Howland Mill Village, 1888-1889
The Howland Mill Village in New Bedford’s south end was
one of the most innovative and visionary corporate housing developments
of the nineteenth century. It was designed for the singular
purpose of providing a quality and aesthetically pleasing environment
for textile mill workers. The demise of this noble experiment
is part of one of the compelling, tragic chapters in the city’s
The origins of this development have deep roots in the Quaker
tradition of social consciousness, egalitarianism and sense
of Christian responsibility. William D. Howland, the man behind
the village that bears his name was the son of Matthew (1814-1884)
and Rachel Howland (1816-1902). Born on March 27, 1853 he was
raised in a household of considerable wealth earned through
efforts of his grandfather, George Howland (1781-1852) and his
father and uncle, George Howland, Jr. (1806-1892) in the whaling
industry. William’s mother was an extraordinary woman.
Rachel Smith Howland had a life-long career as a committed and
tireless social activist. Her life is one of the important untold
stories of New Bedford’s history. She was a figure of
local, regional and even national significance. Always dressed
in traditional Quaker clothing, she was acquainted (or perhaps
they acquainted with her) with most of the prominent feminists
and social visionaries of her day. In addition to founding and
or leading such institutions as the Ladies City Mission Society,
Incorporated in 1868, Association for the Relief of Aged Women,
organized in 1866, Children’s Aid Society, and the Instructive
Nurses Association, 1891, she was a minister and speaker for
the Society of Friends for over 50 years. She was primarily
responsible for mediating and ending the Wamsutta Mill textile
strike of 1867. She and her husband sponsored and built in 1870
the Howland Mission Chapel, a nondenominational house of worship
for textile workers on Purchase Street near the Wamsutta Mill.
At the end of her life she was still active at the national
level in the peace movement. She addressed sessions of national
congresses and is credited with coining the term “outlaw
war” which for a time was a rallying cry for the movement.
Small wonder that William Howland would not only have the ambition
of his father but also the compassion of his mother. After graduation
from Brown University in 1874, it is also clear that he followed
his own path. As with many in his generation, he did not attend
the Monthly Meetings of the Society of Friends. He became a
member and vestryman of Grace Episcopal Church. He married Caroline
Child on September 22, 1875 and had two sons, Edward Morris
and Llewellyn. It appears that he traveled extensively. He was
also an avid sailor with a sizable yacht and maintained an active
membership in the New Bedford Yacht Club.
William chose the burgeoning New Bedford textile industry in
which to make his mark. After serving a stint as a clerk at
the Wamsutta Mill (1876-1880) and a year researching the textile
industry outside of New Bedford, he successfully organized his
own textile mill in 1882, the New Bedford Manufacturing Co.
He did so without the financial help of his parents.
As wealthy and successful as George, Jr. and Matthew Howland
were in the whaling industry, their “greasy luck”
ran out in the 1870s. The catastrophic losses of the Arctic
whaling fleets in 1871 and again in 1876 ruined the firm and
the finances of the Howland family. Matthew and Rachel owned
considerable property in New Bedford including their residential
estate on Hawthorn Street (now 81 Hawthorn Street), a wharf
and a block-sized parcel on the waterfront at the foot of North
Street, the north half of the acreage that is now Hazelwood
Park among perhaps other holdings. Before Matthew died in 1884,
he sold the North Street property, formerly the site of his
counting house, to his son for the New Bedford Manufacturing
Co. The house on Hawthorn Street was sold to William W. Crapo
(1830-1926) upon Matthew’s death. Rachel still had access
to a summer home at the Hazelwood property but her permanent
residence was 21 South Sixth Street for many years after her
husband’s death. (The Howlands owned the Gothic Revival
building in Hazelwood Park that stands north of the more familiar
stone house. This building was formerly a barn and was converted
to a summer home sometime after 1865.)
The New Bedford Manufacturing Co. was a cotton yarn facility.
It did not make cloth but supplied yarn to the other mills in
New Bedford and elsewhere. William D. Howland was Treasurer,
a Director and de facto head of the operation. Other directors
included Charles W. Clifford, also the first President, Charles
W. Plummer and Edward T. Pierce. As with all of the mills throughout
their history in New Bedford, the practice of interlocking directorates
was the norm with the Howland mills. Pierce was the son of Andrew
G. Pierce, Sr. and the brother of Andrew G. Pierce, Jr. The
elder Pierce was arguably the most powerful man in the textile
industry in New Bedford during this time. The Pierces were Presidents
of both the Wamsutta and Potomska Mills as well as leading the
New Bedford Manufacturer’s Association, the collection
of mill owners that often attempted to set city-wide policies
on wages, production and other economic factors of the city
It appears that much of the financing for the mill came from
the Rotch family through the National Bank of Commerce. William
J. Rotch (1819-1893) scion of the renowned New Bedford whaling
dynasty was one of the wealthiest men in New Bedford at the
time. His commercial interests in New Bedford spanned the entire
spectrum of business activity. He was President of the New Bedford
Cordage Co. and the Mount Washington Glass Works and a director
on many other boards including the Potomska Mills and the National
Bank of Commerce. He would become the first President of both
the Howland Mills Corporation and the Rotch Spinning Co. His
son Morgan Rotch (1848-1910), like his father, a mayor of the
city, later became President of the New Bedford Manufacturing
Co. The success of the New Bedford Manufacturing Co. led Howland
to embark on an ambitious project to incorporate all of his
knowledge on the textile industry as well as his abiding interest
in the welfare of his workforce. The Howland Mills Corporation
was conceived in 1886. With his investors from the previous
project, 150 acres of woods and former nursery land in the south
end of the city was painstakingly acquired.
