Collinsville: On Foot in the Off Season

by Jane Natoli

LaSalle's Market in Collinsville, CT. These buildings have stood on Main Street more than 100 years.
At first sight, the old factory that comes into view from across the bridge looks like most of the others along the rivers in New England - the kind that brought manufacturing to the area before modern technology and rising costs shipped work overseas. A worn sign on the brick building informs passerby's of the history of the Collins Company, an axe manufacturing business that brought people, railroads and a name to Collinsville, Connecticut during the Industrial Revolution.

When the company finally closed its doors in 1966, the town could have easily begun the slow decline to a post-era factory town like many of its counterparts. But it takes only one look at the activity in and out of the factory building and the downtown stores before it becomes apparent that the town is anything but abandoned by the people here. Embraced is more like it - artists, dance studios, offices and a two floor multi-dealer antique shop now occupy the factory space in addition to the many modern businesses that have taken over the downtown.

Unlike other thriving post-industry towns, however, Collinsville still makes a name for itself - this time through tourism. The river that once gave the factories power now draws locals and tourists alike in the summer to canoe, kayak, climb along the river banks and jog on the trails. The antique shop, Antiques on the Farmington, and other well known businesses, such as LaSalle's Market, bring people to town year round.

While I am familiar with the busy draw Collinsville enjoys during the summer months, I stopped in Collinsville one Sunday afternoon in February to see what winter had to offer. Not surprising, no one was outside. Despite the cold wind, I wandered around the outside edge of the factory to inspect the riverbank, crossing back over the bridge that led me into town. I paused half way across the bridge to stare back at the brick building squatting at the river's edge as if it grew up out of the bank. The water flowing around it - dammed up over a century ago to steer the water's power for the factory - has also settled into its surroundings, seamlessly blending natural and manmade elements. Time has stood still here at the water's edge, especially without the tourists of the summer months crowding the river.

Antiques on the Farmington, located within the old Collins Co. Axe Factory
Back inside the factory, a woman with her hair pulled back into a Mother Goose bun stood watch over the front desk of an antiques shop, silently approving customer's selections as she carefully wrapped each purchase without letting on if they were junk or truly an antique treasure. Two men, appearing to be from out-of-state, stood halfway down the aisle explaining to a woman how to tell a good antique dresser from a fake; just look at how many notches hold the drawer together and you can tell which era the furniture comes from. I followed the two men through the various stalls, opening all of the drawers I saw to get a feel for the right kind of notches while I not-so-discreetly listened to their conversation about the stuff for sale in each stall.

After browsing through the two floors of antiques, I headed over to LaSalle's Market on Main Street for something to eat. Main Street today looks almost exactly like it did when the Collins Company boomed. You'll be able to identify many other aspects of the town that have remained untouched since the Industrial Revolution after a tour in the Historical Society building for only three dollars.

Inside, I passed the old fashioned ice cream counter at the front of the store, promising to return in the summer, and I placed my order for some homemade soup and a sandwich. A loud whiz near my head startled me: the girl who took my order had clipped the piece of paper to a wire overhead and zoomed it across the store to the chef. Clever, I thought, as I found a table near the windows so I could people-watch as I waited for my sandwich.

One of the out-of-town preppy families I had seen checking out of Antiques on the Farmington spread out at a table near me. A few elderly locals sat and chatted over coffee in the middle of the dining area. Children ran back and forth from the coolers in the back of the store where the abundance of different flavored sodas are stored. Yes, I thought, Collinsville remains one of those few towns that have overcome but not forgotten their past. I'm sure most of the people don't come to hunt antiques or kayak in Collinsville because of the history of the town, but there remains a unique balance between the past and present here.

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