Company Town

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Walter Szydlo was one of the Collins Company’s last employees. He started work at the firm in 1927, and in 1966 he still lived in a company-built house with his wife, Dorothy. Walter’s grandson, Douglas Szydlo, had a newspaper route in Collinsville as a boy in the late sixties and made deliveries to the once-bustling company hotel; by then, he recalls, it had become a flophouse, and its hallways reeked. In 1975, when Szydlo left to serve with the Air Force, Collinsville was a shadow of its once-muscular self, and the young man “hated this town. It was the pits.” Yet something drew him back, and he now operates the Collinsville Antiques Company, a popular center nearly 100 dealers strong. The business is located in what was once the main factory building, and Szydlo’s office is the very same one from which his grandfather ran the company’s shipping department.

Doug Szydlo’s enterprise is part of a microrenaissance that began in 1967, after an organization called the Collinsville Company purchased the vacant factory structures and nearly 20 acres of land at a bargain price. The new landlord offered space to prospective tenants for below-market rents to inject life into the town. Several artists and artisans now operate in the old company structures, which also house a printer, the local school bus company, and a mechanic whose specialties are, curiously enough, Volkswagens and Rolls-Royces. As this was written, however, the former home of the Collins Company faced an uncertain future. A developer intending to purchase the property had just received the town’s permission to subdivide it into parcels, to use for residences, businesses, or light industry as he chose. Although his plan called for keeping most of the historical buildings, he was given considerable leeway, including the freedom to resell some parcels.

The Canton Historical Museum, which contains a sizable chunk of village history, began with a collection assembled by Fred Widen, a Collins Company patternmaker whose local memorabilia overflowed both his house and garage. In 1939 company officials allowed Widen to move items into the old Front Street plow building, where even now sections of flooring remain spattered with the red paint once used to coat the farm tools. Carl Svenson, who worked in the Collins Company office from 1945 until it closed its doors, is a devoted museum volunteer. Because he’s one of the guardian angels of Collinsville history, it’s appropriate that Svenson looks especially cherubic in a childhood snapshot that, if coaxed, he’ll point out for visitors. It appears in one of the museum’s most touching mementos, a photo album that was presented to Dr. Ralph Cox in 1952, after he had practiced in town for 50 years. The album includes photos of several hundred people, every one of whom the physician shepherded into this world. Cox delivered some 2,600 area babies in all, and he never lost a mother, according to Lawrence Carlton, who remembers his older colleague as “a typical, old-time country doctor who did everything and treated everybody from the cradle to the grave.”

 
 
 
 
 
 

The museum’s wide-ranging collection includes a panoply of personal and household items used by local families throughout the Victorian era. There are enough farm tools to plant and harvest food for all of Canton, a well-stocked general store, and an old hand-pumped engine that battled 40 Collinsville fires before being taken out of service in 1912. In the former recreation center’s bowling alley, the Farmington Valley Model Railway Association has re-created the town in miniature around a working HO-gauge layout that duplicates Collinsville’s once-robust railway system. Members meet every Thursday evening to work on the diorama, which remains unfinished after some 15 years.

The core of this spacious and splendid local history museum consists of well over a thousand Collins Company tools and weapons that sprang from the 1,300 patterns used by the factory over the years. An especially fascinating forging designed for mounting on a pole was made for John Brown. The militant abolitionist, whose grandfather and father had lived in Canton and who was born in nearby Torrington, placed an order with the Collins Company’s forge master, Charles Blair, for 1,000 of these items, to use as heads for pikes to arm the men he hoped would rally to his cause after the attack on Harpers Ferry. Unable to produce the entire order in time to meet Brown’s deadline, the firm subcontracted half of it to the Hart Cutlery Company in Unionville, a neighboring town. The pike heads, along with six-foot staves, were labeled “farm tools and tool handles,” according to Lawrence Carlton, and shipped to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, about 40 miles from the Maryland farm that Brown had rented in advance of his raid.