Among the parcels purchased were the remnants of “Fairview”
the former nursery of Henry H. Crapo (1804-1869) who had left
New Bedford many years earlier and eventually became the Governor
of Michigan. A large lot was purchased from the estate of Cornelius
Howland, a distant relative as well as a number of other parcels.
(This land is currently bound, approximately by the following
streets: Rivet to Juniper, Juniper in a line to Dunbar, Dunbar
to Dartmouth, Dartmouth to Rockdale, Rockdale to Hemlock, Hemlock
to Cove, Cove to Orchard, Orchard to Rivet.) With the land acquired
and surveyed, the Howland Mills Corporation was incorporated
in May of 1888 as a producer of fine cotton yarns. William J.
Rotch was named President, William D. Howland, Treasurer and
the directors nearly identical to those at New Bedford Manufacturing.
Work was begun immediately on the mill and the residential village.
Construction on both projects proceeded rapidly. Mill No. 1,
that complex which still stands south of the more familiar Howland
Place (Mill No. 2), was completed in the late summer of 1888.
The mason contractors were Brownell (Alfred M.) and Murkland
(James H.) of New Bedford. The designer of the mill is not known.
It is possible that William had a hand in its design. He was
hired by the Potomska Mills around 1880 to redesign space at
that complex to accommodate new machinery. The mill opened with
150 workers and was equipped with over 30,000 spindles. Twenty-five
of the cottages were constructed by the end of 1888 and another
twenty-five in 1889. Although much more residential development
was planned for the site, it was never undertaken.
The two scholars who have done the ground-breaking work on the
Howland Mill Village, Thomas McMullin and Kingston Heath, both
used the term “utopia” in describing William Howland’s
vision for this development. It’s hard to describe it
otherwise. Clearly, he believed that he could create on a large
scale a modern manufacturing environment that would not only
be profitable for the shareholders but pleasant for the plant
workers. Utopian communities were not uncommon during this period
of American history. Men of wealth or influence were always
developing schemes to create the “perfect world.”
Usually there was a hidden agenda of religion, sex or some other
exploitive obsession that eventually foiled the dream. Factory-owned
worker housing was commonplace in New Bedford and elsewhere
at this time where labor-intensive mills required many hundreds
of hands. Usually these tenements were constructed in a “monotonous
regularity” with few amenities, often being poorly maintained.
The Howland Mill Village was a stunning departure from the norm.
50 single family homes were built in an arrangement that allowed
for small gardens and a modicum of privacy. The cottages were
placed on winding roads at slightly differing angles. Paths
wound around and through the village to enhance the feel of
a pastoral setting. Fifteen five room cottages and thirty-five
seven room cottages were built. A tenement for single male employees
was also part of the development. Each residence had indoor
plumbing connected to the public sewer system, flush toilet,
tub, hot and cold running water and a full, concrete basement
among other amenities. Rents were $8.50 per month for the small
cottage and $10 per month for the larger cottage. Families from
all socioeconomic levels lived in the village with incomes ranging
from $5 to $19 per week as documented in a government report
issued in 1895. In short, there were no hidden agendas. While
recruitment of the most skilled workers may have been a goal,
there were as many
unskilled workers living in the village as skilled. It was meant
to be the first phase in an ever-increasing development of mills,
housing and other buildings such as men’s and women’s
clubhouses, a library and a building to house a gymnasium and
The houses in the village were designed by the Boston architectural
partnership of Edmund M. Wheelwright (1845-1912) and Parkman
B. Haven (1858-1943). At the time, Wheelwright and Haven was
a relatively young firm although they had other commissions
in the area. Wheelwright would later become the city architect
for Boston and design a number of notable structures including
the Longfellow Bridge. They designed four distinct cottages
for the development displaying elements of the prevailing styles
of the day, Queen Anne, Shingle and Colonial Revival. The four
distinct designs are the gable-end, jerkin head end, gambrel
(Dutch colonial) roof and gambrel-end. There were slight differences
from building to building in each style. An example of this
variation is seen in the gambrel roof style. Some of the dormers
on these homes have jerkin head ends and some have traditional
gables. The tenement was built as a double gambrel-end structure,
an oversized version of the cottages. The total cost of the
land and the buildings was $107,000. Infrastructure cost such
as roads, water and sewer connections and landscaping was $38,000.
