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Outdoor Enthusiasts David Johnson and Allan Hetteen, Co-founders of Polaris Industries Loved an Epic Ride

Outdoor Enthusiasts David Johnson and Allan Hetteen, Co-founders of Polaris Industries Loved an Epic Ride of Any Kind!

The photo featured above was taken in 1958 on Main Avenue in Roseau, Minnesota (now called Main Street) with a line-up of the Polaris Sno-Travelers. In the photo, left to right: David Johnson, Edgar Hetteen, Adolph Johnson, Allan Hetteen, Erling Falk.

Outdoor enthusiasts David Johnson and Allan Hetteen’s vision and mechanical expertise brought freedom in the winter to so many people throughout the world.

David Johnson and Allan Hetteen were childhood friends. In fact Allan’s brother, who was nine years older than Allan was married to David’s sister Ruby.

black and white wedding photo Edgar and Ruby Hetteen were married August 31, 1939.

In 1944, Edgar Hetteen started Hetteen Hoist and Derrick, a machine shop in Roseau, Minnesota. David Johnson joined the partnership in 1946, with Allan Hetteen becoming a partner in 1950. The shop manufactured farm equipment, did repair work on farm equipment and vehicles.

In 1954 the company incorporated, and became Polaris Industries. Six years after the company had been formed, Edgar left  Polaris Industries  to pursue interests elsewhere.

We would like to share just a few “tidbits” about the two men who stayed with the company. David and Allan helped build Polaris Industries to become a global leader in powersports in the world today. These two men defined, re-defined and then raised the bar again for the recreational  industry.

David Johnson and Allan Hetteen  played outside, worked outside, and thought of many ideas to enjoy the outside!

 Outdoor enthusiasts they were!

another viw of the Hetteen Hoist and Derrick Shop

The Hetteen Hoist and Derrick building was once a rural dance hall, the Pine Needle Inn.

"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 like to hunt and fish!"

We chose the title for this story, “Outdoor Enthusiasts David Johnson and Allan Hetteen, Co-founders of Polaris Industries Loved an Epic Ride of Any Kind!” because of Johnson’s quote in the Grand Forks Herald in March of 2015.  Both David and Allan loved to drive any type of vehicle that moved as well! As you look at the photos and read the short stories you will understand why we did!

Snowmobiles Become a Reality! 1956 ~ Sled #1

red sled
1956 Polaris Sled #1 built by David Johnson

Sidelined by a broken toe, Johnson wasn’t the first to test-drive the machine. Instead, his brother-in-law Kenny Stoe,  took the first test run. The testing took place at the Steve Halvorson Farm, located 1/2 mile south of Fox, Minnesota.

Outdoor Enthusiasm Was Catchy!

David and Allan’s outdoor spirit also generated to their  wives. Eleanor Johnson and Gertie Hetteen’s enthusiasm for the outdoors was unwavering as well. The two couples included their respective children on many outdoor adventures over the years.

 The hectic schedules while building a growing business, which included business meetings, at times requiring extended travel out of town, testing trips, and fabricating innovative designs meant time away from the family for both men. David and Allan worked on making the best of being together with their respective families. They even utilized the various products they were making, by testing the product, with their family, receiving input from their wives and children! David, Eleanor, Allan, and Gertie, along with their respective children, enjoyed any type of object with an engine that moved! Whether it was winter, spring, summer, or fall, they all had the desire to be outside.

Polaris think outside with Polaris star logo
These two families had the motto “think outside” for decades!

(Please click on each photo below for the full image.)

Outdoors Meant Fun and Competion!

Snowmobile racing runs in both the Johnson and Hetteen Families! 

David Johnson

David Johnson cropped close up

David Johnson is considered Polaris Industries, Inc., first race driver on the Polaris Sno-Traveler. In 1958 David Johnson, with a contingent of drivers from Polaris wanted to demonstrate the Sno-Traveler to their Canadian neighbors north of Roseau, MN.

The group chose to attend The Pas, Manitoba Fur Festival.  A wintertime gathering with large crowds to celebrate the bountiful harvest of fur pelts and to have fun in the snow. There were a variety of contests, including dog sled racing as one of the featured events. 

The Polaris group participated in driving around the lake to prove the snowmobiles would work better than the dog sled teams. A tactic to draw more attention to the snow machines was to have the first “snowmobile race” to make them look more exciting.

As David was quoted in Bill Vint’s “Warriors of the Winter”, “We tried to rig them a little bit, so we had a zig-zag effect,” he confessed. “One guy ahead, and then the other, and so on. At a terrific speed of about 20 miles per hour!” 

