Edgar Hetteen, founder of Polaris and Arctic Cat
Tuesday, 15 February 2011 15:06

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

 

Edgar Hetteen, the Roseau, Minn., native known as the grandfather of the snowmobile industry for co-founding the two main manufacturers still making them in northwest Minnesota, died Saturday in a Grand Rapids, Minn., nursing home. He was 90.

 

Beginning in the mid-1950s, Hetteen founded, with his brother, Allan, and brother-in-law, David Johnson, what became Polaris, in their hometown of Roseau.

Only a few years later, the self-driven Hetteen walked away and soon in nearby Thief River Falls, co-founded what became Arctic Cat Inc.

 

Hetteen has lived in Grand Rapids since forming a third manufacturing firm nearly 30 years ago, and has been ill for edgarsome time.

His legacy is deep and historic, industry leaders say. Polaris and Arctic Cat now sell worldwide, not only snowmobiles but the off-road utility and recreational four-wheelers used by the military and civilian world, that were the dreams of Hetteen in a Roseau machine shop in the 1940s.

“Edgar was an icon, a snowmobile pioneer and visionary who helped grow a seed of sport and industry into a thriving pursuit and business that people love worldwide,” said Polaris President and COO Bennett Morgan in a statement Monday. “He was an inspiration to generations of Polaris employees who admired his desire for innovation, and the way he enjoyed interacting with the people involved in snowmobiling.”

 

But surprisingly, Hetteen never made a fortune from the two snowmobile companies he formed, even though Polaris had record sales of nearly $2 billion last year, and Arctic Cat had sales of nearly $500 million. He said over the years he didn’t regret it because he made decisions to leave the firms when he did, and said he was glad his vision for a new way of winter travel worked out.

 

Raised on a farm by his Swedish-American parents, Hetteen was more a businessman than an inventor. He started during World War II with a Roseau machine shop, Hetteen Hoist and Derrick. One of his partners was his brother, Allan, and another was David Johnson, a brother-in-law.

 

“We would fix anything you brought in,” said Johnson on Monday from his Roseau home. “Back then, everybody on a farm had to be able to fix machines.”

In their spare time, the partners tinkered with “swamp buggies,” to get around the trackless forest surrounding them. The dream of a machine to go through snow was an old one, with the big, “wind sleds” with props and skis, decades old, costly and impractical for everyday use.

 

“We were both outdoors people,” Johnson said. “We loved hunting and trapping and getting out in the wilderness. That’s what we started with making snowmobiles, to get away from the crowd.”

The first ones didn’t always bring you back.

“You had to have a pair of snowshoes along, or a pair of skis, in case you had to walk back,” Johnson said.

 

By 1954, Johnson and Allan Hetteen had cobbled together their first prototype of a snowmobile, using a 10-horse Briggs and Stratton engine from the local hardware store mounted in back, a track made from a steel binder chain — “the kind used on manure spreaders,” Johnson said — and a seat of steel in the middle of a “tunnel” of sheet metal.

“The first one only went 10 mph,” Johnson said.

Edgar was a skeptic, figuring it would never work or never sell.

But there was a market ready for it. The lumber man across the street bought it for $425, Johnson remembers: “he used it to hunt rabbits, fox and wolves.”

Sales rose in the late 1950s, but the board of directors of Hetteen Hoist and Derrick kept pressuring him to nix the unknown new snowmobile product for the steadier farm implement business, which they had done for a decade or more.

Edgar Hetteen decided to show everyone: in a long-celebrated long journey in 1960, he and three others took the Sno-Travelers on a 1,200-mile trek in Alaska, from Bethel to Fairbanks, in three weeks. It proved snowmobiles were reliable enough to replace dog sleds, Johnson said.

But when he got home, his board of directors was miffed that he left on such a mission, leaving the business to others.

Hetteen, who people said could be stubborn, even irascible and who wanted to do things his way, walked away.

