ROSEAU, Minn. -- When the Antique Snowmobile Club of America picked Roseau as the site for its 2015 winter convention and "Back in the Day Snowmobile Getaway" last month, the group paid tribute to a snowmobile pioneer.
David Johnson, 92, built the first Polaris snowmobile in January 1956 in a Roseau machine shop and is recognized as one of the founders -- along with brothers Allan and Edgar Hetteen -- of Polaris Industries.
Today, Polaris is headquartered in Medina, Minn., and has annual sales of nearly $4.5 billion. But it would be impossible to argue the company's legacy is in Roseau and the work that started in a small machine shop.
"There's just so much history in Roseau," said Valdi Stefanson, president of the Antique Snowmobile Club of America. "We want to help preserve that history."
Stefanson, of Stacy, Minn., said the inspiration to hold its recent vintage event in Roseau came from a segment Twin Cities TV station KARE-11 aired last winter as part of a feature series called "Land of 10,000 Stories."
"I'm watching the news on a Sunday night, and I see David leaving his garage" on a snowmobile, Stefanson said. "I say, 'I know that guy,' and they were honoring David. Then I'm on the phone with our director saying, 'Listen, I'm tired of honoring these pioneers who started this industry posthumously. Let's get to Roseau and have fun with David while he can hear it firsthand, and that started the ball rolling."
Walk through history
Fresh off the event held in his honor, Johnson and his son, Mitchell, shared a few of their Polaris memories during a recent walk through the Polaris Experience Center in Roseau.
Also joining them was retired Polaris engineer and Snowmobile Hall of Fame racer Bob Eastman and his wife, Karolyn.
The 5,600-square-foot Experience Center north of the Polaris factory opened in December 2001 and takes visitors through the history of a company that started in the mid-1940s making straw choppers and other farm equipment as Hetteen Hoist and Derrick before incorporating as Polaris Industries in 1954.
The Polaris name came with a sprayer the entrepreneurs purchased from a North Dakota developer and added to their line of products, which included everything from plowshares to garbage cans in addition to the flagship straw choppers.
"We made anything that would give us a dollar," Johnson said. "We made quite a bit of machinery for the farmers. Anything that we could get some money out of, we would do."
Despite that philosophy, Johnson says he didn't have any grand business aspirations when he set out to build a machine to travel across snow. Instead, the avid outdoorsman and his partners were looking for an easier way to enjoy their time outside.
"My story is we were lazy," he said. "We didn't want to go on skis up to hunting camp or some of that. ... We just wanted to see if we could make a machine that would go in snow.
"We wanted to be able to get to the Northwest Angle and places like that because we were up north people who liked to hunt and fish and things like that."
He pieced the first snowmobile together out of parts on hand, including roller chains for a track and skis from a car bumper.
Powered by a Briggs and Stratton engine, Johnson's homemade machine wasn't the first snowmobile. Earlier inventors such as Carl Eliason in Wisconsin had been making snow machines since the 1920s, but Johnson aimed to make improvements.
"I could see things that we could change, could make better," he said, adding with a laugh: "It's easy to make something better."
Hobbled by a piece of iron that broke a toe, Johnson wasn't the first person to test drive his machine. That distinction went to Orlen Johnson, a Roseau man who worked for Johnson and the Hetteen brothers.
The inaugural run was hardly remarkable.
"He started it up right in front of the old shed door, and it didn't go anyplace," Johnson said.
It took some tinkering, Johnson recalls, but he eventually got the machine to move.
"Finally, at about 5 to 10 mph, it started to go in the snow, so we knew then that it would work," Johnson said.
Allan Hetteen made the second Polaris Sno-Traveler in February 1956. No. 2, as it's called, stands restored at the entrance to the Experience Center. Harley Jensen, a logger on Minnesota's Northwest Angle, bought No. 2 for $465, even though the throttle cable broke when Johnson was giving him a test ride.
"It would break down here and there, and we'd go up there and help him fix it, so to a degree, it was very successful," said Johnson, who owns a cabin on the Northwest Angle and has made hundreds of trips by snowmobile over the years. "It had a lot of minuses, but we knew that it was a machine that could be made to go in the snow to a fair degree."
