In November of 1879, Morrie, then twenty-nine, moved to New York full-time to set himself up as a serious businessman:
Left home today for New York, for the purpose of going into business there as a metal broker. . . .
Having established myself in an office at 21 Cliff Street last week, I began business today by leaving my card with the various purchasers of lead. I was politely received by nearly all.
Matthew wrote to Morrie almost daily, concerned for him, encouraging him, happy to see him finally making a real attempt at business, and unable to refrain from offering him fretful advice:
Has thee sold that last lot of Mustard Seed yet; and the lot thee sold, has thee received pay for it . . . ?
Thy letter to Mother has been received and we are very glad to hear thee has really commenced making sales of lead. . . .
Why doesn’t thee sell thy mustard seed? I would not keep it much longer. . . .
How many tons of lead has thee sold thus far? It is now three months since thee started. Can we judge of the next three months by the past? I think, from what thee has told me, thee has not thus far sold more than three or four different lots of lead. Do please continue to write and tell us all that transpires with thee. . . .
After a year in New York, Morrie was still not making his expenses. Matthew was floating him, anxious about the cost, but always, as for all his children, unguarded with his love:
Thee must try to keep thy expenses down all thee can, so they will not much exceed thy earnings. Does thee find any difficulty in keeping thy bank account [balanced]? It is very important
in the bank. . . .
When we came home to tea last evening we missed thy company very much.
Another letter from Matthew to Morrie begins simply: “I have missed thee very much today.”
In the fall of 1881, Matthew sold one of his last three ships, the
George and Susan
, built by his father and launched on his parents’ wedding day in 1810. He got $9,500 for it, a good price in a depressed market for an aging (but obviously well-constructed) wooden ship that had paid for itself many times over. “Well!” he wrote Morrie. “She is gone from us after being in the family seventy years. It seems as though we are to part with everything of a material nature that is near and dear to us.”
It was the industrious Willie, the youngest boy, who seemed the only one destined for any kind of financial stability, and, in time, he appeared to be making a real success by his own efforts, unaided by his father. In 1877, Willie took a low-level managerial position at the Wamsutta Mills, started by his uncle (by marriage), Joseph Grinnell. He apparently did well there, but the pay was low. “Dear Will works away bravely at the mill,” Matthew wrote to Morrie. In 1881, Willie moved a few blocks south to the competing Potomska Mills. Here, too, he was well thought of, helping management draw up plans for a new mill, but he was ambitious and soon decided to start his own mill. His plan was to purchase an existing flour mill and convert it to cotton-yarn production, running 10,000 spindles. To do this, he began looking for subscribers for $125,000 worth of stock. Matthew was doubtful he could raise the money, for the new Acushnet Mills had just opened after raising $800,000. But Willie was dogged, and by then thoroughly experienced in the mill and textile business—and, of course, he was well connected. Perhaps because of the dilatory examples set by his brothers, he would surprise his father.
“It is rather lonesome in the office,” Matthew wrote to Morrie. And, a month later: “I find it rather lonely in the counting room.” The great house of Howland, the last of New Bedford’s larger, older, historic whaling businesses, did not go out with a bang, but with the scratching of Matthew’s pen in the empty Howland countinghouse, as he disbursed his remaining assets.
In February 1882, he sold his last two ships, the venerable
, to the whaling firm of Swift & Allen, for $8,300. “It is a
price,” he wrote to Morrie, “but we did not think we could keep them longer.” (It was a far better deal for Matthew than anyone knew. Whatever Swift & Allen’s plans for them might have been, the ships never left New Bedford’s waterfront again. They sat and rotted and sagged into the mud, a perfect symbol of whaling’s decay.)
Matthew sold his Michigan Central Railroad stock, and then began dismantling his real estate holdings in New Bedford, rod by rod. And quietly: “Please tell R. Anthony as soon as thee can,” he wrote to Morrie, “. . . [to] make me an offer for my lot (70 rods) and I will consider it, promising that no one shall know.”