L.B. Hartz, the regional grocery chain magnate in Thief River Falls, asked Hetteen to come there and start a second snowmobile plant. Instead, Hetteen returned to Alaska, planning to be a bush pilot. But things didn’t work out, and he soon was back to take Hartz up on his offer, building up Polar Enterprises, soon re-named Arctic Enterprises.

“He wanted to try something different,” said Johnson, who stayed on running Polaris with Allan Hetteen. Allan died in a farm accident in 1973. Johnson retired from Polaris in 1988 and still lives in Roseau.

 

He and Hetteen remained good friends, despite building competing brands only an hour’s snowmobile trip apart.

“We didn’t compete too much,” Johnson said. “We kind of worked together, too. If he needed help, I would help him and vice versa.”

Seeing a need for more cash to compete in the growing industry, Hetteen sold Polaris to Lowell Swenson in 1965, getting stock in return.

Hetteen later said he ended up with little wealth from either company. Arctic Cat’s original company went bankrupt in the early 1980s.

But Hetteen was on to something new.

In 1983, Hetteen co-founded — with Gary Lemke — ASV (for all-season vehicles) in Grand Rapids, making rubber-tracked utility vehicles, and this time, he made a fortune, according to published reports.

In 2000, Hetteen and Johnson rode together for 900 miles in Alaska, with several others, recreating Hetteen’s 1960 pioneering trek.

“This trip was everything I hoped it would be,” Hetteen said at the time.

He retired from ASV in 2005 and his successor, Lemke, said “Edgar Hetteen has had a tremendous impact on the business landscape, and thousands owe him a debt of gratitude for the jobs and wealth he has created.”

Born in 1920 in rural Roseau to Emanuel and Mae Hetteen, Edgar Emanuel Hetteen grew up on the family farm there, attending school through the eighth grade. He served in the Navy during World War II.

 

According to his obituary at Rowe Funeral Home, Grand Rapids, he was preceded in death by his first wife, Ruby; a daughter, Nancy Triviski; a son, Ronald Hetteen; brother Allan, and a sister, Doreen Hetteen.

His survivors include his wife, Hannah, Grand Rapids; a daughter, Patricia Glagavs, Maplewood, Minn.; step-daughters Mary Ann (Jeffrey) Miels, Grand Rapids, and Jheri (Georgina Cantoni) McMillan, Dallas; daughter-in-law Nila Hetteen, Grand Rapids, and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

His funeral service will be at 2 p.m. Saturday in Grace Bible Chapel, 2452 Country Road 76, Grand Rapids, with visitation for 90 minutes before the service.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

Reprinted with Permission.

 

 
Sledder of the Week Feb 14- 20th
Tuesday, 15 February 2011 10:58

mekids1

VintageSledders Screenname:Invader440
Real Name: Eric Curtis
Location: Fosston, Mn
Family: Son Brent, Grand Children Kirsten & Hunter
Current sleds:Arctic Cat & Kawasaki
Favorite brand: Same as above
Dream sled: 82 Interceptor
Do you show? Swap? Race? Show & race occasionally.  Love hitting the swap meets as a buyer.
Favorite vintage snowmobile event: Thief River Fall Show/Ride
How long have you been into vintage snowmobiles? Since 97
When did you first get bit by the vintage bug? Guess you could say it started way back in 1968 riding a Polaris Mustang in the fields on my Uncle's farm. 
Other hobbies: Fishing
Random fact about you:Spent 14 years in the Navy as a Surface Sonar Technician.  Been working as a School Bus driver/mechanic for the last 14 1/2 years.

 
8th Annual Ransom Retro Ride
Wednesday, 09 February 2011 11:34

Get that old iron out of the shed and fire it up, the Ransom Retro Ride is this Saturday the 12th of Feb.

