A Page from North Quabbin History: How Winchendon became known as Toy Town

  • The third and current version of Clyde, the rockinghorse, was created by Sherman LaBarge in 1988 and built in Maine on the original 1914 wooden base. This one is made out of fiberglass and sits under a pavilion in Winchendon. Photo/Wikipedia Commons

Published: 12/1/2020 4:08:34 PM
Modified: 12/1/2020 4:08:28 PM

With holiday shopping in full swing, many people are in the market for toys. Few may know, however, that years ago one of the largest toy manufacturers in the world was not overseas or even in the larger cities of the United States. It was in Winchendon.

Morton Converse, owner of what would become Morton E. Converse Co., originally produced shirt collar boxes at his Winchendon factory. His switch to making toys came as a result of a gift Converse made for his daughter.

“One day his daughter was sick,” according to Don O’Neil, president of the Winchendon Historical Society. “To make her feel better, he took a collar box and used scrap wood to make her a tea set. The set fit in the box, which could also be used as a table.” When the people working in the factory saw what he had created, they asked if he could make a set for them as well. “At the time, the need for collar boxes was waning so he started making toys,” O’Neil said.

Converse had originally partnered with Orlando Mason, and Mason & Converse Co. began creating toys. Their partnership ended in 1883, with Orlando Mason eventually teaming up with H.N. Parker and also producing toys in Winchendon.

Among the toys made by Morton E. Converse Co. were tea sets, drums, rocking horses, doll houses, doll furniture and tool boxes for boys. “He started with wood toys then migrated to tin, then to cast iron… The company became one of the largest toy manufacturers in the world — it rivaled Germany,” O’Neil said.

“The Morton E. Converse Co. employed approximately 500 to 1,000 people. The toys were all shipped out by rail; at that time, five railroads came into Winchendon,” O’Neil said. The historical society has a building dedicated to toys made in Winchendon, including rocking horses, doll houses and boys’ tools.”

In 1934 the Morton E. Converse Co. closed, bought out by Mason Manufacturing Co. in Paris, Maine, who moved their operations there. “He (Converse) had died. His son was running the company. His son was a bit of a playboy and wanted money so he sold the company,” O’Neil said.

The factory was located off of Lincoln Avenue in Winchendon. “The road that the historical society driveway comes out onto is Lincoln Avenue. If you keep going, the road takes a turn and you will still see several of the old factory buildings, O’Neil said.

The story of the rocking horse, named Clyde, who now stands under the pavilion in Winchendon, also has ties to the Converse Co., with his story beginning in the early 1900s. “It was 1914 and Winchendon was celebrating its 150th anniversary. The town was designing a parade and wanted something special, as they could not celebrate their 100th anniversary because of the Civil War. All of the companies made floats for the parade. Converse decided to make a large rocking horse, which was the company’s best-selling toy. He kept it a secret and locked it up until the day of the parade. They built the base on a Model T car so it could be steered and it became one of the parade floats,” O’Neil said.

The town loved the horse so much that after the parade it was displayed at the Toy Town Tavern, also owned by Converse, the train station for a while, and moved to the bank. “It made its way all around town,” he added. “Being out in the elements, the first Clyde eventually fell apart; with Clyde II, the same thing happened.”

The current rocking horse, Clyde III, was created by Sherman LaBarge in 1988 and was built in Maine. Clyde III, which is the same size as his predecessors, is built on the original 1914 wood base, but the current rocking horse is made out of fiberglass and is the same size as his predecessors and placed under a pavilion to protect it, said O’Neil.

These days, there are no toy factories in town but O’Neil added, “We are looking for businesses to fill the downtown area and would love to see a toy store come to town.”

Anyone interested in donating Winchendon toys or other historical Winchendon memorabilia can contact the society at info@winchendonhistory.org. The Historical Society is currently closed for the season but is hoping to open again in mid-May 2021.

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