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
“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
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.