If you've never been to Ft.Ransom N.D. you just don't know what you are missing. This quiet little town lies nestled away in the Sheyenne river valley about 80 miles southwest of Fargo N.D. The town is a trip down memory lane, with scenes out of a Rockwell painting.

ramp023

The Retro Ride features about an 12 mile trail ride through some of the nicest scenery in North Dakota. The riders line up and begin the ride at noon, they will enjoy a bonfire complete with a free hotdog roast at the midway point of the ride.

 

While warming around the fire, the infamous "blindfold race" will ensue. This event always provides lots of laughs for the crowd. Rest stop over, the trail ride heads back to town where a free chili feed awaits the old iron riding gang.


022

There will be many door prizes as well as awards for oldest rider, youngest riders, first breakdown and more. Thor's Old Mill Grill will be hosting kareoke for all the sledders who want to showcase thier vocal talent.

Come to Ft. Ransom on the 12th, you'll be glad you did!


More info on this event can be found in the Vintagesledders forum.
 
The Jag that followed me home.
Wednesday, 02 February 2011 06:59

jag1


It was the fall of 2007 fast approaching Princeton time. For those of you who don’t know what Princeton is, the outlaw summer grass drags and swap is held each fall just outside of Princeton MN. These drags and swaps attract the largest number of vintage swappers in the Midwest.


Friday night the whole family headed out to the Twin Cities to spend a weekend away from home. My wife and kids were looking forward to staying at Grandma’s house and I couldn’t wait to see the isles and isles of pure old sled heaven. The sun was just coming up in the eastern sky as I pulled the truck out of Grandma's driveway and headed the last 40 miles towards Princeton.


I pulled into the lot, and found a place to park near the gate. One last check before I went into the gate; wallet, keys, and most importantly the shopping list.

I found a pair of skis I needed within the first 3 rows. The next hour of swapping was rather uneventful; I ran into a lot of old friends and had plenty of time to trade some stories. I picked up a couple t-shirts, a carb, and some windshield trim just because it was there.


As I headed back out to my pickup with my armload of treasures, I saw a real nice Yamaha Enticer 340. I stopped to look it over; it was as nice as they come for a used one. My brother had asked me to pick up a sled for his boys to run around the yard, and the lil Yamaha looked like it was just what the doctor ordered. I asked the lady sitting there about the sled, and she said, “ My husband will be back in an hour.” I told her I’d stop back later and continued on my way.


Around lunchtime, I grabbed a burger and watched about an hours worth of the drags. Well rested, it was time to hit the swaps again. My shopping list was getting short as I stopped by the Yamaha again. I had not brought a trailer and only had room for one sled going home, if I could strike a deal, the Yamaha was the one.  As luck would have it, the owner was not around, and no phone number listed.


I continued around the swap. As I got to the outside row, I saw a kid around 12 desperately trying to start a beat up old Jag. I could see the kid was crying and I asked what was wrong. He told me that his mom had taken the beat up Jag in lieu of rent from some guy, and that he’d convinced his mom if they took it to the swap meet it would sell.

I looked a little closer at the Jag; it was the epitome of neglect. It had a ripped seat, busted hood, and hadn’t been licensed in years. Above it hung a sign that said $200.


The kid told me the sled ran this morning but now he couldn’t get it to start. I grabbed a plug wrench and pulled the plugs…yep, they were wet. I had a case of plugs in my cart so I grabbed a pair, stuck them in, and pulled.  And I pulled, and pulled…Finally the flooded engine came to life. I let the sled clean itself out and it seemed to run real nice.


I reached for the key and shut it off, turned the key back on and with half a pull the sled was running.  I shut it off again and the kid was beaming. “Thanks mister, do you want to buy it?” I politely explained I only had room for one snowmobile in my pickup and this wasn’t going to be to one. He persisted…” You gotta buy it, my mom wants to go home right now”. I declined again and told him I had to keep moving in the swap. He said “ Just make me an offer, we aren’t going to haul it home”. I really did not want that sled so at this point, I was left with no other options, so I said “$20” knowing he’d say no and I could be on my way.


