In the winter of 1954-55, Edgar Hetteen, along with his other partners in Polaris Industries at Roseau, Minnesota, decided to build a machine to travel over the snow.
The first snowmobile created by Hetteen and his brother-in-law, David Johnson was based on the Eliason motor toboggan, and used an auger for propulsion. It was nicknamed the “Screaming Lena” because of the way it snaked sideways on hard packed snow.
That machine went back to the Shop to be replaced by a new version with a track made of elevator chain. Polaris industries, fledgeling company that it was, sold the new snowmobile to a local fox and rabbit hunter, named H.F. Peterson. He rode it hard on cross country runs, and improvements were made constantly.
By the following winter, the prototype was ready for production. Five machines were sold in 1955-56. A year later, Polaris Industries built 75 snowmobiles they called “Sno-Travelers.” It was, however, a difficult time for the young business that always seemed to be out of money. Banks and conservative investors were not sold on the idea of the snowmobile.
Edgar Hetteen wasn’t about to be defeated by a lack of money, however. In February of 1957, he and David travelled to the annual Trapper’s Festival in The Pas, MB and had the first ever [informal] races, which involved a single-track snowmobile against sled dog teams! The gamble paid off — a Winnipeg distributor ordered 25 snowmobiles.
Many people viewed Edgar Hetteen as an eccentric in his single purposed pursuit of the snowmobile business, particularly the stockholders who owned large shares of Polaris Industries. Always with the idea of proving the snowmobile, Hetteen organized the first trans-Alaska expedition ever undertaken by motorized transportation.
In an epic journey that launched the snowmobile as a real means of transportation, Hetteen, along with Rudy and Bessie Billberg and Erling Falk, traveled 1100 miles across the wilderness of Alaska in just twenty days on their Sno-Travlers. Edgar insisted that his customers were everywhere in the World, but the folks back home in Rousseau demanded that he do business there.
Leaving Polaris Industries in 1960, Edgar Hetteen continued to pursue his dreams, which culminated in the establishment of yet another business which would eventually manufacture the Arctic Cat snowmobiles. As Hetteen himself once said, “There would be no Polaris and no Arctic today had I listened to the philosophy of the community. They, in theory, didn’t mind shooting for the moon but they wanted to do it with a slingshot.”
In December 1961, in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, Hetteen’s new Polar Manufacturing company produced 20 all-terrain vehicles they called the Polar 500. The tracked machine, however, couldn’t stand the pounding of rocks and dirt, so the next year Hetteen renamed his business Arctic Enterprises and went on to build another snowmobile line, beginning with the 1962 Arctic Cat 100, the first front-engine sport sled. By 1969 annual sales had reached 21.7 million.
In 1981, with snowmobile sales plummeting, Arctic Enterprises declared bankruptcy. The Arctic Cat snowmobile, however, returned in 1983 when Hetteen and his investors started the Arctco, Inc. company.
One of Hetteen’s most important contributions to the world of snowmobiles was the plastic sliderail, which replaced wooden rails treated with wax oil. When Hetteen got the idea to go with plastic, he met with a manufacturer at Tilly’s Cafe in Thief River Falls. The whole idea was drawn out on a napkin, so the company representative could give him a quote!
Edgar Hetteen was inducted into International Snowmobile Racing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Hetteen, E., & Lemke, J. (1998). Breaking trail. Bemidji, Minn: Focus Pub.
Artic Cat Inc., (2009) http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/Arctic-Cat-Inc-Company-History.html