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Arctic Cat history


   When Edgar Hetteen saw his first snowmobile, his reaction was immediate, leaving no question about his feelings. 'I wouldn't have anything to do with the thing at first,' he later recalled, 'I told my brother-in-law, David [Johnson], he had wasted our time and money building it and I wanted no more of it.' For someone who would spend nearly every waking hour for the next ten years trying to arouse widespread enthusiasm in snowmobiles, Hetteen's words marked a decidedly chilly beginning to what would become a lifelong love affair. Hetteen, who would go on to found the predecessor company to Arctic Cat and, by doing so, position himself among the handful of pioneers in the U.S. snowmobile industry, was more concerned at the time about his farming equipment fabrication company than the curious sled that greeted him upon his arrival in Roseau, Minnesota. The year was 1955 and Hetteen had just returned from a sales trip, his latest effort at turning his company, Hetteen Hoist and Derrick, into a flourishing concern. It was proving to be a difficult task. Far removed from more populated, lucrative markets, Hetteen Hoist and Derrick was struggling in its eighth year of business, scoring only a modicum of success as a custom fabricator of specialized farm implements and tools. Hetteen's latest business trip had achieved lackluster results, and he initially was unimpressed with Johnson's snowmobile. Before long, however, one of the world's preeminent snowmobile manufacturers was established, spawning the creation of Arctic Cat snowmobiles and a new form of winter recreation for millions of people.

   Johnson's prototype had been built at the request of a local resident, Pete Peterson, who asked the manufacturer to fabricate a 'gas-powered sled.' The proceeds from the sale of Peterson's snowmobile enabled Hetteen Hoist and Derrick to make payroll, tempering Hetteen's view considerably, and shortly thereafter another Roseau local placed an order for a gas-powered sled, as demand for the novel snow machines began to build. By the end of the winter of 1955-56, Hetteen's company had constructed five snowmobiles; the following winter 75 machines were built, and during the winter of 1957-58, more than 300 snowmobiles were produced by Hetteen and his workers. In the space of a few short years, the primary business of Hetteen's company had switched from fabricating farm equipment to building and testing machines designed for snow travel. Hetteen, by this point, was hooked.

   For years, Hetteen had endeavored to sell the straw cutters, post setters, and other equipment his company made to markets outside Roseau, but had found little success. With snowmobiles, he sensed the opportunity to achieve the success that had eluded him with agricultural machinery. Early on he realized that to make his new product a success in distant markets it would have to be marketed as a recreational device, but during the late 1950s public interest in snowmobiles was essentially nonexistent, a hurdle Hetteen would overcome by launching an ambitious public relations campaign. In March 1960, Hetteen and three of his cohorts took their snowmobiles to Alaska and completed an 1,100-mile trek from Bethel to Fairbanks in 18 days, drawing the attention of newspaper reporters, magazine writers, and ham radio operators.

   Hetteen returned to Roseau pleased by his success in piquing public interest in snowmobiles, but his arrival home did not meet with applause or congratulatory pats on the back. Hetteen Hoist and Derrick had since been renamed Polaris Industries, Inc. and capitalized by local investors, who were somewhat miffed that Hetteen had abandoned his duties at Polaris and gone to Alaska. As this dispute over the future course of the company was being played out, Hetteen was approached by a group of investors from Thief River Falls, Minnesota. Led by L.B. Hartz, a successful food broker and supermarket owner, the group offered to financially back Hetteen if he moved his company to Thief River Falls; Hetteen declined, and in May 1960, two months after completing his successful trek in Alaska, Hetteen sold his controlling interest in Polaris and returned to Alaska, where he hoped to start a new career as a bush pilot and frontiersman.

   Hetteen's second visit to Alaska was not as successful as his first. After several months of working at isolated airstrips as a pilot and mechanic, Hetteen decided to accept Hartz's offer and renew his interest in designing, building, and testing snowmobiles. By Christmas 1960, when Hetteen arrived in Thief River Falls, financial arrangements already had been made to provide him with a co-signed note for $10,000, which he used to rent a vacant 30- by 70-foot grocery warehouse and start his new business, Polar Manufacturing Company.

   Polar Manufacturing opened its doors on January 2, 1961, and initially manufactured electric steam cleaners (Polar Model #24) and a black light device to kill insects called 'Bug-O-Vac' to raise enough money to begin snowmobile production in earnest. The first snowmobile, the 'New Polar 500,' was completed by the end of the year and marketed as a utility model for use by forestry, power and light, telephone, and oil exploration companies. Although Hetteen had wanted to develop snowmobiles as a recreational product nearly from the outset of his involvement with the machines, he knew he needed to develop a need for snowmobiles before he could begin to inspire a desire for them.



1961 Polar Manufacturing headquarters


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