He said, “SOLD” and threw out his hand to shake.


A deals a deal, so I gave the kid $20 and walked away in a stunned state of disbelief .  I flagged down a sled hauler and went to pick up the old Jag, as I rode through the swaps on the way to my pickup I was kicking myself. I told myself; well at least it’s got a good track and engine. As I was loading it into my pickup I saw the track was torn in two. There goes the good track theory.


I finished the day and went back to grandmas to pick up my wife and kids. My wife asked me about the junk sled in the back of the pickup, I told her the story and she just chuckled.


When I got home, I unloaded the sled and pulled the rope…nothing. Again, nothing. What? I pulled the plugs and pulled it over…Yep. No spark.  ARRGH! I hooked onto the old jag and pulled it unceremoniously back into the trees behind the shop.


You’d think that would be the end of the story but it’s not. Since arriving in the trees, that $20 Jag has donated a carburetor to the first charity build, and muffler to a friend in need, and provided shelter for countless mice families.


And the kid? I saw him the very next year and bought a bike rack for the kids from him. His mother laughed as I told her the story of the tired old Jags new life as a parts donor, and thanked me again for helping her son that hot fall day.


Moral of the story:

No good deed goes unpunished...

Keep your skis on the same side of the tree.

Paul Shearer

 
Sledder of the Week Jan 31-Feb 6
Monday, 31 January 2011 13:55
mofo1
VintageSledders Screenname:70 MF
Real Name:
John Strauch
Location:
Durand, Michigan
Family:Wife...
Jennifer, 3 sons...Will 9, Nick 6 and Jaxon 4
Current sleds:
'79 Yamaha Exciter 440 oval sled, '80 Moto Ski Mirage II, '70 MF SST500, '77 MF Storm & a few parts sleds
Favorite brand:Anything but Cat
Dream sled:
'79 Yamaha SRX, '79 Moto Ski GPS
Do you show?
Once and a while. Swap? Yes, but usually end up bringing more home than I take. Race? Yes, this year will be my first try at ovals, some grass and ice drags.
Favorite vintage snowmobile event:
A-1, Marion SnowFest, RuppFest
How long have you been into vintage snowmobiles?
Since my first ride on the '70 Ski Whiz in 1970 when I was 4 years old. Bought my first sled in 1980 when I was 15, a '77 Yamaha GS340
When did you first get bit by the vintage bug?
On and off since I was younger, really got back into it in the last 10 years,it keeps me out of trouble.
Other hobbies:
Hunting, fishing, guns, militias
Random fact about you:
I haven't bought a car since I was in high school a '75 Nova, I've owned only trucks since then.

VintageSledders Screenname:70 MF
Real Name: John Strauch
Location: Durand, Michigan
Family:Wife... Jennifer, 3 sons...Will 9, Nick 6 and Jaxon 4 
Current sleds:'79 Yamaha Exciter 440 oval sled, '80 Moto Ski Mirage II, '70 MF SST500, '77 MF Storm & a few parts sleds
Favorite brand:Anything but Cat 
Dream sled:'79 Yamaha SRX, '79 Moto Ski GPS 
Do you show? Once and a while. Swap? Yes, but usually end up bringing more home than I take. Race? Yes, this year will be my first try at ovals, some grass and ice drags. 
Favorite vintage snowmobile event: A-1, Marion SnowFest, RuppFest 
How long have you been into vintage snowmobiles? Since my first ride on the '70 Ski Whiz in 1970 when I was 4 years old. Bought my first sled in 1980 when I was 15, a '77 Yamaha GS340 
When did you first get bit by the vintage bug? On and off since I was younger, really got back into it in the last 10 years,it keeps me out of trouble. 
Other hobbies: Hunting, fishing, guns, militias 
Random fact about you: I haven't bought a car since I was in high school a '75 Nova, I've owned only trucks since then.
 
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