PARIS — Ralph Quillin grew up in Lexington as the son of a doctor. While studying at Sayre School and Transylvania University, he thought he would become a doctor, too. Then, he said, "One thing led to another."
He got married, had three children and became a paramedic with the Lexington fire department, where he worked for 23 years.
On his days off, Quillin taught himself leatherwork. Preppy leather-and- needlepoint belts were popular in the late 1970s, and Quillin and his wife, Sally, made and sold a lot of them.
Then, after he bought a farm in Bourbon County, Quillin figured he could teach himself to make horse halters. He was soon making and selling so many that his wife evicted his noisy sewing machine from the house.
Quillin rented a shop in Paris and outgrew it, then rented another and outgrew it.
Now, he says, Quillin Leather & Tack is the nation's largest mom-and-pop harness shop, celebrating 30 years in business.
Since 1988, Quillin and his 10 employees have worked from an old house that has been enlarged every way it can be. The main floor is a sprawling showroom. In a cramped basement workshop and former upstairs bedrooms, workers hand-craft 17,000 halters a year, plus thousands of belts, key tags, dog collars, checkbook covers and other items. All come with custom-engraved brass plates.
After halters, the company's most popular items are harness-leather belts with brass plates for the owner's name. Every man in Central Kentucky seems to wear one, a handy precaution against bourbon-induced memory loss.
The company has outfitted such Thoroughbred greats as Secretariat and Storm Cat. Regular customers include Claiborne, Stone and Darley farms. But most sales now come from beyond Kentucky — half by mail and phone and a quarter online at Quillin.com.
Quillin attributes his company's success to high-quality products, reasonable prices and good customer service.
The shop goes through about 450 cowhides and 1,500 pounds of brass a year, Quillin estimates. Each piece of leather and brass plate is hand-cut and shaped. A computerized engraving machine personalizes each plate, which is then drilled, polished, inked and riveted in place by hand.
Harness leather comes from Thoroughbred Leather in Louisville. It is thicker than normal and tanned so it turns just the right color of brown when dipped in oil. Other leather and most solid-brass hardware comes from Weaver Leather in Ohio.
While there are about a dozen popular sizes and styles of halters priced from about $20 to $80, Quillin says the shop regularly makes about 200 variations. "We're like short-order cooks," he said.
Custom orders have included elaborate horse-rescue slings and halters for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus' giant Clydesdales. "Damn, those were big halters," Quillin said.
The three sewing machines that are used to make halters were patented in 1904, but business systems run on a network of Apple Macintosh computers. Employees, not machines, answer the telephone, and email and Facebook queries usually get a response within a couple of hours.
"People are dumbfounded," said Quillin, who answers email some evenings. "What else am I going to do? There's nothing on TV."
Quillin said annual sales are now in the low seven figures after a rough few years. The 2008 economic crisis led to a dramatic decrease in Thoroughbred foal crops. Then, Sally Quillin died of breast cancer in May 2010.
There is now a breast cancer awareness sign on the company's front lawn. For the past two years, Ralph Quillin has made pink halters for the fillies running in the Kentucky Oaks.
Sally Quillin was always "the face of the company," he said. "You just don't realize how much your wife does until she's not there."
At age 61, Quillin figures he has a few more years of harness-making in him. One of these days, he might take on a partner to run the business. Then he can spend more time raising prize Angus cattle on his Bourbon and Nicholas county farms.
Quillin's two daughters and his son have successful careers, and he knows none of them wants to come home to run a leather shop. Hillary is a meteorologist in Texas. Katherine is senior field engineer on California's Oakland Bay Bridge. Ralph Cutler Quillin Jr. is a surgeon in Cincinnati.
"My dad's a doctor and my son's a doctor," Quillin said. "I'm either the dumb one in the family or the smart one."