Made in Your Hometown: Eli Bridge Company Amusement Rides
The Ferris wheel is an amusement ride loved by people both young and old. For generations, the Eli Bridge Company in Jacksonville has been a huge part of the amusement ride industry, creating more than 1,400 wheels seen in every state across the U.S. and even being used in 36 countries across the globe.
The fascination behind a big rotating wheel began during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, which is where the original Ferris wheel made its debut appearance.
"It was a 20-minute revolution and one ride was two revolutions so it was very exciting and was it was totally new for that time," CEO Patty Sullivan said.
The Ferris wheel was 264 feet high and had 36 passenger cars, which is why nearly 1.5 million fairgoers stepped on board. One was Jacksonville resident William E. Sullivan.
"He saw the big wheel and rode it once and just fell in love with it, and decided that he wanted to build a wheel that could travel around so that everyone could ride something like that and get a thrill of going up and around," Patty Sullivan said.
Creating a traveling amusement ride is exactly what William Sullivan did.
Formerly in the bridge-making business, his passion lead him to create Big Eli Wheels, which are now seen across the globe.
"By the 50s they were up to about 76 employees at the time and they were selling about 50 wheels a year at that time," Patty Sullivan said.
Today, the Eli Bridge Company is down to 17 employees, which General Manager Tim Noland said is because of the growing technology and the quality of the product.
"There was a large demand early on, of course, wanting our rides, our Big Eli Wheels, especially our Scrambler, so the volume of new rides, that probably coupled with the economy and things, we have seen a decline in the number of new rides built," Noland said.
Now they build about three wheels a year, and make repairs on amusement rides used in hundreds of county fairs across United States. That's one of the many reasons welder Carl Davis has been working for the Eli Bridge Company for 20 years.
"It's a big thrill," Davis said. "It's a high, really, 'cause every year when I go over to the New Berlin Fair, I look at that nice yellow Ferris wheel that I know I built."
Fourth-generation owner and CEO Patty Sullivan said the wheels and amusement rides are gifts that just keep on giving, by creating more jobs.
"The carnivals are adding to every local economy to where they go because they're buying food, they're buying gas," Patty Sullivan said.
Once rides are used again and again, they need repairs.
"Occasionally some pieces get worn out, and then that gets them to order parts from us, so we, the Eli Bridge Company, actually brings new money into town," Patty Sullivan said.
Bringing new money and new people into town is why big rotating wheels have been so popular for more than a century.
"The wheel there is always that thrill of being up high," Noland said. "People remember that from their childhood. Young to old love riding the wheel."
The company said a large part of their business is keeping up with technology and the latest industry trends--in a sense, re-inventing the wheel. It was originally powered by steam engines, and is now powered electronically. Coming out next year will be a wheel fully operated with a touch pad.
Click here to watch Part 2 of Made in Your Hometown - Lender's Bagels.
Tune into Sunrise This Morning Wednesday, July 17 for the final installment in this three-part series.