Let Me Axe You a Question…
Collinsville Section of Canton (Google Maps Location)
June 28, 2007
“…Can we get in to see the museum? No? Why not? Oh, we can? Good. Let me axe you another question – Can we take pictures here? No? Why not?”
And so began one of the stranger introductions to any museum visit thus far. Friend of CTMQ Rob Y. agreed to join me for his hometown’s historical society museum. This was a coup on my part because not only is Rob intensely interested in what the museum housed, but he actually donated a piece to it! After moving into an old house in town which had fallen into disrepair, he found a bunch of old farm implements and tools squirreled away into various crawlspaces and out buildings on his land. One of these, it turned out, was a parade hat celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Collins company which is very important the museum for reasons that will be obvious. Collinsville (part of Canton) was named after Samuel Collins who started the Collins company.
I found Rob chatting it up with an elderly woman on the stoop of the very large building. She was pleasant and knowledgeable, if a little charmingly dotty. Rob thanked her for her time and we turned to check the place out. “No, you can’t go in now.” Say what? But it was open until 8 and my watch said it was 6, so if you’d kindly allow us entry…
“Nope! You can’t see it today. Come back another time.” Oooookaaaaay. I began wondering if this woman had anything to do with the museum or if she was some local who got her kicks from being argumentative with prospective museum goers. (Actually, she was the sister of the woman who built the house and ran the farm that Rob bought! Go figure.)
I essentially told her that we were here to see the museum and we were going to see the museum so please move your walker (no joke) and allow us through. She did. I’m a tough guy, what can I say.
When visiting this museum (which you should) bear in mind that it is very large – much, much larger than the typical town museum. Also bear in mind that you apparently a) must view it with a tour guide and b) cannot take pictures. Of course, before being admonished, I snapped off about five useful shots. Too bad that was only the first bit of the first room – and this place is three very large floors big.
Note: this may very well have changed since 2007.
The first room contains a Victorian living room scene, complete with a very creepy mannequin display – as well as a working melodeon and a ton of period china. The blank stares of the fake humans gazed upon a rather large gift shop with all sorts of Canton/Collinsville stuff for sale. Hey, I dig Canton as much as the next guy, but really… do I need a Canton coffee mug to match my Canton dishtowels while checking the date on my Canton calendar?
The elderly mystery lady with the walker continued guiding us into the second, much larger and more open space. Here we began learning about the Collins Company, once the largest edge-tool maker in the world. Never heard of ’em? Well, maybe that’s because you aren’t a sugar cane harvester from the Dominican Republic or an agave farmer from Mexico.
The Collins Company was founded in 1826 by two brothers, Samuel and David Collins and their cousin William Wells. They were all in their 20’s at the time. They dammed up the Farmington River, chopped down trees for charcoal, later scored a coup with the Canal Line Railroad and went on to be an incredible success, pulling in over one million dollars by 1870.
The building we were in was part of the huge complex of the greater factory from the 1800’s. It was built in 1865 and was used as a plow shop; at it’s peak, 100 plows a day were manufactured by the company. Later, this building was converted to a recreational facility for the Collins employees – complete with a bowling alley on the third floor. But now, as a museum, there is an entire wall about 150 feet long and 10 feet high displaying a massive array of these world famous edge-tools.
The axe factory here was the first time that manufacturing line technology was brought to the bladed tool industry. The company went from one blacksmith per axe per to day to 10 axes per blacksmith per day with much more consistent quality. Because of their ability to mass produce they rapidly took over the industry.
Axes upon axes, mattocks, hoes, adzes, knives, picks, and every conceivable shape of machete known to man. One thing the Collins Company did was forge a very strong relationship with with South and Latin America and plantations there became a major buyer of the Collins products. Sales people traveled from Collinsville to the location where the products were being use to evaluate local tools, re-engineer and then provided samples to the customer to be sure they were happy with them. Then they would go into mass production… Talk about customer service!
This Samuel Collins character was a shrewd businessman; he housed his workers on-site and only paid them twice a year. His reasoning was that by doing so, no one would leave his employ, even if the payment was only five bucks at a time! But he knew what he was doing by scoring contracts to provide all the Colt Company’s steel bayonets and cutlasses for the Navy. The fate of the Collins Company was sealed when price gouging competition sprung up in the mid 20th century. The historic flood of 1955 wiped out several of the company’s buildings and the writing was on the wall. Ultimately, Collins was bought by nearby Stanley Tools and continues to make implements down in Latin America.
There was also a cool scale model of the factory town at its heyday and lots (and lots) of tool making machinery from way back when. Moving onward (at this point, we had met up with the real tour guide and the camera was lodged deep in my pocket), we traveled through a series of sections: The craft center with lots of old spinning machines and quilts and the like. The “Children’s Room” with old dolls and toys and stereoscopes – and a creepy looking grandmother life-sized doll for some reason.
