ROSEAU, Minn. -- It all started in a Roseau machine shop, where three entrepreneurs with a knack for inventing and tinkering -- brothers Edgar Hetteen and Allan Hetteen, and partner David Johnson -- in the 1940s formed a company called Hetteen Hoist and Derrick.
Straw choppers were the flagship product in those days, but the trio in 1954 changed the name and incorporated as Polaris, a name that came with a sprayer they’d purchased from a North Dakota developer.
They made everything from garbage cans to plowshares, “anything that would give us a dollar,” David Johnson, who died in October 2016 at age 93, told the Herald in March 2015.
Then, in 1956, the first Polaris snowmobile chugged out of the shop, cobbled together from a collection of parts.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Next weekend, Roseau -- “the birthplace of Polaris” -- will celebrate that history and the company’s 65th anniversary. Set for Friday, Aug. 16, through Sunday, Aug. 18, the anniversary festivities include plant tours, a community cookout, a vintage snowmobile show and parade, a Polaris history presentation, a street dance and an outdoor concert featuring rock and country musician Tim Montana.
Roseau and Polaris, it could be said, are inextricably linked.
“The community was such a big part of Polaris’ success -- that’s the element that’s really unique,” said Ben Dieter, director of snow engineering for Polaris in Roseau and a 1996 Roseau High School graduate. “Many people that live in the community have worked here at one time. And I think a lot of the success of Polaris is the employee base.”
Nod to the past
Headquartered in Medina, Minn., Polaris Industries today is a multinational corporation with annual revenues in 2018 of $6.1 billion, company records show, and a global workforce of 13,000 employees, including more than 1,400 workers at the Roseau location, a sprawling complex that covers nearly 800,000 square feet. The company has 19 manufacturing sites, of which 14 are in the U.S.
All this from a small shop that produced straw choppers at a site a few blocks north of today’s Polaris factory. The upcoming 65th anniversary is a nod to the past and a company that, like its founders did, continues to adapt and change with the times, Dieter said.
The Polaris product line today encompasses more than 30 brands, he said, including snowmobiles, ATVs, side-by-side vehicles such as the Ranger and RZR -- commonly known as the “Razer” -- and the Indian brand of motorcycles.
“It’s quite an interesting history, when you think about the level of change and complexity and leaders and what was necessary for the time,” Dieter said. “Roseau isn’t the epicenter of Polaris like it once was, but I think the critical piece that has made Polaris successful is the ability to change. Products change, people change, the external environment changes, and Polaris has done a really good job of changing to be relevant. And so Roseau continues to play an important part of Polaris.
“We’re making history every day -- this is just an opportunity to kind of pause for a weekend and celebrate where we’ve come from,” he added. “But clearly, our eyes are on the future.”
A new 4,000-square-foot lobby slated for completion Oct. 4 -- National Manufacturing Day -- will be the 36th addition to the Roseau facility since the existing plant was built in 1963, said Nathan Hanson, director of operations for Polaris in Roseau.
“It’s going to be lit up at night -- you’ll see it, north, south, east and west as you come into town,” Hanson said. “It will be just a nice addition to the plant and the community and very welcoming to come in and take a look at, be it a plant tour or to apply for a job.”
The project also includes renovating about 6,000 square feet of existing space, he said.
The Roseau workforce manufactures the Sportsman family of ATV models and military RZR machines on two assembly lines and all of the company’s snowmobiles on the third line, Hanson said.
Historically, though, nearly all of Polaris’ primary product lines except its on-road products have been produced in Roseau at some point, Dieter said -- more than 5 million vehicles and exponentially more components shipped to other manufacturing sites and distribution centers.
Roseau is the only Polaris site where new product development and manufacturing are in the same location, which also houses some of the company’s research and development, engineering and product testing teams.
From concept to development and manufacturing to shipment, it’s all possible right in Roseau, which “provides tremendous opportunity and agility,” Dieter said.
“To have it all under -- quote unquote -- one roof here is really special,” he said.
Initially, the plan for the 65th anniversary was to organize a relatively small, low-key event to mark the milestone, said Kellie Roth, human resources director at the Roseau location. And while it won’t match the extensive 50th anniversary celebration that occurred in 2004 at multiple sites, the 65th will be a big event in Roseau, she said.
“It came together rather quickly,” Roth said. “And there are a lot of enthusiasts for Polaris and the history of Polaris. It started out as something intentionally kind of smaller, but it quickly grew from there.”
Next weekend is the culmination of that effort.
“This isn’t just a celebration for employees, this is the entire community coming together to celebrate,” Hanson said. “It’s going to be a great three days.”
Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Schedule of events
Here’s a look at the events on tap for Polaris’ 65th anniversary celebration Aug. 16-18 in Roseau, Minn.
Friday, Aug. 16
1 and 2 p.m.: Polaris plant tours.
Extended hours at the Polaris Experience Center.
5 p.m.: Community cookout, Gazebo Park.
Saturday, Aug. 17
8 to 10 a.m.: Pancake breakfast, Polaris.
8 a.m.: Polaris plant tours begin (last tour at 10 a.m.).
Polaris Experience Center open.
11 a.m.: Polaris parade, Main Street.
1 to 4 p.m.: Youth and adult riding courses, Roseau County Fairgrounds.
1 to 4 p.m.: Kids events, Roseau County Fairgrounds.
Noon to 4 p.m.: Vintage show, Memorial Arena (all Polaris products from 1981 and older are welcome, free registration).
1 to 2 p.m.: Polaris racer autograph session, Memorial Arena.
2 p.m.: Anniversary cake and coffee, Memorial Arena.
4:30 p.m.: Polaris historic presentation, Roso Theater.
8 p.m.: Street dance, outside arena.
Sunday Aug. 18
Polaris Experience Center open.
3 p.m.: Rock/country singer Tim Montana concert, outside arena.