The snowmobile's 'Founding Father' has died in Roseau

David Johnson, a co-founder of Polaris Industries, cobbled together the company's first snow machine out of parts including car bumpers 60 years ago.
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Polaris Industries co-founder David Johnson on one of the company's earliest snowmobiles

Polaris Industries co-founder David Johnson on one of the company's earliest snowmobiles

David Johnson used to say the first snowmobile he built for the company he co-founded, Polaris Industries, was inspired by laziness.

"We didn't want to go on skis up to hunting camp," Johnson told the Grand Forks Herald. "We just wanted to see if we could make a machine that would go in snow."

Johnson and his co-workers succeeded in doing that. Their first sled – or Motor Toboggan, at the time – helped turn their machine business in far northwestern Minnesota into a company that now sells more than $4 billion worth of snowmobiles, off road vehicles, and motorcycles a year.

Johnson died over the weekend at age 93 after a long illness, Polaris announced in a statement.

In an interview with SnowGoer.com a few years ago Johnson again credited laziness as the impetus for reducing the effort entailed in the 75-mile trip from his hometown of Roseau to his cabin in Minnesota's Northwest Angle.

SnowGoer says a few different people can make plausible claims to inventing the snowmobile, but they call Johnson its Founding Father.

Polaris: origins in farm machinery

Polaris says Johnson started the company in 1954 with his two cousins, Edgar and Allan Hetteen. At first Polaris made various machinery much of it for agriculture, the company says, with a straw cutting attachment for combines one example.

 David Johnson, right, with Polaris co-founders Allan and Edgar Hetteen (Photo: SnowGoer.com)

David Johnson, right, with Polaris co-founders Allan and Edgar Hetteen (Photo: SnowGoer.com)

But after Johnson and his cohorts saw a machine they'd cobbled together from parts including car bumpers make its way across a snowy Roseau field in January of 1956, Polaris changed course.

According to the company, Johnson said in later years that Polaris did not invent the snowmobile but was the first to successfully market the machines.

Racing against dogsled teams

Johnson was inducted into the Snowmobile Hall of Fame in 1999.

Besides being a pioneer in building the machines, Johnson was also an early racer of them, the Hall says, sometimes competing against dogsleds in the 1950s or taking part in deep snow races where the winner was the last machine that was not stuck.

His very first snow machine in 1956 was reportedly turned over to the owner of a Roseau lumber yard who was known for "an uncanny ability to break things" and so was thought to be a good test driver of the Motor Toboggan.

Polaris' second snowmobile was sold to a resident of the Northwest Angle – a man who had previously been walking the three miles to where he cut timber on Lake of the Woods, Johnson told SledNews.com. That machine is now on display at the Polaris Experience Center, a company museum next to the manufacturing plant in Roseau.

Johnson kept riding into his 90s

Polaris says even after Johnson retired in 1988 he gave tours at the Experience Center and frequently visited the workers at the Roseau plant.

The company's headquarters are now in the Twin Cities area but Polaris remains the biggest employer in Roseau, the Grand Forks Herald says.

According to the paper Johnson made the round-trip ride from Roseau to his Northwest Angle cabin as recently as a couple of years ago at age 91.

Polaris says Johnson's survivors include his wife of 68 years, Eleanor.

A funeral service will be held on Saturday, Oct. 22 at Roseau High School with a visitation the previous evening at Roseau Community Church, across the street from the Polaris plant.

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