Come in and have a slice, courtesy of William Howland and his utopian mill village. The famous Ma Raffa’s restaurant now occupies one of the worker cottages of the Howland Mill Village, an important experiment in industrial housing that occurred between 1888 and 1897. The experiment was short-lived, but it influenced the planning of future company towns in the United States.
William Howland’s solution to housing his workers rejected most of the precedents set by earlier mills in the city: densely arranged, uniform, multifamily tenements that reflected companies’ desire for a stable, controllable workforce. Instead, Boston architectural firm Wheelwright and Haven designed single-family cottages on winding streets, offset on their lots to avoid uniformity, and with space for gardens in the front. The result gave the appearance of a picturesque village, leading the US Department of Labor to declare Howland Mill Village one of six examples of “model small houses.”
Howland was raised as a Quaker, a faith closely tied to whaling in New Bedford and to the reform movements of the 19th century. William’s grandmother, Susan Howland, supported abolition and prison reform, and his mother, Rachel, was active in the Association for the Relief of Aged Women and the Children’s Aid Society. Rachel served as a mediator when English skilled workers struck at Wamsutta Mills in 1867, and she considered English social reformer and worker advocate Robert Owen a hero.
Her son attempted to create an industrial setting that would “revitalize the worker, preserve his dignity, foster his productivity, and ensure his loyalty,” wrote architectural historian Kingston W. Heath. Howland also kept rents low. Smaller houses cost $8.50 per month, the same as one of Wamsutta’s four-tenement units that in 1892 Reverend William J. Potter referred to as a "pestiferous excresence." The larger houses were $10 per month, rented by spinners and skilled workers who made about $64 per month in wages. The houses included five bedrooms, providing renters the flexibility to take in boarders to share costs.
When the New Bedford Manufacturers’ Association shortened hours and reduced wages for the city’s mill workers during the Panic of 1893, Howland refused to do the same, so as not to disturb “the smooth and friendly relations we have in our mills at the present.” In turn, Howland’s employees didn’t strike with the rest of New Bedford’s 10,000 mill workers in 1894, and so they didn’t have to accept the 5% cut in wages other workers agreed to when the strike was settled.
However, Howland’s business interests suffered from the downturn in textiles, and his declining financial situation was compounded by the high cost of mill expansion and construction of the worker village. Howland concealed these difficulties from investors, whose support was already strained by the stance he took during the 1893 panic. In 1897, with his debt of almost $1 million public knowledge, Howland abruptly disappeared. Eight days later, his body was found under the North Street pier, not far from the New Bedford Manufacturing Company, an apparent suicide.