It was a comfort to note that “Will is driving about trying to obtain the subscription to his yarn mill and we think that so far he has done remarkably well. The subscriptions amount to very nearly $100,000, so that Willie is pretty sure it will go.”
By late 1882, Matthew and his wife, Rachel, were also trying to sell their house (and block-wide, eminently divisible property) on Hawthorn Street, which they had built in 1840 and lived in for more than forty years. At the same time, Matthew was declining physically. “I should have written thee sooner, but have been very busy taking care of Father who has been quite ill,” Rachel Howland wrote to Morrie in November 1882.
2nd day night he suffered extremely with what I suppose might be called a stoppage of the bowels. . . . I got the Doctor here and he staid three or four hours trying to allay the pain, which he finally accomplished by several doses of morphine injected into the arm. . . .
William Crapo [state representative, later president of the Wamsutta Mills] is still trying to get this place, but says he will not give over $30,000, while Father asks $40,000. What shall we do?
I think Father is very poorly indeed and very low spirited. What shall we do with him or for him? Thee must come and see him. . . .
Crapo has not treated us handsomely. . . . He seems to think he could just gobble us up and turn us out of house and home at his pleasure. And so the big fish eat up the little ones. . . .
Father has gone down to Meeting and I am alone. How often my heart aches to see more of thee.
The meetinghouse would have been as lonely as the Howland countinghouse. Like the whale fishery—in tandem with it, actually—New Bedford’s Quaker community was diminishing in size and importance to the city. Schisms had sent many Quakers to other churches. The influx of outsiders and the broadening of New Bedford’s ethnic population—initially because of whaling and, later, with the rise of the textile industry—left Old Lights George Jr. and Matthew Howland to walk around in their eighteenth-century garb, looking like anachronistic totems from a world that had all but disappeared. “The golden era of meetinghouse and countinghouse coincided,” wrote historian Everett S. Allen. “And when the golden time was gone for one, it was gone for the other.”
In 1883, Matthew had to borrow $4,000 from Willie to pay a debt—“Please do not say anything about it,” he wrote to Morrie, asking him in the same letter for a loan of $300 for household expenses.
In September 1884, Matthew wrote to Morrie:
Willie informs us thee intends coming home next first day. We shall be very glad to see thee. I have been confined to the house since last 1st day with feet and legs much swollen. . . . The Doctor says I may drink a little Sherry, the very best. Could thee furnish me a small bottle and then bring it with thee. If not, perhaps we can get it here.
Leander Plummer died last evening.
In great haste, thy affectionately attached
Shortly after he wrote that, “in great haste,” Matthew himself was dead. Rachel was besieged by creditors. She moved in with Willie, his wife, Caroline, and their seven-year-old son, Llewellyn, while lawyers put the house and property on Hawthorn Street up for auction. Today, 81 Hawthorn Street, New Bedford, is occupied by professional medical offices. A plaque on the building gives the date of its construction and the names of its first two owners: “c. 1840; M. Howland; W. W. Crapo.”
Over the course of their life, Matthew and Rachel gave away, largely though her philanthropic endeavors, more than half their income.
During his last two years, Matthew’s deepening impoverishment and ill health were offset by the thrill of watching his youngest son’s dream come to fruition. By November 1882, Willie had, against steep odds, raised his capital, converted the flour mill, fired up his steam-driven spindles, and was doing business as the New Bedford Manufacturing Company.
From the beginning, the mill was a conspicuous success. After two years of operation, its stock, when it could be purchased, was selling for $110-$118 per share, compared with $85 and $87 per share, respectively, for stock in the larger, more established Wamsutta and Acushnet mills. Willie seemed to have a golden touch. The hallmark of his business was the smoothness of its labor relations. His mother, Rachel, had filled him with a strong sense of fair play and with advanced, frankly idealistic notions of workers’ rights, and Willie sincerely tried to provide the best for his employees. He paid them more than the other mills, and when strikes stopped production at Wamsutta, Potomska, and Acushnet, the New Bedford Manufacturing Company continued running. Working for his father, Willie had learned austerity in business, but he had also seen Howland ships sent to sea equipped with the finest gear, food, and men, and the results of running a quality operation. As a consequence of both these influences, his product was superior, and his sales were commensurate. He had no trouble raising a further $350,000 to build a brand-new mill in 1888, the Howland Mill, doing business as the Howland Mills Corporation. In 1892, he founded, along with William Rotch, a descendant of New Bedford’s other premier whaling family, the Rotch Spinning Company.
