Company Town

PrintPrintEmailEmailIn 1826, 23-year-old Samuel Watkinson Collins, his brother David, and a cousin named William Wells acquired the five-acre site of an old sawmill and gristmill on the Farmington River in South Canton, Connecticut, some 15 miles west of Hartford. They wanted to make axes. Although the ax was the era’s most coveted tool, the ones forged by American smiths were crude. But the Collins Company developed a line of edged tools—and edged weapons—renowned for their quality. Its products cut distinctive notches in history: Collins tools split wood in the California goldfields, helped build the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and went to the North Pole with Peary. Collins equipment played a part in every American conflict from the Civil War to Vietnam.

The company also hammered together a settlement within the town of Canton that became known as Collinsville. “There was not a village in the country that did more business than Canton from 1815 to 1825,” wrote a nineteenth-century resident, Moses Dyer, whose recalled roster of business in Canton “as it was in my youthful days” included two tanneries, a brickyard, and three hotels, and much more. But that was before Collinsville began in 1826 and “soon killed Canton.”

One hundred and seventy-five years later, the factory has been long shut down, but Collinsville remains a classic nineteenth-century industrial village that retains dozens of Collins-built structures. It is compact and remarkably well preserved, and its residents seem intensely connected with a past that is the embodiment of Yankee ingenuity. Their pride seems only natural in a place where so many people one encounters during a couple of afternoon visits have their family names stitched into the fabric of local history.

Scattered near the industrial structures, the most imposing of which is the main factory building, are small double houses. In 1831 and 1832, the Collins Company constructed 45 of these modest, lowlying dwellings, each designed to accommodate two families side by side. The forty-two of them that stand and are still lived in testify to the paternalistic tendencies of Sam Collins, who guided the company for nearly half a century and provided schoolroom space and numerous other amenities for his workers’ families. The village’s Congregational church reflects the same spirit. After an 1857 fire destroyed its predecessor, the firm added $2,000 to an insurance settlement and constructed the outsized Greek Revival building that now occupies the site. Townspeople contributed an additional $2,000, and Sam Collins himself donated $1,000.

During the Civil War, the Collins Company produced a formidable array of weapons and tools for Union forces, including swords, sword-saber bayonets, assorted firearm mountings, crowbars, picks, sledges, and, of course, axes. Wartime profits financed several buildings, including one used to assemble and paint Collins-built steel plows. In 1925 that building became a recreation hall with bowling alleys, a rifle range, and room for other pastimes, and it is now the Canton Historical Museum. In 1868 the company erected a three-story concrete brick office building that continues to preside over Main Street, plus a spacious hotel that once accommodated visiting businessmen and now comprises condominium apartments. The squat, vaultlike Romanesque structure built by the Collinsville Savings Society in 1891 is still home to that bank. At the time these landmarks went up, the Collins Company was among the world’s largest edged-tool manufacturers. By 1871 it had produced more than 15 million axes, and annual sales had crossed the million-dollar mark.

 

Dr. Lawrence Carlton is deeply involved with the Canton Historical Museum, though he comes from Windsor, Connecticut, and didn’t arrive in Collinsville until 1954. He is also a Harvard-trained physician who spent the first 14 years of his career practicing in town, and his most striking memories center on a flood the like of which has struck Connecticut only once or twice in a century. In August 1955, after 16 inches of rain fell on parts of the Farmington River watershed, the waters crested at 24 feet above the Collins Company’s boiler room. It ripped out bridges, demolished houses, and killed four people in Canton. Carlton recalls returning home one evening with a National Guard escort to find 50 or more people milling on his lawn, which was on high ground. Many had come for the recommended typhoid shot, but others had come to their doctor’s house “just for security, to know someone was there. That’s a normal thing in times of crisis,” he says.

In retrospect, the rising waters seem to have foreshadowed an economic tide of competition from domestic tool manufacturers. The firm’s other woes in the 1960s included the increasing popularity of chain saws. Consultants recommended closing the Collinsville plant, which had been running at a loss, while keeping successful Latin American factories open, but management decided to dispose of all assets in 1966, including the Collins trade name, which lives on.