Allan Hetteen

close up of allan with his trophy

In 1965 at Beausejour, Manitoba, about 2 hours north of Roseau, Allan Hetteen drove what could be considered the very first factory snowmobile that was specially built with racing in mind. The Polaris snowmobile was the first front-engine with a Mercury Marine liquid-cooled motor. He won the race even though on the day of the race he wasn’t feeling well.  His wife Gertie stated, “Allan was deathly ill with a flu and fever while he was racing.”  Gertie remembered, “He was going to pull over, and stop. He had such a huge lead he could not bring himself to give up. He hung on for the win, but the photos of the Champion  knew racing the Polaris snowmobile was a good way to catch the attention of the media, spectators, and consumers. 

David and Allan were both members of the Roseau Lions Club. They felt the home of Polaris Industries should hold a snowmobile race event, highlighting the prodcts the hometown factory was producing. They brought the idea up at a monthly meeting. Through the combined efforts of the Lions Club, Polaris Industries, and the community of Roseau, a two-day event in was planned and held February 19-20, 1965. It was called “The Roseau Lions International Winter Festival“.

The 1965 Winter Festival Brought International Racing Fever to Roseau County
1965 Roseau Lions International Winter Festival Pin
1965 Roseau Lions International Winter Festival Pin worn by one of the Lions members.

An article in the Roseau Times Region, Roseau’s local newspaper, reported the event as stated, “This was the first international snow-machine race in history. Over fifty competitors were entered in the cross-country race on Saturday to kick off the Winter Festival sponsored by the Roseau Lions.”  

Some quotes from the local newspaper, Roseau Times Region, regarding the Sunday event:

  • “The Slalom race was first in competitive events. Racers had to run a zig-zag course between stacked automobile tires without leaving the course or touching the tires. First place in this skilled event went to Bob Eastman, Roseau driving a Mustang. Second was Don Pearson, Duluth, on a Skidoo and third was Mitchell Johnson, Roseau, on a Mustang.”
  • “One of the most thrilling races was the ‘7 hp and under’ victory of Timmy Hetteen, Roseau, coming from behind on a L’il Andy to win first over David Erickson, Thief River Falls and Roger Skime of Thief River Falls, both riding Arctic Cats.”
  • “The highlight of the track races was a five-lap rip-snorting open class where Allan Hetteen, with a 50hp Mercury powered Mustang literally blasted around the track to first place. Second was Don Pearson, Duluth, on a Ski-Doo.  Hetteen won $24 in the race.”

The event would continue for almost two decades, later being called the Roseau Lions Mid-Continent Sno-Mo-Cade. Race drivers from all over the United States and Canada participated. Eventually the race was sanctioned by U.S.S.A.

The photo below shows the Slalom and Oval race winners taken on Sunday, February 20, 1965.

One may recognize some of the names featured!

Several young people participated. Allan Hetteen’s 12-year-old son Timmy; David Johnson’s son, 14-year-old Rodney, and 15-year-old Greg Grahn’s son. All three of them competed against adults and won in their respective classes.

1965 Snow Festival Snowmobile Racing Winners
The First Snow Festival held in Roseau, MN in 1965. These are the winners of the 2-day event snowmobile racing.

Front row: Left to right: Robert Eastman, Gerry Reese, Louie Knochenmus; Second row: Marlys Brandt, Eleanor Johnson, Tim Hetteen, Greg Grahn, Rodney Johnson; Back row: Jean Grahn, Allan Hetteen, David Erickson, Roger Skime, Don Hedlund

A few notes of interest:

  • This was the first snowmobile race the Hall of Fame and Legendary Robert (Bob) Eastman competed in. Bob would enter a race the following weekend in Beausejour, Manitoba. He placed second. The racing bug had hit Mr. Eastman, and the rest became history!
  • Roger Skime and Ken Beito, both employees of a four-year-old company named Artcic Enterprises, drove their Arctic Cat snowmobiles sixty-miles from Thief River Falls to compete in the two-day event. They stayed overnight at the O.K. Machine Shop owned by the Grahn Brothers, where their boss Edgar Hetteen had once worked starting at the age of fourteen. (Edgar was the Co-Founder of Polaris Industries, Inc., and President from 1954 to 1960. In 1961 he founded Polar Enterprises, later changing the name to Arctic Cat Enterprises.)

The End of Allan's Racing Career in 1966!

The 2nd Annual Winter Festival held in Roseau on February 19 and 20, 1966.

Allan loved to participate in racing snowmobiles. He believed “Win on Sunday! Sell on Monday!”

