Ralph Quillin prepares leather strips at his workshop in downtown Paris. Ralph, 72, is a serial entrepreneur. He has run a craft brewery, restaurant, private boat ramps and rental properties. But he is best known for Quillin Leather & Tack, which has produced made-to-order halters for more than 40 years. His products are worn by Thoroughbred horses around the world.
Ralph estimates there are 150 variable parts that go into producing a Quillin halter. His business makes about 18,000 halters a year, he says. The vast majority are shipped to customers outside of Central Kentucky – as far away as Australia or Japan.
Ralph Quillin describes his various businesses as his hobby. He has a few ideas for childrenís books he would to write. And even though he closed his restaurant and brewery during the pandemic, he hasn't written off the food industry. He is interested in opening another restaurant in the future, or creating a smaller-scale dining pop-up.
The type of industrial sewing machine used in Quillin's shops was patented in 1904, Ralph says. The machines in use in his workshops today were made in the 1920s or 1930s.
A signature feature of Quillin horse halters and human belts is the brass plate, which is engraved with the wearer's name. Cody's Wish is a Grade 1-winning Thoroughbred who has claimed victories at Keeneland, Saratoga and Churchill Downs.
The sewing machines and other equipment in the workshop require caution from the artisans. "I tell my people, if you drop something, don't try and pick it up," he says. "Just let it fall. Otherwise you'll be picking the tool and your finger up off the floor."
Ralph works on graphic design for print ads and social media posts in his office above the showroom. He does all the digital marketing. He keeps the shades drawn to reduce glare. He says employees jokingly refer to the dark space as the dungeon.
Ralph chats with Andrea Pompei (center) founder of Hopewell Bakery next door, and Arthur Newberry, who owns Caffe Marco down the street. Newberry was wearing a Quillin belt.
Rob Windels (from left), Robert Johnson and Jerry Martin move shelving into Quillin's downtown workshop, where Ralph is adding a showroom with retail space. He hopes to get a lot of the work done before the town's Secretariat Festival in November, where Paris will unveil a large statue of Big Red and officially open Secretariat Park, 50 years to the day after the legendary Thoroughbred arrived at Claiborne Farm. Ralph hopes the energy around the festival, and Secretariat-related tourism, will boost businesses in downtown Paris.
Ralph locks up the downtown workshop just after 5:30 p.m. Despite friendly reminders from his wife and colleagues that he's supposedly retired, Quillin loves being busy with his businesses. "If I had to quit right now," he says, "I don't know what I'd do."