The Howland Mill Village became the model of corporate funded
worker housing. The national press took notice as well as government
sponsored reports. All reviewers highly praised the innovative
designs and the attractive environment of the development. The
contrast between the new village and other mill-built housing
was duly noted by critics.
Rev. William J. Potter (1829-1893) of the Unitarian Church,
New Bedford’s most influential clergyman, referred to
the Wamsutta housing in 1892 as a “pestiferous excrescence.”
In 1894, at the Potomska housing the New Bedford Morning Mercury
reported that “signs of squalor were manifest.”
As late as 1913, the village was still considered model housing
while other mill housing was consistently described as “old
and gloomy” or “old and in bad repair, with no attempt
by builder, owner or tenant to make them attractive.”
Howland appeared determined to maintain a good relationship
with his employees. He wanted to avoid the constant labor/management
conflicts that were a routine part of the industrial and manufacturing
landscape. In addition to maintaining prevailing wages during
poor economic times and providing exceptional housing, he also
treated his employees to an annual steamboat cruise to Martha’s
Vineyard. This remarkably generous gesture included scheduled
events such as a baseball game with an island team, a bicycle
race with cash prizes, a band concert from musicians that also
performed on the voyage and a fine noon-time dinner followed
by dancing and song in the afternoon.
In 1892, the investors, flush with success, established another
yarn mill, the Rotch Spinning Co. It differed in name only from
the management and directorship of the other Howland mills.
It was built on the north end of the Orchard and Bolton Streets
site (later, the Goodyear plant). The benevolent empire that
William D. Howland had envisioned mushroomed to three manufacturing
facilities with over one thousand employees operating in excess
of 100,000 spindles and millions of dollars invested.
The heady times were short-lived. The American economy experienced
one of its many cyclical depressions with one called the Panic
of 1893. The suffering economy came to New Bedford. With the
demand for goods low, wages at the textile mills were cut, strikes
were called and by the summer of 1894, the city’s economy
was in great distress. But not at the Howland mills. For the
most part, wages and hours remained at pre-Panic levels at all
three mills. Pressure from the New Bedford Manufacturer’s
Association on Howland, who was out of town when the vote to
adopt the wage cuts was taken, was ignored. Workers at the Howland
mills continued to work their full schedule of hours and receive
their normal wages. Dividends continued to be paid to shareholders.
“I look for better times in the near future” was
his answer to the press.
However, the business conditions that Howland anticipated and
hoped for to do not occur. By the spring of 1897, the finances
of the three mills were in serious arrears. While Howland had
not stolen from the mills he had hidden from the investors the
dire nature of the debt the mills had accumulated. Rumors of
financial problems at the Howland mills were circulating. If
William D. Howland had any hope of buying more time, it was
swept away by the events at another mill in April, 1897.
At the same time that William D. Howland was fighting for the
future of his mills, the Bennett Manufacturing Co. and the Columbia
Spinning Co. (later Fairhaven Mills) were apparently being looted
by its principals. These two mills were owned and operated in
a fashion similar to the Howland mills with Frank R. Hadley
in charge. (Ironically, Hadley was the only mill owner to vote
against the wage cuts that precipitated the strike of 1894)
The discovery of an alleged embezzlement by Hadley and others
was reported in mid April, 1897. Hadley was placed under virtual
house arrest at his palatial County Street mansion (now 689
County St.) With the spectacular bankruptcy of the Bennett Mills
on everyone’s mind, William Howland sought a loan of $200,000
to pay mill debts. On April 23, he requested the loan from the
National Bank of Commerce, which his father had helped found
and at which he was a director. Not only was the loan denied
but a demand was made that he allow auditors to examine his
books. It was later determined that the mills were over $500,000
A distraught Howland left the bank with his accountant. Financial
failure of the Howland mills was imminent. He knew that the
truths that he had hidden from the investors would become known.
These investors, many of whom were close associates and family
friends dating back generations, were about to suffer a great
financial loss. After assuring his accountant that he would
do nothing extreme, they parted ways. Shortly thereafter, at
about 10:00am, William D. Howland walked to the family dock
at the foot of North Street and jumped into the harbor, taking
his own life. On the same day, Frank Hadley died at his home.
Howland’s body was not found for nearly two weeks after
his suicide. His corpse had somehow floated underneath the dock.
