120 Year Old Waterloo Company Makes 'One Horse Wonders'

Nov 26, 2018

A Wisconsin couple with a passion for horses is keeping alive a one-of-its-kind operation in Waterloo: The Jerald Sulky Company -- world famous for its products in the show ring and on the race track.

A group of ten highly-specialized workers is putting the finishing touches on a busy season. They’re handcrafting something that resembles a one horse sleigh, called a sulky. 

“The word sulky comes from the word to sulk as in to be alone, so this is a single seat vehicle, imagine a horse and your sitting in cart behind it,” said company owner Erik Lee, while giving a brief tour.

Lee and his wife Shelli bought the company in 2015, and didn't purchase the business in a traditional manner.

“I called down here to buy a cart and the company had been furloughed, so true story is, instead of buying a cart, I bought the company,' he said. “Three years later I still haven’t made my own cart but I’m working on it, one of these days I will.”

Thanks to the Lees, the Jerald Sulky Company is celebrating its 120th year. It’s the last commercial manufacturer of horse drawn vehicles in the world. Customers from all across the country who race and show horses are thrilled that it’s still in business.

Equipment dealer Terry Bennett’s display of Jerald Sulky tack.
Credit Howard Schatzberg

Terry Bennett is an equipment dealer who makes the five hour trek from Missouri to Waterloo twice a year.  He describes what he picked up during his most recent trip,  ahead of the Morgan Grand National Horse Show in Oklahoma City.

“Three jog carts for training, two two-wheeled carts for show and one four-wheeled show cart which is called a fine harness buggy," he said.  "It’s just the nicest on the market.” 

But of course, not all customers have the luxury of picking up their merchandise in person, especially international customers.

“We ship horse drawn vehicles all over the world, best markets are domestic," said Lee.  "Exports are a little tough right now with the value of the dollar, favorites after that are Australia, South Africa, the European Union and then everywhere comes in last behind that.”

Hand-crafted custom sulkies range in price from $1500 to $15,000, depending on what options are ordered. Lee says his staff has a combined 200 years of experience

“We have to sew the seat cushions, we have to lace and tune the wire spoke wheels, we have to bend and shape the lumber that goes into these vehicles, we have to make all the axel components," Lee points out. “Eighty percent of the components are either manufactured or significantly transformed inside the plant another ten percent is made in the Cedar Valley or the other ten percent is made everywhere else.”

Some of the hardware components used in the company's carts.
Credit Pat Blank/IPR

Lee describes the company as the Rolls Royce of the horse business, but custom seats, shiny spoke wheels and shimmering woodgrain aside, the reputation of the reputation of the design rests on one simple principle.

“I can put a 30 pound child in this cart and I can put a 400 pound man in this cart and at the point where it meets the horse it will always, balance,” he said.

Erik and Shelli Lee and their employees will be taking some time off for the holidays but are eager to begin year 121 for the Jerald Sulky Company.