Building Maine Since 1844
The following are excerpts from the third edition of the historical document compiled by the Collins family throughout the years.
The 171 year history of the S.W. Collins Co. is closely linked with the history of Caribou, Maine. Both the family business and the thriving community began in recognition of the resources to be found within Maine's vast forests. It all started with lumber.
After the Aroostook War brought attention to the opportunities of lumbering in northern Maine, the State of Maine was anxious to develop this great wilderness. To a man who would erect a saw and grist mill, the state would grant legal title to 160 acres for each mill. Attracted by this opportunity, Samuel W. Collins, in company with Washington A. Vaughan, came to the township to build a mill in 1844.
Collins and Vaughan built their sawmill in the small settlement that was growing up along the banks of the Caribou Stream. They were soon doing a flourishing business in general merchandise and employed many men in their mill and in cutting lumber.
As Vaughan grew older, he decided to leave the lumber business and invest his accumulated capital. In 1857, the two partners split the land and S.W. Collins took the sawmill and the bulk of the land on the north side of Caribou Stream, carrying on the large business by himself until 1876. From that time until 1882, he was joined by his son-in-law, Charles E. Oak and his younger son, Herschel D. Collins.
The life of a pioneer is not an easy one, and that of Sam Collins was no exception. Great losses came to him through the burning of mills, the breaking away of logs from the booms in time of freshet, and sometimes through dishonesty of others; there were many days of financial distress, but eventually he paid his creditors completely.
Sam Collins died in his eighty-eighth year on February 15, 1899.
Upon his death, Herschel Douglas Collins, youngest son of the family, became the head of the firm. Herschel developed the lumber business as the times and economy demanded. He carried on lumbering operations and mills in Maine and New Brunswick to meet the demand for long lumber in Aroostook County and for the Boston market. He contracted for and produced ties for the Bangor and Aroostook and Canadian Pacific Railroads. The grist mill and general store started by his father were carried on for many years.
For the next 29 years, in addition to concentrating on the lumber business, H.D. Collins developed the home farm to a high state of cultivation. The period marked the growth of the potato industry in Aroostook County. With the coming of the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad in 1895 and the development of commercial fertilizers in the early 1900's, potato growing became the major industry of the county. Under Herschel's management, the Collins farm produced many thousands of barrels of potatoes during the first half of the twentieth century.
By the time of Herschel's death in 1936, the third generation of the Collins family had long been involved in the business. Mary, eldest daughter of H.D. Collins, entered the office in 1915 as her father's bookkeeper. She became treasurer of the Collins Lumber Company, which was incorporated in 1933 to carry on a wholesale lumber business with a manufacturing plant in Stockholm.
After Herschel's death, his son Samuel Wilson Collins became the head of the company. In the nearly forty years that Sam was active in the family business, many changes occurred. Spruce lumber replaced pine. The Collins Company carried on their own lumbering operations in the woods until the early 1950's. The mill in Caribou, although twice leveled by fire, continued to do a large amount of custom sawing. Building materials and supplies began to play in important part in the company's business.
The career of Sam's second son, Donald, in many ways parallels that of his father. Don entered the business in 1949 after graduating from University of Maine with a B.A. in business administration. Through the 1950's and 1960's the company continued to sell lots from the home farm and to build houses there and elsewhere. In the 1960's the Collins Company stopped manufacturing lumber because supplies were too far away and the mill was not equipped to compete in the new manufacturing process that had evolved. Instead, the company became more involved with distribution of lumber and building supplies.
The S.W. Collins Company was plagued by several fires during the 1960's. The sawmill, idle at the time burned. The millwork shop burned and was rebuilt. At the time that the new millwork shop was built, a new steel storage facility was constructed. In the early 1970's, home building activities were closed out and the Collins Construction Company dissolved. During this time, the S.W. Collins Co. more and more derived business from selling building materials to other contractors involved in building.
The end of the home building era allowed Don to devote more time to developing business related to selling building materials. In the 1970's, he began to plan a new home retail center. Don designed and began construction of the new facility, across from the existing store, in 1979. The new store opened in January, 1980. The wider range of product and supplies at the new store increasingly drew do-it-yourselfers and walk-in trade, in addition to contractors.
Don retired from the business in January, 1992. The present leader of the family-owned firm is Don's son, the third Sam W. Collins and the fifth generation to guide the business. Gregg Collins, Don's youngest son joined the firm in 1988 and currently serves at Vice President and manages the Presque Isle division of the company.
The 1980's saw the business triple in volume over the depressed years of home building in the late 1970's and early 1980's. With this change, the S.W. Collins Co. evolved as a "home center" store. The company expanded its stock to include more hardware and electrical and plumbing supplies, in addition to traditional doors, windows, cabinets and other materials. The layout of the store was updated to attract do-it-yourselfers, becoming increasingly well-lit and well-organized for self-service.
Later in 1992, Sam and his brother Gregg decided to expand their operation into other markets. After substantial interior and exterior renovations to the old Agway building on Rice Street in Presque Isle, a full service building supply center opened in July of 1993.
An opportunity to purchase Houlton's Fogg's Hardware in 2007 was a logical next step to assisting the needs of all County residents. The facility was soon renovated with easier access, well-lit show room and a new drive through lumber warehouse.
In April of 2013, the company decided to expand the business into neighboring Penobscot County and purchased Haskell Lumber in Lincoln. Construction soon began on a new 18,000 square foot retail facility and a 25,000 square foot drive through warehouse. The new Lincoln location opened it's doors in February of 2015.