Over in the (again, extensive) “Canton Revisited” section, there was an original velocipede, some tin tubs for bathing from long ago, a 45-star flag that is apparently quite rare, and one of the museum’s prize possessions: An original “Gordon’s Franklin” printing press. You see, Phineas Gordon invented this thing but named it after Ben Franklin, whom he says sent him the dream for the design. Confusingly, Ben Franklin invented his own press which bears a very similar name. But Gordon’s Franklin was the best of the best – due to its small size and light weight. This may also be why there are only two left in the world – and this one still works!
Some other items of note include a cast iron black sarcophagus from the Civil War, an old “hand vacuum” that the user had to pump-pump-pump to create the tiniest of vacuums, ice-harvesting equipment, giant sleighs, an old hand-pumper fire truck, giant triphammers, an entire antique print shop, an entire antique blacksmith shop, an entire antique post office, an entire antique marching band display, on and on it went. Massive machines that made anvil heads or sharpened blades. Old millstone grinders, furniture die-casts… this is the last time I’ll say it: This place is big!
It really does house some really cool stuff – stuff that you’d expect at a Smithsonian but certainly not at a town museum in central CT. Their brochure states they have “One of the largest collections of Victoriana under one roof in the nation.” If tools and the machines that made them are considered “Victoriana,” I’ll have to agree. This museum is impressive.
Oh wait, there’s more! Up on the third floor, after you take in the view from the balcony that overlooks the Farmington River and historic downtown Collinsville – quite the model New England town – you are treated to lots of old photographs from the town’s past, more era mannequins and displays that tell you facts like how Collins tools were used almost exclusively for the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and axes and picks made their way across the country to be used in the California Gold Rush. Admiral Peary carried Collins tools to the North Pole. Huh, who knew?
I bet you also didn’t know that besides the six bowling alleys, this building also contained a 75 foot long rifle range and all sorts of other leisure accommodations.
Just when we thought we were done, we continued to the back room where there is a MASSIVE HO gauge model train set of historic Collinsville! Holy Cow this was awesome.
There were two gentlemen from the Farmington Valley Railway Society working on re-doing the whole thing to be a better replica of the 1850 Canal Railroad and the 1871 C.N.E. Railroad. When finished, I’m confident this will be one of the most impressive set-ups I’ve ever seen. Heck, I may have to revisit this museum too, just to see their complete trains.
December 22, 2012 Revisit
Voila! One child later, I revisited as promised solely to check out the trains!
On a numbingly cold day I was out with the boys for some reason or another. I “enjoyed” lunch (as much as one can with a 20-month old and a special needs 6-year old) at Crown and Hammer and then braved the cold winds across the parking lot over to the museum.
We bolted up the stairs and into the back room with the impressive train layout. It is one of the nicer ones in the state.
And the coolest part of it is how true to historical fact it is. The whole Canton/New Hartford area is here, backed up with historical photos of the old train stations in Satan’s Kingdom and the surrounding area.
Damian loves watching trains and it was neat to see his little brother fall in love for the first time as well.
One thing though: The room is not child friendly. I’m not saying it should be… but it could be a bit better. First of all, I was sort of shocked at the uncovered heat registers. On this bitter day, the heat was cranking at full blast and the entire front wall was a serious health hazard.
Yes, I’m responsible for my children and I accept that. But any kid between 1 and 10 could easily and accidentally suffer a serious – and I mean SERIOUS – burn here. The guy did warn me after Calvin came terrifyingly close to touching the thing.
Second, the layout is about 5 feet off the ground. Again, this makes perfect sense from a practicality standpoint. But there was nothing for little kids to stand on to check out the trains. Again, I understand that little kids touching the layout and the trains would be the worst thing ever, but c’mon! Kids deserve to see this stuff!
All that aside, it is a beautiful layout and I was super impressed with the attention to historical accuracy. Like here’s the bridge at… I forget, but somewhere over the Farmington River, compared with a picture from back in the day:
Pretty cool, huh? There is still an entire room of a more “urban” layout that is only half-finished at this point. The train guy who showed us around was really cool and as accommodating as he could have been. (You don’t see Calvin in any of the photos because I had to hold him to a) see the trains and b) to avoid him getting burned/electrocuted.
Now, back to 2007…
Speaking of revisiting, I was offered a name and phone number of a gentleman who could presumably grant me photo-taking opportunity. While a nice gesture, I never bothered to call him for some reason… Perhaps I just like the organic nature of CTMQ and figured I’d find enough images from the Internets to steal and insert anyway. Which is exactly what I’ve done… Like right here, for instance:
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the little hamlet of Collinsville offers a very nice walking tour, complete with a handsome brochure. Nestled in a little valley along the Farmington River, it’s one of those towns that you find yourself smiling at while paying fifteen dollars for a sandwich that is now called a brioche or a panini. Which is fine, because it’s just so gosh-darn nice.
It’s an artsy little enclave that has become a hub of kayaking, paddleboarding, and cycling. Our own little Boulder, Colorado. The Farmington Canal Heritage Trail’s Farmington River Loop courses straight through the middle of town – and right next to the museum. A family could spend a day just in Collinsville and have a grand ol’ time.