Grandfather of Snowmobiling Dies

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 February 12, 2011 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 some 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.