With the capital he was now able to raise, Willie launched an ambitious scheme to create Howland Village, a 150-acre company housing park for his workers. He hired the Boston architectural firm of Wheel-wright and Haven to produce three different house designs in a Dutch Colonial style, each varying in window, roof, ornament, and other details. The first fifty houses in Howland Village were built by 1889 (fifty-eight years before groundbreaking at Levittown, Long Island, New York). These were not cramped worker bungalows: thirty-five of the houses had five bedrooms, the remainder, three bedrooms; all had indoor plumbing, bathrooms with toilets and tubs, rare luxuries for the 1880s. Howland Village was sited on a hill west of the mills, with winding roads, and the houses and their lots were laid out in a pleasing, nonuniform effect. Rents for the houses ranged between $8.50 and $10 per month, for both skilled and unskilled Howland workers, who were earning between $50 and $80 per month.
By the 1890s, New Bedford had turned away from the sea. Its ships lay for sale and rotting along its depressed waterfront. Its industry looked landward over the rising, flourishing brick mills, and the railroads were now carrying raw materials into the city and its cottons and yarns away to market. With 1,000 workers operating 78,000 spindles in 200,000 square feet of floor space in two plants, the Howland Mills Corporation ranked third in size of New Bedford’s textile mills, and was thought to be on its way to overtaking the Wamsutta and Potomska mills by the end of the century.
Willie’s commitment to the welfare of his workers was tested and proven through the depression that gripped the American economy and created strife between capital and labor during the early to middle 1890s. In 1892, a state law reduced the working hours of mill employees from sixty to fifty-eight hours a week; while the other mills in New Bedford reduced their workers’ pay, Willie kept pay rates at their former levels. In August 1894, the New Bedford Manufacturers Association, of which Willie was a member, recommended a 10 percent wage cut-back for the city’s 10,000 textile employees. The textile unions called for a citywide strike. Willie attempted to reach an agreement between the workers and the manufacturers, and when asked by the
New Bedford Evening Standard
what he would do if that failed, he replied that he would continue to run his mills at the former pay rates and do nothing that would disrupt “the smooth and friendly relations we have in our mills at present.” When his efforts to break the strike failed, Willie kept his word. While the Wamsutta, Potomska, Acushnet, and other mills and related concerns remained closed for the next two months, the Howland mills continued at full operation, their employees still earning their old pay rates. Even when the State Board of Arbitration and Conciliation finally reached a compromise agreement with the unions for a five-percent pay cut, workers at the Howland mills continued to receive their prestrike pay. The
New Bedford Evening Journal
reported that Willie was “almost worshipped” by his employees, who subsequently presented him with a framed address in appreciation of his stand.
William Howland was seen, not only in New Bedford, but around the country, as a model employer. The Cleveland
featured an article describing the wages, housing, annual steamboat excursion to Martha’s Vineyard enjoyed by Howland workers, and Willie’s plans for their further benefit, which included a cooperative insurance scheme, and expansions at Howland Village that would provide a gymnasium, library, and an evening school for his employees and their families. “A few more such ventures as this and we shall see the beginning of the end of the great struggle between capital and labor,” concluded the article.
New Bedford’s newspapers frequently noted that “the most cordial relations have always existed” at the Howland mills; they compared the “air of comfort, contentment, and prosperity” in Howland Village with the “squalor” of the housing provided to Potomska mill employees, and described Willie as a “sagacious manufacturer, a man who has long shown it to be his belief that it is good business to treat the help fairly and liberally.” The Quaker ethic, learned from his parents and grandparents, and in his father’s countinghouse, seemed to be paying off for Willie in his great enterprise.