A Brief History of The Collins Company
From its founding in 1826 by two brothers, Samuel Watkinson Collins, 24, David C. Collins, 26, and their cousin, William Wells, 21, the Collins Company proved to be one of the most innovative edged-tool manufacturers in the world. A crew of eight, working on five acres which had housed a sawmill and a grist mill with a water wheel, built a stone shop and dammed the river. By 1828, employing giant triphammers in a new building, each man was forging and tempering eight sharpened, ready-to-use axes per day. Output increased to ten per day in 1829 when Collins and Company, having denuded some of the surrounding hills of trees to make the traditional charcoal fuel for their fires, became the first edged-tool maker in the world to use Lehigh (anthracite) coal.
Forward-looking Samuel Collins failed to attract a local physician to town with the offer of a free building lot in 1828, but he did succeed in diverting the four-horse New Hartford stage from the Albany Turnpike to his now thriving village and thence through Farmington to Hartford. This resulted in the establishment, in that same year, of a post office.
In 1830, the company built its first office building on the site of the present one. Anticipating expansion, this edifice was large enough to house a school in its first floor and a chapel on its second story. By 1831, demand for Collins’ high-quality product was such that scores of workers were recruited, mostly from nearby Massachusetts. Twenty-one double houses were built followed by twenty-four more in 1832.
Accommodations were so scarce that each renter had to furnish board, lodging, and washing for two men besides his own family. Work hours varied from twelve to fourteen daily, six days per week. Novices were trained on the job. In the event of drunkenness, a common affliction, wages were forfeit.
A journeyman machinist, Elisha K. Root, arrived in 1832 and rose to become superintendent of the works. His many mechanical improvements and patents greatly aided Collins’ productivity and growth. An inventive genius, Root became, in 1849, supervisor, and subsequently, president of the Colt Arms Company in Hartford. He later became the model for Hank Morgan, the mechanical genius protagonist in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Rapid expansion forced the new company to borrow large sums and, in 1833, despite the belated introduction of new machines developed by David Hinman for more economically forming and welding axe heads, the firm was forced to reorganize. In 1834 it incorporated as the Collins Manufacturing Company under new trustees in order to pay off its debts in the midst of a business recession. Demand for its products soon enabled it to prosper again and ride out the serious and prolonged depression which began in 1837. Although there had been previous structures to hold back and divert water, the Company built its first substantial dam in 1837, a log crib filled with rocks. This was replaced in 1867 by the stone dam that exists today.
By the 1840’s, the firm was benefiting from a new export trade created by Yankee sea captains who were carrying Collins implements to Latin America and around the globe. Steel was produced for the first time in 1843. In that year the business reorganized once again as The Collins Company, the name it would retain until liquidation in 1966. During the 1850’s, the company was exporting over 150 patterns of machetes and axes along with hoes, adzes, picks, bush hooks, plows, shovels, and other tools specially designed to meet local needs and preferences overseas. Many new buildings and machines were added, eventually covering some twenty-eight acres along the Farmington River. The oldest shop still standing was finished in 1847. New company houses were constructed on both sides of the river.
In 1850, Samuel Collins lured the Canal Line Railroad to Collinsville, judiciously offering it a right of way, land for a depot located conveniently near his factory, and a “cash bonus” of $3,000. The importance of this event to the future growth of the company and its dependent village becomes apparent when one considers the miserable state of the roads and the fact that it took the better part of a day for a stage to reach Hartford from Collinsville. By 1859, some sources were calling Collins the world’s largest manufacturer of axes and edged tools. During the Civil War, a steel shop with new steam hammers and boilers was enabling it to produce cutlasses for the navy and thousands of bayonets for the Colt Arms Company, the Sharps Rifle Company, and the Springfield, Massachusetts armory. Some 650 workers were producing over 3,000 tools per day, and annual sales exceeded $1,000,000 by 1870. Starting years earlier, Collins had been forced to sue scores of competitors in England and Germany for illegal use of the trademark. The famous arm with hammer and crown was first used on tools in December 1875, and has been much copied since.
Collins’ reputation for quality was such that its tools were used almost exclusively in the building of the famed Trans-Siberian Railway at the turn of the twentieth century; and, in 1910, they aided Robert Peary in his trek to the North Pole. In the 1890’s, however, the Kelly Axe and Tool Company of Charleston, West Virginia, launched a price war that, by 1915, had eliminated most U.S. competitors. Collins lost the bulk of its domestic market to Kelly, but retained its firm grip on the export trade. Over 80% of its foreign sales consisted of hundreds of machete patterns which, in turn, accounted for approximately 70% of its gross sales. It supplied its foreign markets while filling government contracts for carpenter’s adzes and other equipment during World War I. Its reputation for quality enabled it to fight off determined price-slashing competition from Germany and elsewhere in the 1930’s. Through World War II, Collins, with government approval as a gesture of international goodwill, was allowed to supply its foreign customers while producing over a million machetes for our armed forces.
Competition, labor costs, tariff barriers, and other factors moved Collins to establish the first of its foreign plants in Mexico in 1954. Extensive damage was caused by the flood of 1955, destroying several buildings. Factories were later built in Brazil, Colombia, and lastly, in Guatemala City in 1965. Collins sold its company houses, giving priority to its own renters, in the early 1960s. In 1966 the company dissolved. Many observers feel that a lack of innovation (once the company hallmark) was the principal cause. As early as 1946, a Fortune Magazine article noted that “no money is wasted on unnecessary modernization.” Another cause was the concentration on foreign markets that left its products less well known domestically. Collins’ domestic patents were bought by the Mann Edge Tool Company of Lewiston, Pennsylvania which manufactured Collins axes until 2003. Today Collins axes are made by Truper Herramientas in Mexico. The Stanley Works of New Britain, Connecticut purchased the foreign patents after The Collins Company closed and manufactured Collins implements in Latin America for a number of years. They later sold their interest to others. Some of the Latin American plants have closed.