ROSEAU, Minn. - The snowmobile is a 2014 – the driver a 1923.David Johnson is 91-years-old and still embarking on 200-mile snowmobile trips like some seniors take walks to the park."You still like doing this?" he is asked. "Yeah, I sure do," Johnson says enthusiastically over the engine's idle.Johnson should know his way around a sled. He built the first Polaris snowmobile in 1955.
For those of us living in the 21st century, it's too late to talk shop with Henry Ford, but in a museum near Polaris' Roseau factory, one can still visit with one of the grandfathers of snowmobiling."This is the engine we bought," says Johnson, pointing at a Briggs and Stratton motor mounted on the back of sled number 2."Here's the back sprockets here," says Johnson, crouching down. "We did what we could to make it go." Johnson was serving in WWII when he started sending more than half his Navy paycheck to his close friend Edgar Hetteen, who was launching a company back in Roseau he called Hetteen Hoist and Derrick. Johnson joined the fledgling company when he returned from the war. Edgar's brother, Allen Hetteen, became the third partner.
The trio is featured in a nearly life size photograph in the museum. Johnson pauses to look at it."Who's the dirtiest?" he asks playfully, "I am. I did most of the work. That's what I'd tell them." Edgar Hetteen was the visionary of the group, Allen Hetteen took on marketing tasks and Johnson managed manufacturing. By the mid-1950s the partners were making a name in the agriculture equipment business with a line of farm implements, including a successful straw chopper, built by the company renamed Polaris.
But when Edgar took a two week California vacation, Johnson took the opportunity to work on a special project he'd been pondering. Eighteen snow-covered miles separated Johnson from his favorite hunting shack, a trip he made by snowshoe or skis. "We were just lazy, instead of skiing we wanted to ride," he said. Johnson pulled chains from the farm equipment parts bins, a steering sector from a model T and the front bumper from a junkyard Chevy, from which he fashioned a set of skis. Johnson never snow-shoed to the hunting shack again - and an industry was born.
Johnson didn't invent the snowmobile, others had tinkered before him. But Polaris did build the first small mass-produced sled priced for an average family. "They could take a machine like this and have a lot of fun," says Johnson, pointing to one of the company's early models. Today, half the snowmobiles sold in America are manufactured in Minnesota, by Polaris in Roseau and Arctic Cat in Thief River Falls, another company founded by Edgar Hetteen after he parted ways with Polaris over differences with the company's board of directors. Polaris now employs more than 1,600 people at its Roseau factory, turning out both snowmobiles and several lines of all-terrain vehicles. The factory's impact on Roseau is immense. It is by far the largest employer in the city of 2,600 people.
When he started, Johnson could not have envisioned what Polaris would become."You couldn't look that far ahead," he said.Great grandchildren of original Polaris employees are now among the workers at the plant. Edgar and Allan Hetteen have both passed away, leaving Johnson as the only surviving founder. "No, they didn't have a business plan to do this. They just set off to do it," says Mike Hetteen, a Polaris purchasing manager and Allen's son. "It was always a joke, dad was the educated one - he had a 12th grade education. David and Edgar went through eighth grade."David Johnson retired from Polaris in 1987, though still remained active as an ambassador for the company. He was greeted warmly by workers and managers during a recent factory tour. He talks excitedly about an upcoming snowmobile trip to his cabin in Minnesota's Northwest Angle, a 200-mile roundtrip.Johnson is modest about his contribution to Roseau's economy and winter sports in general, brushing off any legacy discussion. "At least we're having fun, anyway," he says.