Eli Bridge Co. Rides High Thanks to Wheels of Fortune
In 1893, 1.5 million people rode the very first Ferris wheel when it debuted at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. And for one young man, the magnificent creation of George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. would prove to be a wheel of fortune.
“William Sullivan was so intrigued by the original Ferris wheel that he decided to make his own company to build and sell a portable version of it,” says Tim Noland, general manager of Eli Bridge Co., the business Sullivan founded in 1900 to bring his dream to life.
Sullivan, who came from a family of bridge builders, strategically chose the company name to deflect the skeptics.
“He was under a lot of scrutiny, so he left ‘bridge’ in the name – that way, he could still build bridges if need be,” says Noland.
As it turns out, the company has built just one bridge in the century-plus since its establishment.
A Century of Fun in the Making
In 1909, Eli Bridge was lured from Roodhouse to become the pride of Jacksonville, Illinois, where it continues to build Ferris wheels – trademarked as Big Eli – in the same building today.
“There’s so much history here,” says Noland. “It’s always interesting, and it’s fun when you can come to work and ride a ride at 8 o’clock in the morning.” (Strictly for testing purposes, of course.)
As CEO, Patty Sullivan enjoys the view from the top of the Illinois company founded by her great-grandfather. Today, the business employs 18 and also builds other rides, including the popular Scrambler. None, however, surpasses the popularity of that sky-high carnival classic.
Prices range from $250,000 to $500,000 each, and the Big Eli can be found all over the world, from Australia to Africa and Dollywood to Hollywood, where they have become a popular prop.
“I see our wheels in movies all the time,” Noland says. “When you think of a carnival, you think of a Ferris wheel.”
Perhaps that’s because the Big Eli wheel has changed little since it was invented.
“People like that nostalgic look, so we haven’t really changed the design on our ground models,” says Noland.
Those original portable ground models were moved by oxcart from one carnival to the next. As technology advanced, Eli Bridge developed a sweat-saving, trailer-mounted model that folds down on itself.
Fixing Farm Equipment
In 2009, Eli Bridge branched out beyond the amusement industry with the creation of A-1 Metal Fabricating Co.
“We’re known as an amusement ride manufacturer, but we’re also a custom fabrication shop,” says Noland. “If customers come to us with an idea, we can sketch it out and build it.”
Operating as A-1, workers repair and upgrade farm and heavy equipment, restore antique tractors and create decorative pieces, such as an archway they recently made for downtown Jacksonville.
“We have very talented employees and shop capabilities to do about anything,” Noland says. “Our guys in the welding shop say they can fix anything but a broken heart.”
Ride the Big Eli Wheel at Scheels
However, it seems the Ferris wheels they make actually invite romance. This past Valentine’s Day (which falls on the same day as the lesser-known National Ferris Wheel Day), 16 couples were married on a Big Eli wheel in the Scheels sporting goods store in Sandy, Utah.
“That made us feel good,” Noland says. “How cool that something we made has become such a big part of these peoples’ lives.”
Of 24 Scheels stores in 10 states, five feature Big Eli Ferris wheels as part of a unique retail strategy.
“We’re more of an experience-based retailer,” says Amy Beadle, event coordinator for the Scheels store in Springfield. There, a 65-foot Big Eli sits under a glass ceiling, offering customers a bird’s-eye view of the 200,000-square-foot store and the surrounding area in the state capital.
“The Ferris wheel is very popular with adults and kids alike,” Beadle says. “People who are in for training from stores without one will ask, ‘Are we going to get to ride the Ferris wheel?’ It can be used as an incentive.”
Always enticing, Eli Bridge creations offer a brilliant blend of flash and substance. And it all starts with safety.
“Patty (Sullivan) is very involved in safety committees and boards that develop standards – not just for our rides, but for all rides,” Noland says. “We want to keep the industry strong.”
That heavy-duty commitment to safety leads to some long-lasting products.
“We have wheels that are 100 years old that run 365 days a year,” he adds. “Our rides are built to last.”
And so do the memories that are made on those rides, which have become a beloved American tradition.
“When grandparents take their grandchildren to the fair, they remember the Ferris wheel from their own childhood – maybe they had their first kiss there,” says Noland.
He sums up the business of amusement simply: “What we do makes people happy.”
Where to Find the Scrambler and Other Eli Bridge Rides
Does the Illinois connection of Eli Bridge inspire you to seek out a nearby midway? You can find some of the company’s rides at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, which takes place Aug. 8-18. The 2013 theme, Where Illinois Comes Together, celebrates the 160-year-old fair’s status as a celebration of the state’s people, culture and agricultural heritage, according to Illinois Department of Agriculture Director Bob Flider.
Other fairs with Eli Bridge rides include the Sangamon County Fair in New Berlin (June 19-23), the Western Illinois Fair in Griggsville (June 19-23), the Schuyler County Fair in Rushville (July 2-7), the Adams County Fair in Mendon (July 24-30) and the DuQuoin State Fair (Aug. 23-Sept. 2). Knight’s Action Park in Springfield, Cedar Point in Ohio and numerous Six Flags amusement parks also have Scramblers, Big Eli wheels and other rides made in Jacksonville. In fact, you can spot Eli Bridge rides in all 50 states, not to mention in countries around the globe.
The Scheels store with the Big Eli wheel is located at 3801 South MacArthur Blvd. in Springfield.
For more information on Eli Bridge or A-1 Metal Fabricating, visit elibridge.com or call (800) 274-0211.