Seventeen years before the start of the Civil War, a grist mill and sawmill opened in Caribou, Maine. One hundred seventy-five years later, the S.W. Collins Company has evolved into a fifth-generation family-owned building material dealer with five locations in northern Maine.

“S.W. Collins located on the banks of the Caribou stream began as a grist mill and sawmill in 1844. The old ledger sales entry books in the 1860s show evidence of the company being the general store for the growing community supplying the staples of the time; tea, tobacco, mitts, boots, molasses, herring, in addition to lumber and flour. The company evolved with the market demand and the times. After World War II there was a shortage of housing stock for returning veterans so in addition to providing lumber and building material, the company seized on the opportunity to employee the many returning veterans in the newly formed construction company and built up the housing stock for Caribou,” explained company President Sam Collins.

“In the 1980s we responded to the Do It Yourself market by constructing a new store to accommodate the doubling of the hardware and building material inventory including paint, builders hardware, plumbing and electrical. In 1991, Loring Air Force base in Limestone, 8 miles east of Caribou with a population of 10,000 announced the closing of the base. Two years later we expanded to Presque Isle just a year prior to the actual closing of the base and the loss of a significant portion of the population in the County,” Sam declared. “We have been fortunate to be able to expand the past fifteen years to Houlton, Lincoln, and Fort Kent because of the many talented and dedicated employees we have had the pleasure of working with over the decades.”

A Family History, Rooted in Opportunity

The Aroostook War was an international incident over the boundary between the British colony of New Brunswick and state of Maine from 1838 to 1839. As the two countries argued over territory that wasn’t clearly defined in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War, attention was drawn to the vast natural resources that were hidden in the forests of Maine. To take advantage of the lumbering capabilities of the state, Maine offered 160 acres to any man who would erect a saw and grist mill. This was an opportunity Samuel W. Collins would seize in 1844.

In the early days, pine trees were highly prized by the mill. One log, sold at $40 a ton, would often bring in $1,000 in the market.

Sam would run the business until his death in 1899, when his son, Herschel Douglas (H.D.) Collins, would become head of the company. H.D. would carry on his father’s general store and grist mill for many years. At the time of his death in 1936, H.D.’s eldest daughter, Mary, was treasurer of the Collins Lumber Company, which incorporated in 1933, and his son Samuel Wilson Collins became head of the company.

Samuel Wilson Collins was a commissioned 2nd lieutenant during World War I and graduated from the University of Maine in 1919. He was active in the family business for 40 years and oversaw many of the changes that took place, including two fires at the Caribou mill and the creation of the Collins Construction Company in 1951.

Sam was active in the community and held many positions in Caribou and for the state of Maine, including president of the Aroostook Trust Company, director of the Maine Public Service Company, president of the Maine Retail Lumber Dealers Association, president and trustee of the University of Maine, and representative and state senator in the Maine legislature.

Donald F. Collins took control of the company in 1950. Don was a 1949 graduate from the University of Maine and served overseas in the infantry during World War II.

According to the company’s website, “the S.W. Collins Company was plagued by several fires during the 1960s. 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 1970s, 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.”

Don continued to expand the retail business by building a modern home center in 1980 and adding warehouse facilities. Don became involved in other business interests and served as a bank director, director of a mutual insurance company, and as director of an electric utility company. Don served as president of the Retail Lumber Association of Maine and as a director of NRLA. He also shares his family’s interest in public service and served on the city council and in the state legislature as a representative and senator.

Growth and Expansion

Don retired in 1992, and his son Sam W. Collins III was chosen to guide the business with his brother Gregg Collins serving as vice president. These fifth-generation brothers quickly got to work and expanded the operation into other markets.

In 1993, the company renovated an old Agway building in Presque Isle and opened a full-service building supply center. In 2007 they purchased Fogg’s Hardware in Houlton, which they renovated with easier access, a drive-thru warehouse, and a showroom. In 2013, the purchase of Haskell Lumber in Lincoln helped the company expand into Penobscot County, with construction on a new retail facility and warehouse being completed in Feb. 2015. The most recent acquisition occurred in 2016 when the company purchased Quigley’s Building Supply and the adjacent UpNorth Outdoor Store in Fort Kent.

Looking back upon his 35-plus-year career, Sam recognizes that he’s witnessed the impact technology has had in evolving the LBM industry.

“Technology has had a huge impact on our industry and enabled companies to expand. When I first came to work for my Dad in 1981 all of our back office and sales were manual entries. Our delivery system comprised of writing the order on a 6 x 8 slip of paper from a pad and piercing the paper on a nail anchored by a block of 3” x 5” wood. When the order was completed the paper was turned over and pierced thru the middle on another nail anchored by a block of wood.” Despite the changes that have taken place the past 175 years, the opportunity for success has remained constant. As Sam explains, “Sometimes we make business more complicated than it needs to be. The constant is to pay attention to the customer’s needs and continually strive to provide them excellent service. We work to live our mission statement, To continue to offer excellent products and legendary service as we strive to be an active, positive influence in the communities in which we live and work.”

As S.W. Collins celebrates its 175th Anniversary, it’s clear that the focus on customer service and serving the community has helped to build a company that will continue to meet the needs of its customers well into the future.