The time on his watch was stopped at 10:15. Before the discovery
of his body, speculation about his disappearance and sightings
of him at various places had been rampant and imaginative. He
left behind his wife and two sons. At the time of his death,
he was residing at 52 Ash Street, on land that was formerly
part of his father’s estate. He owned a summer house on
family land on Point Road, now Brock Avenue. This building,
built in 1890 and very similar in design to the cottages at
the Howland Mill Village still stands in altered but excellent
condition in Hazelwood Park.
The Howland mills operated in receivership until 1899 under
the leadership of Andrew G. Pierce, Jr. Working conditions and
wages at the mills reverted to those at the other mills. A corporation
called the New England Cotton Yarn Co. purchased the three Howland
mills as well as the failed Bennett mills. The Howland Mills
and the Rotch
Spinning facilities were subsequently purchased by a new firm
and renamed the Gosnold Mills. This corporation ran as a successful
manufacturer of cotton textiles for many years, even surviving
the Great Depression.
The Village cottages were sold off individually after the demise
of the Howland mills. The land around the Village was eventually
claimed by real estate developers. The privately financed three-decker
tenement became the dominant form of mill housing in the city.
The ideals of the Howland Mill Village quickly became a fond
memory. It was the last corporate owned worker housing built
in New Bedford.
Approximately 45 of the original 50 cottages of the village
are still standing. I believe the tenement that was formerly
on the east side of Bolton Street was moved to Hemlock Street
and raised one level between 1913 and 1924. It exists in dramatically
altered form. The three houses that were also on the east side
of Bolton Street were removed, probably demolished between 1913
and 1924. A house may have been demolished to make way for the
tenement move to Hemlock Street. A more detailed study of the
changes of the villages is needed to confirm the suppositions.
There was also a large gable-end house for the superintendent
of the mill (demolished.) This house was located near the corner
of Cove and Orchard Streets. It was probably on the site when
the mill was built although it may have been moved there. It
is clearly visible in a construction photograph of the mill
taken in 1888. The house was a large 2 1⁄2 story gable-end
Greek Revival to which was later added a Victorian wrap-around
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Little, Brown, 1973.
"Assigns.Bennett and Columbia Affairs Tangled." New
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an Outing for Employees." New Bedford Evening Standard
July 20, 1891: 2.
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and a Fortune and the Inheritance of a Trust Established for
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for an Industrial Utopia." The Patina of Place: The Cultural
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Heath, Kingston Wm. "The Howland Mill Village: A Missing
Chapter in Model Workers' Housing." Old-Time New England
75 (1997): 64-111.
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Standard March 15, 1889: 4.
An announcement of the beginning of the construction of Howland
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Park on Clark's Point." New Bedford Evening Standard July
27, 1901: 10.
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3, 1889: 4.
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including details of its construction and amenities.
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Effected to-Day." New Bedford Evening Standard May 19,
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Found to Be in Financial Straits." New Bedford Morning
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County) Massachusetts. United States Department of the Interior:
National Park Service, 1996. Forms and description for listing
on the National Register of Historic Places.
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Change in a Nineteenth Century Port City: New Bedford, Massachusetts,
1865-1900. University of Wisconsin/Madison, 1976.
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with additional information.
"Mr. Howland Found: Missing Man Dead in North Street Dock."
New Bedford Evening Standard May 6, 1897: 1, 8.
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Howland Mills." New Bedford Evening Standard August 14,
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December 17, 1870: 2.
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and Attractions. New Bedford, MA: New Bedford Board of Trade,
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Woman and Prominent Friend." New Bedford Evening Standard
August 14, 1902: 4.
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"Still Firm: Mills Will Lock up Tonight…W. D. Howland
Explains His Position." New Bedford Evening Standard August
21, 1894: 8.
"The Strike: Howland System Will Start up on Monday."
New Bedford Morning Mercury August 23, 1894: 1, 5, 8.
"10,000 Idle: Greatest Strike in the History of New Bedford."
New Bedford Evening Standard August 20, 1894: 1, 4.
"To Arbitrate…Howland Corporations to Start up Monday."
New Bedford Evening Standard August 22, 1894: 1.
"Troublesome Times: The Tale of Two Days of New Bedford's
Darkest History." New Bedford Morning Mercury April 26,
1897: 1, 5, 8.
"The Wage Conference: Will Be Opened Thursday at the Bennett
Mill." New Bedford Evening Standard September 10, 1895:
"Mr. Howland commands the full confidence and respect of
the employees of the corporations which he represents..."
"The Waters at Last Give up Their Dead: William D. Howland's
Body Found in North Street Dock." New Bedford Morning Mercury
May 7, 1897: 8.
Whitney, Jessamine S., and United States Department of Labor.
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in New Bedford, Mass., Based on Births in One Year. Washington:
DC: Government Printing Office, 1920.
"The Wrecked Mills." New Bedford Evening Standard
May 4, 1897: 1.
Bruce Barnes, September, 2007
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