“A quaint drinking town with an art problem,” reads a tee shirt for sale at a local pub near my home in Collinsville, Connecticut. A one-liner that rarely fails to get a chuckle, it’s a tongue-in-cheek truism that not only expresses present-day sentiment, but sharply tweaks the past. Contrary to current realities, Collinsville was dry for generations, a factory village where alcohol was taboo. Many property deeds still have clauses declaring them void “in case any ardent spirits, cordials or wines shall be kept or sold on any part of said premises,” and legend holds that a nineteenth century drunk was once paid never to be seen again. A place with century-and-more-ago architectural charm and a contemporary vibe, it illustrates that places exist not only spatially, as we typically encounter them, but in time as well.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a nearly intact nineteenth century mill town, a time traveler to today’s Collinsville from the first decades of the twentieth century or even the 1870s would have no trouble navigating the village. Despite some new construction and structures lost to fire, flood and demolition, most buildings and the layout of streets would be familiar. Technological advances aside, most startling to a visitor from the past would be the mix of businesses. Where once there were stores with clothing, hardware, medications, groceries and other necessities for sale, today the compact downtown, barely a city block long and half that wide, has morphed into an arts and entertainment district of restaurants and boutique shops. Within a couple minute’s brisk walk there are five establishments where a mug of beer or a glass of wine can be enjoyed, and at all but one, a shot of whisky with which to chase them.
Collinsville grew with the 1826 founding and rise of The Collins Company, at one time the world’s largest manufacturer of edge tools such as axes, shovels, knives, and machetes. It became the community’s biggest landowner, taxpayer, employer and landlord, holding sway over local affairs. Company founder Samuel Collins was a shrewd businessman, and began a war on alcohol in the factory’s early days with equal parts bottom-line reasoning and moral energy.
Collins maintained that sweat soaked men working long, hard hours in a gloomy forge lit with smoky, flickering fires and ringing with the din of rhythmically pounding triphammers would be likely to drink heavily afterhours, and maybe not show up the following day. Drinking was bad for business. But Collins was also an idealist, and in an age when manufacturing villages were associated with immorality, he proclaimed that he “rather not make one cent than to have men go away from here worse than they came.”
Well before the nation amended its constitution, Collins instituted a private 18th amendment, placing deed conditions forbidding alcohol on the many properties the company bought and sold. He purchased and closed a tavern along the Farmington River, his source of water power. Doubly good for business, it allowed him to increase his power supply by raising the dam and flooding the tavern site. In the company’s 140 year existence, there were many legal disputes over trademark infringement, worker health, raw material quality, and commercial contracts, but the only case ever taken to the Connecticut Supreme Court involved alcohol consumption.
After Collins' death in 1871, liquor became more widely available, and when the great fire of 1887 destroyed several Main Street buildings, four saloons were among the casualties. The following year, according to the late Dr. Larry Carlton, citizens voted a "no liquor license" law and the village remained dry until national Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
When the company closed in 1966, it left a wounded village of vacant storefronts, peeling paint and broken glass in the street. Cheap rents and lots of space in the old factory drew artists and artisans, musicians who needed practice space. It’s distinctive ambience of traditional building styles in a sea of increasingly homogenized suburbia held the loyalty of townies and drew new residents who not only appreciated the growing artistic atmosphere, but the architectural art of the village. Change came slowly, but its walkable center with buildings whose details intrigue the eye brought new investment and later visitors who, in the early years of this century, saw the village as “a Norman Rockwell kind of place,” eventually garnering it accolades from the Arthur Frommer travel empire as one of “America’s 10 Coolest Small Towns.”
Sam Collins might be spinning in his grave just up the hill, but today’s Collinsville is a place where an honest to goodness pub crawl is literally possible. Each establishment has its own distinctive atmosphere adding both a measure of small town fun and city sophistication to a tiny village. They are places where neighbors and visitors gather for good cheer, art and music. There’s a large music hall with a deco air that used to be a lumberyard; a couple of cozy pubs, one a former train station and the other a doctor’s office; a deli, once a grocery store, that radiates with the snug warmth of a friend’s kitchen; and a wine bar that beckons with casual elegance from a long-time retail storefront that at various times sold clothing, crafts and toys and was an art studio.
We tend to think of places with clusters of historic structures as possessing a kind of bottled in amber quality, everlasting islands in a swift running stream of rapid change. But perhaps, without the distraction of so many physical alterations, they are actually the best barometers of change, forcing us to realize that real change, deep change, has more to do with culture and lifestyles than the more obvious fashions of building construction. The marriage of old time architecture with contemporary happenings creates, not jarring juxtapositions, but a sense of continuity that links the past to the future and makes the present more vibrant.