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Canton may be the smallest of the Farmington Valley towns, but it continues to be one of the fastest growing. The town’s commercial expansion along Route 44 and its affordable, scenic acreage have proven to be a serious draw for new residents and businesses. Some residents see the new development as a threat to the Canton’s staunch small-town character, but as is the story with most things these days, the until-recently weak economy has slowed the expansion process somewhat.

Historically, Canton is an amalgam of four very different villages: industrial Collinsville; compact, colonial-era Canton Center; rural North Canton; and the busy commercial Canton Village.

The heart of Canton is the village of Collinsville. Surrounded by steep hills that curl along the Farmington River, the area once thrived as an industrial center. Today, it is Canton’s own distinctive downtown, the seat of its town government, and an artistic center. It is continually adding new homegrown attractions and offers some of the Valley’s most affordable housing.

Collinsville’s industrial history, initiated by the once-world-famous Collins Axe Company, is still evident in the complex of mill-style buildings (c.1826) that dominate this section of the river. After the axe factory closed in the mid-1960s, some of the buildings were converted to art studios, artisan workshops and a fascinating multi-floor, multi-dealer antiques emporium.

Investors continue to be interested in the Collins Company for development, restoring a major section of the mill buildings on a property which includes 19-acres for new commercial ventures and housing, a plan that has strong support from residents. The town also has hopes to pursue plans with a private company for the Hydro Project, one that would produce hydropower from the river current. Nonetheless, recycling many of its other historical resources and drawing in new entertainment and a farmers market has enlivened “modern” Collinsville, attracting a good number of tourists on weekends.

A three-mile section of the Rails-to-Trails Greenway passes over the Farmington River here on a restored old trestle bridge. At the Canton Historical Museum on Front Street, volunteers have assembled a fascinating collection of Collins Company memorabilia.

LaSalle Market, just up the street, is an informal breakfast, lunch and dinner spot, well known for its variety of specialty sandwiches and country atmosphere. Across the street, Francesca’s Wine Bar is a big hit. The renovated old wooden train station near the Collins factory is now the Crown & Hammer, a nifty bistro with food and drink that everybody crows about.

Just off Main Street, on Market Street, is the Canton Town Hall (c.1806). Its small auditorium is home to the Farmington Valley Theater Company, an all-volunteer group. Creative Kitchen & Bath, which offers high-end kitchen and bath fixtures and designs, has expanded into the old Eaton Hardware space, and next door, Realty Works, a locally grown real estate sales and development operation, now occupies several storefronts.

In the next block, the original Collinsville Savings Society occupies another historic brick building. They still stamped and filled out your savings account passbook by hand until not so long ago. A look in the opposite direction offers a view of the quaint village green. On River Street, behind you, the old-fashioned Village Sweet Shop offers absolutely irresistible chocolates and big jars of candies sold by the pound.

At Collinsville Canoe & Kayak, you can rent a canoe and take it out on a peaceful stretch of river right behind the store. Next door some local entrepreneurs opened Bridge Street Live a few years back, a nice 300-seat performance venue and restaurant, resuscitating a group of long-empty, interconnected wooden buildings that once composed the Miner Lumber Company which relocated a mile north on RT 179. Riverside Nursery, another very pretty place out that way, will take your Christmas tree order over the phone and deliver it.

Traveling still farther north on 179, Canton’s landscape turns distinctively rural and offers a scenic “Sunday drive.” Several family-run farms, like Case’s, line the roadside and sell in-season produce, Christmas trees, and country canned goods like pickles and relishes. The village of Canton Center clusters around its First Congregational Church. Just ahead, at a curve in Cherry Brook Road, sits the North Canton School House (c.1872) and the equally idyllic North Canton Community United Methodist Church, where local animals are blessed. Across the road, the picture book Cherry Brook Farm is another local landmark.

Canton’s original center — Canton Village — is located around the town green at the intersection of Dowd Road and Route 44. The busy, modern commercial strip that cuts through Avon and past the Shoppes narrows and slows down a bit, hinting at the Albany Turnpike’s historic origins. Here and there, all kinds of unique shops and restaurants, none too fancy, occupy a variety of wooden structures that used to be homes, taverns or meeting halls. Anyone interested in flea-market chic will love the shops, like the Junk Shop, which line Route 44.

A bit beyond the Green, the Canton Village shopping plaza has perked up, offering the Valley’s most eclectic array of independents. Stalwarts like Larsen Ace Hardware, Cook & Kozlak Flooring and Bahre Real Estate have been joined by Valley Fireplace, a breakfast and lunch favorite called the Village Cafe, Canton Indoor Golf, and a passel of other places that offer necessary services and some surprises. The Cake Gypsy is a whimsical little cupcake shop with goodies to please kids big and small. A few chains, like McDonald’s and Walgreens, have managed to sneak in without souring the local flavor.

And at Canton Auction Barn, just behind the plaza, you can buy fine antiques and sample the delicious homemade pies on Saturday nights.

Tucked away off the north side of Route 44, the Roaring Brook Nature Center has nice walking trails, guided nature walks, folk performances and programs for kids. And just behind it are Canton High School and Canton Middle School, both excellent examples to the town’s comprehensive school improvement program. Canton High was highly ranked in Connecticut as a part of U.S. News & World Report’s Best High Schools 2015.

Photo by Lanny Nagler