Polaris founder David Johnson lived a ‘good, full life’
ROSEAU, Minn.—David Johnson liked to say laziness inspired the first Polaris snowmobile.
An avid outdoorsman, Johnson said he built the first snowmobile in January 1956 as a way to enjoy the outdoors in winter. The machine was assembled from parts on hand in a Roseau machine shop, including binder chains for the track and a car bumper for skis.
“My story is we were lazy,” Johnson told the Herald in a March 2015 story. “We didn’t want to ski up to hunting camp. We just wanted to see if we could make a machine that would go in snow. We wanted to be able to get to the Northwest Angle and places like that because we were ‘Up North’ people who liked to hunt and fish.”
Johnson, who co-founded Polaris Industries in 1954 and pieced together the company’s first snowmobile in that Roseau machine shop, died Saturday, Oct. 8, at home.
He was 93.
A Roseau County native, Johnson, along with boyhood friend and brother-in-law Edgar Hetteen, started the Hetteen Hoist and Derrick company in Roseau in 1945, making straw choppers and other equipment.
Edgar’s brother, Allan, joined them in 1948.
They incorporated as Polaris Industries in 1954, taking the name from a sprayer they had purchased from a developer in North Dakota. Before snowmobiles became their flagship product, the Roseau entrepreneurs made everything from plowshares to garbage cans.
“We made anything that would give us a dollar,” Johnson said. “We made quite a bit of machinery for the farmers. Anything we could get some money out of, we would do.”
Powered by a 10-horse Briggs and Stratton engine, that first snowmobile had a less than stellar debut, Johnson recalled. Sidelined by a broken toe, Johnson wasn’t the first to test-drive the machine. Instead, Orlen Johnson, an employee who worked for Johnson and the Hetteen brothers, took the first test run.
It didn’t go anyplace at first, David Johnson recalled, but they eventually got the machine to move.
“Finally, at about 5 to 10 mph, it started to go in the snow, so we knew then that it would work,” he told the Herald.
Johnson didn’t know it at the time, but that early machine would set the stage for a company that in 2015 reported annual sales of more than $4.7 billion. Polaris today is headquartered in Medina, Minn., but the company remains Roseau’s largest employer.
Edgar Hetteen went on to found Arctic Cat and died in 2011. Allan Hetteen died in a November 1973 farm accident.
Johnson retired in 1987 but made regular visits to the Roseau plant as recently as earlier this year.
“Dad’s first passion was for Polaris’ employees,” Johnson’s son, Mitchell, said in an email. “He could bring out the best in each employee and find a place where they could contribute.”
Mitchell Johnson recalls helping to facilitate a magazine interview two years ago, in which the interviewer asked the elder Johnson to explain what he meant when he said Polaris employees were his family.
“Dad said, ‘They are the reason we made it through tough times. They are my friends. I love them,'” Mitchell Johnson said.
Over the years, Johnson led numerous expeditions from Roseau to his remote cabin at the Northwest Angle, a one-way ride of more than 75 miles. Warren Strandell of East Grand Forks recalls being invited on one of those trips in February 1974 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald.
There were eight or 10 people in the crew, Strandell said, including Johnson’s son, Rodney; Paul Knochenmus, who was Roseau County sheriff at the time; and Meredith Haslerud, manager of the Roseau Electric Cooperative.
They rode 212 miles over three days, Strandell recalls.
“David led the way and once stopped in the middle of nowhere, walked 100 feet out into the trees, dug around in the snow and pulled out a bag of cookies,” Strandell said. “He had planted them there a few days earlier.”
Johnson also showed his mischievous side during that same trip, Strandell recalls.
“We went north to an old settlement — I think it was called East Braintree or something like that — before turning onto the old Dawson Trail that led back to Bear Creek and the Angle,” Strandell wrote in an email. “On the creek, we ran into slush ice. Everyone of us was bogged down. Stuck as heck, up to our knees in slush.”
Well not everyone. … Johnson had a machine with a 160cc engine that wasn’t very fast, but had big, wide skis and a 20-inch track.
“When we went down, he stayed on the top of the slush and rode to a small knoll about 100 yards away,” Strandell said. “He sat there chuckling while the rest of us pushed, pulled and lugged our machines to finally get out of the slush.
“That was David. Always had fun, was a little mischievous,” Strandell writes. “I have some great memories from the meetings I had with him.”
Those snowmobile trips would continue for many years to come. Mitchell Johnson said his dad, at age 91, rode his Polaris Widetrak with friends two winters ago on a round-trip excursion to his cabin at the Angle.
‘It sure runs good’
More recently, despite failing health and dementia, Johnson asked to be taken to his shop.
“I wheeled the wheelchair over to his Widetrak,” Mitchell Johnson said in his email. “He stood up, got on the running board and started it. Then he shut it off and said, ‘it sure runs good.'”
His dad, Mitchell Johnson said, “participated in, experienced and observed every period in Polaris history.”
His legacy will live on every time someone hits the trail on a Polaris product.
“We are certainly sad, but we’re content,” Mitchell Johnson said Sunday. “We remember Dad as he was before his dementia, and things are good. He had a full life. When he was not quite as far along in his dementia, he said, ‘I’ve lived a good, full life. I’m ready.'”
Johnson is survived by his wife, Eleanor; sons Mitchell, rural Roseau, Rodney, Two Harbors, Minn., and Aaron, rural Roseau; and daughter Mary, Minneapolis.
Funeral arrangements are pending, Mitchell Johnson said.
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