the hoped-for revival of business failed to come with the spring of 1894 and the city’s poor funds were exhausted, something else was needed.

Pingree noted that, as a result of real estate speculation in the previous boom, plots of land held for a rise in value were standing idle all over town. He made a public appeal to the owners to permit the use of their properties for vegetable gardens.

Applications from the unemployed for garden plots poured in. To raise money to provide seeds and garden tools, Pingree asked for special collections in the churches. He put up his thoroughbred Kentucky saddle horse at auction and turned the proceeds over to the potato-patch fund.

After this start, owners of small parcels and single lots all over town came in by the hundreds. At a cost of a few thousand dollars for seeds and implements, food shortages were reduced to a minimum.

ImageMayor Pingree and Capt. Cornelius Gardener tour the famed Pingree potato patches which the mayor had planted in vacant lots all over the city during the panic of 1893, when 25,000 Detroit men were jobless.

    The plan was widely heralded, and other cities took it up. “Potato Patch Pingree” became nationally known as a champion of the needy.

The garden plots were continued through 1895 and 1896, until the effects of the 1893 panic were over. Even then, the plan was not forgotten. Similar projects were developed in various countries during periods of unemployment.

During his three terms as mayor from 1890 to 1896, Pingree began the fight for municipal ownership of Detroit’s street transportation system. He built more than 50 miles of new track to prove that streetcars could be operated for a 3-cent fare, in place of the 5 cents then being charged.

To do battle with Pingree, the traction interests brought to Detroit Tom L. Johnson, who reputedly possessed the most resourceful brain in their industry. Johnson came to admire Pingree so much that when he returned to Cleveland he ran for mayor and campaigned for 3-cent fares in the Pingree style.

ImageA group of Polish women en route to a “Pingree potato patch” circa 1890.

    “Some day Hazen S. Pingree will be remembered and recognized as one of the foremost leaders in our era of national awakening,” was Johnson’s assessment of his old foe.

As governor from 1896 to 1900, Pingree locked horns with an even more formidable power than the traction trust. This was the railroad lobby.

When he undertook to push legislation to force the railroads to play equable taxes, the House of Representatives was with him. The rail lobby, however, maintained a tight grip on the allegiance of 19 of the 32 members of the Senate.

Upon this latter group, Pingree bestowed an ironic designation, “The Immortal 19.” The immortals closed ranks against a storm of popular pressure raised against them throughout a special session called in December, 1900, but the measure he sought became law soon afterward.

ImageGovernor Pingree in his office at the Capitol in Lansing.

    Pingree’s accomplishments in public office were still fresh in the public mind when his death occurred the following June. He was only 59, and the shock was great.

Within minutes after the first edition hit the street, readers were calling The News with offers of donations for a Pingree monument.

It was decided to issue memorial certificates with his picture to contributors. The initial certificate went to a 10-year old black newsboy, George Throgmartin.

On July 2, a delegation of city officials went to New York to escort Pingree’s body to Detroit. The following day a catafalque was placed in the main corridor of the City Hall. The flags and bunting that decorated the building for the Fourth of July were replaced by wreaths on July 5, and a silent crowd began assembling outside for the arrival of the casket.

ImageThe statue of Hazen Pingree in Grand Circus Park.

    The long line of those waiting to pay tribute grew until it extended for six blocks. When the cortege arrived it was led by a carriage bearing Mayor Maybury, Pingree’s son, Joe, and the ex-governor’s brother, Frank. All that day, Detroiters filed past the bier.

At dawn the next day the casket was taken to the spacious Pingree home on Woodward. The service there was simple, with the Rev. Nehemiah Boynton, of the First Congregational Church, offering prayers and the Rev. Reed Stuart, of the First Unitarian, giving the eulogy.

By 2 p.m., 20,000 members of military and civic organizations lined Woodward near the home. The flag-draped casket was placed on a caisson from Fort Wayne, painted deep olive green and drawn by 35 soldiers of the Michigan State Troops.

The cortege moved slowly down Woodward, through crowds of people lining the curbs, and out Jefferson to Elmwood Cemetery.

ImageDetroit’s City Hall was draped in mourning as the city awaited the return of Pingree’s body from London in 1901. The banners read “Staunch,” “Fearless,” “Brave,” “Untiring,” “Energetic,” “Ambitious” and “True.”

By Don Lochbiler / Special to The News