WESTBOROUGH – Is it a rooster? A clipper ship? An arrow? No, it’s a silhouette of a Portland cutter sleigh that tells the wind direction from the apex of Westborough Town Hall. Since 2014, a sleigh logo on many street signs welcomes folks as they enter the roads in town.
Why a sleigh? In the 1800s, Westborough was recognized regionally, even nationally, as a center for sleigh making. It was one of the first communities in Worcester County to produce sleighs as a cottage industry in the 1830s. And in the pre-automobile era of horses and buggies, horse-drawn sleighs were a common form of transportation in winter when heavy snows covered the landscape.
The boom time for sleigh making in Westborough was after the Civil War, from 1870 to 1885. There were nine local sleigh manufacturers, producing 4,500 sleighs a year.
In the beginning, many sleigh makers worked as a cooperative. In their off season, carpenters made the frames of oak, hickory, and basswood. These were sent to the blacksmiths to add iron braces and runners. Painters then painted and trimmed the sleigh with contrasting colors. Each worker took a share of the profit.
Blacksmith and wheelwright William Sibley made sleighs in the 1840s behind his residence at 13 Parkman St., now home of the Westborough Historical Society. When he returned from the Civil War, William and his brother Frank formed the WH & F Sibley Company. With eight workers they produced 150 sleighs a year until 1884.
The first shop to specialize in sleighs in 1841 was that of Daniel and Baxter Forbes. Daniel built a larger factory near 13 Summer St. in 1858. After a series of partners, D. Forbes & Son became the largest factory in Westborough, turning out 1,200 to 1,400 sleighs a year.
Other big sleigh manufacturers included Wilder Brown on Brigham Street, Corning Fairbanks on Hopkinton Road, William and Frank Sibley on Parkman St., Charles Williams and D.O. Bacon on Phillips St. The smaller companies were William Blake on South St., Alfred Bryant on East Main St., Frank Carleton and John O’Brien on Brigham St., and Patrick Maguire on Summer St. For several years the State Reform School also produced 300 sleighs annually.
Although Westborough manufactured all grades and weights of sleighs, its hallmark was the Portland cutter, a one-horse open sleigh. Its single-board seat, in various shades of worsted, mohair, or silk plush, accommodated two or three passengers. The Portland was sturdily built, swift, stable, and light, suited for trotting horses.
Westborough workmanship was known for its high quality and reasonable prices―a Portland cutter averaged $35 to $40. They were marketed nationally as “second to none of their grade.”
According to the Nov.11, 1874 edition of the Westborough Chronotype, “Sleigh business is remarkably good the present season, judging the ready sale which Westborough sleigh makers find their products. Our manufacturers have sold out their entire stocks made in early season and are now filling orders from all directions…”
The railroad through Westborough proved a major boost. In the 1880s as many as 2,600 sleighs were shipped from Westborough to New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. In the winter of 1882, six railroad cars of sleighs were shipped to the Midwest and Minnesota.
Demand for sleighs slowly decreased. The 1905 Westborough Business Directory listed no sleigh factories. Now the only sleighbells ring silently from atop our Town Hall.