Carnivals and fairs conjure up many images, from cotton candy to roller coasters. But nothing is more synonymous with the traveling amusement shows than the Ferris wheel, with its graceful rotating carriages perched high above the neon-lit midway. Today, Eli Bridge Co., which helped ensure the Ferris wheel's place in the hearts of carnival and fair-goers more than a century ago, continues to build the revolving rides in Jacksonville, Ill. (pop 18,940).
The mass-produced, portable Ferris wheel owes much of its existence to bridge builder and big thinker W.E. Sullivan. The founder of the Eli Bridge Co., Sullivan was visiting the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago when he rode on a grand, 250-foot-tall rotating wheel. Pittsburgh bridge builder George W. Ferris invented the massive structure in an attempt to match the greatness of the Eiffel Tower, erected as a showpiece for the 1889 World's Fair in Paris.
Sullivan was fascinated by the giant ride and returned home to Roodhouse, Ill. (pop. 2,214), where he began working on a smaller version. His goal was to create a portable wheel that could be moved from carnival to carnival, street fair to street fair.
"When my grandfather decided to make the wheel, my grandmother advised him not to tell anybody, because they would think he was crazy," says Lee Sullivan, 82, chairman of the Eli Bridge Co. board and W.E.'s grandson, who has worked for the family-owned business since he was a schoolboy.
But W.E. proved the idea wasn't crazy in 1900 when, after modifying the ride several times, he developed a portable one that could turn a profit.
The company has since manufactured more than 1,400 "Big Eli" Wheels, each one made by hand. At the plant, almost nothing is automated, and the factory looks much like it did at the turn of the 20th century. In 1919, after 17 expansions, the company moved from Roodhouse to a larger plant in Jacksonville. Today, the plant includes three buildings totaling 76,000 square feet where workers build five sizes of wheels, from a 15-foot "kiddie" ride to a 61.5-foot-tall model, which is sold and shipped for just under $400,000.
"Our family considers (the company) part of our heritage," says President and CEO Patty Sullivan, W.E.'s great-granddaughter, who takes a spin on each ride before it's shipped to a customer.
The company's emphasis on family influences the way it treats its 22 employees, with an average tenure of 18 years. "We've always tried to maintain good working relationships," Lee Sullivan says. "A number of employees have told me they never enjoyed working anyplace else as much as they have working here."
Eli Bridge Co. doesn't build as many Ferris wheels as it once did because of rising insurance rates and fuel costs, which have put the squeeze on the carnival industry. The company made just one wheel last year, in addition to some of its other rides such as the popular Scrambler and Spidermania. "But we are still hanging in there," says Patty Sullivan, explaining that the company also makes parts to maintain its rides in 36 countries around the world. The company estimates that more than a thousand of its wheels remain in operation.
The family has no plans to stop making Ferris wheels. And for fun-seekers visiting a carnival or fair this year, the gentle and uncomplicated ride continues to hold an important place in their hearts.
"Children remember their first ride with their parents or grandparents, and they want to give that same experience to their children," Patty Sullivan says. "The Ferris wheel is one of the rides that young lovers want to ride. People have been married on Ferris wheels. It's just part of Americana that I really don't think will ever go away."
Visit www.elibridge.com to learn more.