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.

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.

As well as touring the museum, visitors can paddle along the Farmington River on a craft rented from Collinsville Canoe & Kayak or simply walk its bank on the Farmington River Greenway, a pedestrian path built with a mix of government funds and private contributions. The three miles of Greenway that officially opened in July 2000 include a reconstructed trestle that trains to and from the factory formerly used to cross the river. Dependable transportation was crucial to his company’s success, and Sam Collins lured the Canal Line Railroad to town in 1850 with incentives that included a $3,000 cash bonus. An agreeable place to relax, inside or out on its long, narrow veranda, is LaSalle Market Café, which has an espresso bar, a pizzeria, and a long menu of tasty sandwiches.

Before leaving, be sure to drive up Cemetery Road to the hillside graveyard where in 1871 Sam Collins was buried. One day last summer it was the setting for a staged funeral, a scene in an independent producer’s first film. A crew member explained why the location was chosen by gesturing past gravestones down a slope that eventually bottoms at the old factory complex and the adjoining river; on the other side is a steep hill that generations of Collins Company workers ascended on their way home to the little double houses that still stand there. You don’t have to be a cinematographer to appreciate the view.

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