Financial History Issue 113 (Spring 2015) | Page 33

several “application stations” in different points of the City, and if an applicant’s credentials were satisfactory (e.g. he or she was not a felon), the person would receive a quarter acre plot that was accessible from where he or she lived. If the man had a large family, he was given half an acre. The New York City variation of the Pingree Plan was more successful than its many sister programs throughout the rest of the state. The AICP not only hired the unemployed to garden at a respectable 7.5 cents an hour, but also, it gave three-cent hourly raises to those who faithfully tilled for more than a month. Additionally, after that trial month, a worker could obtain a share in the annual profits, earned by sales of the food to New York City area charities at market rates. Because an employee tilled the same garden consistently, the program instilled a feeling of ownership and pride. Also, New York City’s version of the Pingree Plan allowed employees to take foodstuffs directly to their home tables as needed; this, in addition to wages and profit-sharing, did a lot to alleviate the worst effects of poverty. Who was this man who motivated New York and many other states and cities to so quickly implement vacant lot gardening programs? Pingree may have been inspired by his own childhood. He was born near Denmark, Maine, on August 30, 1940, the son of an impoverished farmer. At 14, like many others his age, he was forced to leave school and work long and dangerous hours in a cotton mill, and later a leather factory. According to Grant, when the Civil War broke out, Pingree experienced the horrors of the Second Battle of Bull Run, as well as the Battle of North Anna River in Virginia. He also spent five tortuous months during 1864 in the infamous Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia. After the war, Pingree headed to Detroit with just a few dollars. Within a few years — like something out of a Horatio Alger story — he became a successful boot and shoe manufacturer. By 1888, he was fairly wealthy. In 1889, he ran for mayor of Detroit on the Republican ticket and was overwhelmingly elected as a “good government” politician with wide support from the city’s business elite. But by the time the Depression struck, Pingree had formed a coalition of what his enemies called “workers and ethnics” rather than the “better people” and looked for ways to fight for public interest as opposed to business interests. As for the community garden ideas that Pingree espoused, he may have recalled his own boyhood, when his family was often short of cash, but long on foodstuffs like potatoes and turnips. An associate of the politician once remarked that the idea “occurred to Mr. Pingree, while driving along the Boulevard in Detroit, that could but the poor and unemployed get a chance to cultivate some of the vacant and idle lands there [they could survive.]” Also, an unpublished biography of Pingree written in 1931 suggested that the project “originated in the gentle, anxious mind of Mrs. Pingree,” who may have either seen or heard of the English “allotment plans,” where the poor, through a system of rents, enjoyed access to garden plots. The Pingree Plan and vacant lot programs in general were not flawless, and they were not meant to be permanent or whole measures of relief. The biggest problem, of course, was that donated, private land could at any time be bought and sold, disrupting crop cycles. If the land was city-owned, it was susceptible to “greater good” use, such as becoming a foundation for railroad tracks, paved streets or housing. Pests and weather could and did wipe out swaths of crops. In some areas, families were so hungry that they ate their food before it had a chance to mature — in Kingston, New York, for example, the “poor ate the seed potatoes, instead of planting them.” There were also some “victim of success” problems. For example, there was often no proper place available to store root vegetables before they could be brought to market, and some private farmers complained that the glut of potatoes in the marketplace was driving everybody’s prices down. A Reading grower moaned that Buffalo reversed the natural order of things, and that “Thousands of bushels extra have been raised by the poor… Hence, the large consumers of potatoes have had no reason to buy any.” Positively, the biggest threat to vacant lot gardens was, of course, when the economic crisis started to subside in late 1898. On March 16, 1895, the New York World printed a community farmer’s point-