Allan Hetteen closeup

The Polaris board of directors felt it was “undignified” for the company president to be racing thus Allan hung up his helmet. His final victory was at the Roseau Lions International Winter Festival in Roseau, MN in 1966.

The 1966 poster advertising the Second Annual Winter Festival in Roseau. In the photo featuring the trophies, David Johnson is standing on the left, with Dr. Bob Harris on the right.

Outdoor Enthusiasts Bring On Polaris Racing in 1965-1966

After the victories at a variety of winter festivals, such as the Pas in Canada, the Roseau Festival success,  the experience of winning at the Beausejour race, Phalen Park in the Twin Cities, the Wisconsin race derbies, and other events throughout the United States, Allan and David saw racing the product was drawing crowds, media attention, and competitors. 

Allan, especially had a vision of further advancement in promoting the snowmobile. Allan was the owner, organizer and race director of the first Polaris Factory Team. Edson and Clayton Brandt, Randy Hites, Bob Eastman, Dennis Olson, Gerry Reese were a few names of drivers he hired.

These men were hard driving, fearless men who worked at Polaris Industries in other capacities. In 1966 the first Winter Carnival Winnipeg to St. Paul I-500 Cross Country was held. 

Outdoor Snowmobile Trips and Racing ~ the Johnson Family Weekend Excursions!

The Johnson Team

 Several years following the Pas  victory, plus many other events in the winner’s circle during the late 1950s, David discontinued racing, turning his role over to his wife Eleanor, and their two sons Mitchell and Rodney. The threesome raced during the mid-1960s, and the early 1970s. The Johnson’s youngest son, Aaron competed in the 1990s.

The family was a force to be reckoned with on the race track, winning a fair share of trophies with top finishes in their respective classes.

(Please click on each photo for the full image.)

The Johnson Family have enjoyed many snowmobile trips cross-country. They traveled by Polaris snowmobiles to their cabin located at the Northwest Angle for decades. The couple continued promoting the sport of snowmobiling, riding well into their 80s. 


David Johnson in 1988
David Johnson in 1988.

David Johnson participated as an owner/investor during the management buy-out from Textron  in 1981 that created the industry-leading Polaris Industries of powersports.

David and Eleanor Johnson 1995
The Roseau Times Region newspaper ran an article about the Johnson in 1995, telling of the couple outreach to others.

In 1988 David retired from Polaris Industries, the company he helped to start 1954. Even though he was retired he remained a strong presence within the Polaris company.  David, and his wife Eleanor were widely recognized by employees for their compassion, kind spirit and being mentors to many. 

Outdoor Activities Included Snowmobiling, Racing, and More for the Hetteen Family!

In 1961 Allan approached his wife Gertie to design a seat cushion for one of the Polaris Sno-Traveler snowmobiles. The design work! Soon Gertie was the founder and operator of Northern Upholstery.

Gertie Hetteen 1966 reduced photo size
Gertie in her Northern Upholstery shop with one of the snowmobile seats produced for the various Polaris snowmobile models.

As the company grew, so did expansion of several divisions. Gertie and Allan established several businesses such as Gallant Furniture, Rosco Surplus, Amco, Inc.,  Gallant Outdoor Apparels.

The Gallant Sportswear Collection
The Gallant Sportswear Collection brochure made by Amco, Inc.

Allan retired from Polaris Industries on June 1, 1970. He became owner and President of Rosco, Inc. a Polaris Distributor for the northern half of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Allan always felt racing help increase sales of the snowmobiles. The formation of the Rosco Race Team came to be with owner and race director Allan Hetteen continuing to fulfill the passion of promoting Polaris as a winning product!

1970 1971 Rosco Race Team Sales Department and Administration
Allan Hetteen's Polaris Distributor Rosco Race Team and the sales/administrative staff celebrating the conclusion of the 1970-1971 Race Season.

Racing Continues in the Hetteen Family!

Now, in the 21st Century, Allan Hetteen’s influence in racing continues to third generation. Allan’s grandson Alex is a competitive race driver and owns his own team called Hetteen Heritage Racing. Alex Hetteen’s wife, Jill Hetteen,  also competed as a race driver on the USXC circuit..

Polaris 70th Anniversary

Researched and written by: Carmen Przekwas

Digital Creator: Sinnamon Krings, Roseau Promotions DirectorAll Rights Reserved: Carmen Przekwas

References: Aaron JohnsonMike Hetteen; The Hetteen/Carter Archives; Roseau County Historical Society; Warriors of Winter; Polaris Pioneers; Polaris Industries Archives; Roseau Times Region; Grand Forks Herald;  Roseau County Historical Society; Race and Ralley; Jerry Bassett