The logger occasionally got the machine stuck in deep snow or slush.
"He'd have to use horses sometimes to get it out, but he worked at it, and he was happy with it," Johnson said.
The small company built more machines throughout that year and shipped a truckload of 10 to 15 sleds to Alaska in the fall of 1956. By the winter of 1957-58, production grew to the hundreds, and in 1963, the company moved into the new plant on the south side of Roseau.
"Finally, we got them up to about 20 miles an hour, too, you know," Johnson said. "That made a big difference."
Polaris snowmobiles gained popularity among cattlemen, telephone companies and natural resource agencies, but as late as 1964, the straw chopper comprised about 75 percent of the company's revenue. That changed as the snowmobile industry expanded, and Polaris was out of the straw chopper business by 1969.
"There are many things you can use a snowmobile for," Johnson said. "Just think of all the lives it has helped -- people that have been stuck and people that absolutely needed a machine like this to get their work done."
Today's snowmobiles are high-tech machines with heated handlebars, reverse and engines that start at the turn of a key and go just about anywhere there's snow. Johnson's favorite, he says, is the Polaris WideTrak, a machine made for deep snow.
None of today's comforts would have been possible without the work of engineers with a talent for making the machines better, Johnson said, whether it be engines that started dependably, smoother-riding suspensions or paint that didn't peel.
"We did not do everything ourselves -- we had help," Johnson said. "We had people that were trying to make something for us, too. It's not something that just all fell together. We stuck with the work, we stuck with trying to make things better and we got a crew that was really first-class."
Pointing at Eastman, a Cavalier, N.D., native who joined Polaris in 1960, Johnson says, "There's one of them sitting right there."
Johnson did some racing back in the early days but says he's never been a speedster like Eastman, 73, who was inducted into the Snowmobile Hall of Fame in 1988. Eastman also developed the first Polaris ATVs, which entered the market in 1985.
Weathering the storm
There've been hard times, including the problem-plagued Comet, Polaris' first front engine snowmobile built in 1964 that nearly bankrupted the company -- "We made 400 machines, and we got 500 back," Johnson once joked -- and the industry downturn that saw the number of manufacturers plummet from more than 120 in the 1970s to only three by the early 1980s, a number that later would grow to four with the rebirth of Arctic Cat.
Through it all, though, Polaris survived, finding a new spark in the mid-1980s with the ATV and light-utility vehicles that today account for some 75 percent of the company's annual revenue.
Snowmobiles, while contributing less to the bottom line, remain the company's legacy business, Mitchell Johnson said.
"There's no vehicle that can give you the ride experience that a snowmobile can," he said. "It's a thrill that once people experience it, they never forget it."
At 65, Johnson said he remembers that very first snowmobile and says it's "humbling" to be part of a business that became an integral part of his life and the lives of so many others involved with the company.
A longtime Polaris engineer, the younger Johnson now is retired but owns a company that works on research and development projects for the manufacturer.
"First of all, my father is part of the legacy and the origins of the company, and I was able to participate and work with people like Bob Eastman and create things that were new experiences," Johnson said. "To see it become what it is today is a testimony to people like Bob and David and many people that worked with them in terms of their passion.
"There's a tendency for people to look at themselves and not have the confidence to be able to do world-changing things. And these guys changed the world in terms of off-road riding experiences in the little town of Roseau."
David Johnson retired in 1987 but says he still makes regular visits to the Roseau plant to visit friends and check on things. He still enjoys snowmobiling and even leads the occasional excursion to the Northwest Angle if it's not too cold.
This winter, Johnson says he's put on fewer miles than most winters. There've been too many days like the recent day at the Experience Center, a cold, blustery Monday when driving a snowmobile would have been downright miserable.
"This winter wasn't enough snow at first, and when it came, it got too cold," he said. "It was easier to sit in the easy chair."
After all these years, the stories maybe don't come as easy as they once did for Johnson, but he retains his humble outlook on the impact those early machines had not only on northern Minnesota, but outdoor recreation across the world.
Still, he concedes, it's been quite a ride. And a ton of fun.
"We never thought about any company," he said. "We were looking for a tin can or something that would go."
And go it did.