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'Grandfather of snowmobiling' Edgar Hetteen dies

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Edgar Hetteen
Original Polaris partners from left to right: David Johnson, Allan Hetteen and Edgar Hetteen.
Photo courtesy Polaris

The man remembered by many as the grandfather of snowmobiling has passed away at the age of 90. 

Edgar Hetteen, who cofounded Polaris Industries and founded Arctic Cat, died Saturday in Grand Rapids. Hetteen's death was reported in an obituary by Rowe Funeral Home. 

Although other people developed versions of snowmobiles before Hutteen did, the northern Minnesota native was the first to realize the big consumer market for the machines.

"He was a pioneer," said Loren Anderson, the president of the Snowmobile Hall of Fame in Wisconsin. "He thought that snowmobiles could not only be used for commercial purposes but for recreation purposes. And the rest is pretty much history."

"We had the privilege of inducting Edgar in 1990," said Anderson. "He was always a person on the leading edge of snowmobiling. He thought competition and racing was a very important part of marketing snowmobiles. So, he was always supportive of snowmobile competition."

Hetteen grew up on a farm near Roseau, and left his one-room schoolhouse after completing eighth grade. After a stint in the Navy during World War II, he returned to Minnesota and started a farm machinery company with a man who would later become his brother-in-law. 

In 1954, they reincorporated the business as Polaris Industries, Inc. They produced the first Polaris snowmobile two years later.

"Many people laughed at him when he started with the snowmobile. And look where it is today."

Consumers were skeptical at first, and Hetteen wanted to prove them wrong. In 1960, he and three companions embarked on a 1,200-mile trek across Alaska to demonstrate the snowmobiles' durability. They were primitive by today's standards. 

In a 2004 interview with MPR, Hetteen said the trip helped promote the recreational use of snowmobiles, and spur development of the machines as a commercially successful product.

"I like adventure," Hetteen said at the time. "And I was testing a lot of different things on that snowmobile. March 1960, we're on the Bering seacoast. Three machines, four people. GI parkas. All that old, heavy gear. There were plenty of times we fell through the snow and into the slush and water."

Hetteen left Polaris later that year and founded Arctic Enterprises in Thief River Falls. He resigned his leadership position with the company in 1965. 

In its heyday in the 1960s and '70s, the snowmobile industry sold as many as 500,000 sleds a year. Now sales are down to about 150,000 annually. The industry says most people who want snowmobiles already have them. And the machines last a long time. 

Of course, high unemployment and a lack of snow in northern states in recent years hasn't helped sales, either.

Hetteen said snowmobiles are for people who love the outdoors. But in the 2004 MPR interview, he acknowledged that some people hate the machines and the noise they make. 

"When I meet strangers, before I start with my stories, I say, 'Are you friend or foe?'" Hetteen said at the time. "And usually, they're friends if they talk to me. But sometimes, you run into foes."

Hetteen once met a doctor in Toronto who said there should be a law that every snowmobile should come with a generous supply of contraceptives. 

"Because he says that way, eventually, the breed will die out," said Hetteen.

  Arctic Cat spokesman Kale Wainer said Hetteen defied the skeptics.

"Many people laughed at him when he started with the snowmobile," said Wainer. "And look where it is today -- 450,000 registered snowmobiles in Minnesota alone. And countless tourism dollars. I think it speaks for the creativity of this man."

But snowmobiles can be deadly. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, there have been more than 600 snowmobile deaths in Minnesota over a 40-year span, and more than 8,000 injuries.

  Jeffrey Guibault, Hetteen's grandson, said safety was always top-of-mind for Hetteen when he would ride with his children and grandchildren.

"We would come up as little kids to go snowmobiling up there, and we'd always have to hear the speech," he said. "That's what we called it, and that was, 'These machines are dangerous. They can kill you, you know.' He'd sit us all down and make sure we understood the dangers of riding snowmobiles."

Hetteen is survived by his wife Hannah, his daughter Patricia Glagavs, and many extended family members.  A funeral service for Hetteen will be held Saturday at the Grace Bible Chapel in Grand Rapids. 

Timeline of Hetteen's life

1920: Born in Roseau, Minnesota.

mid-1940s: Founds Hetteen Hoist and Derrick, a farm machinery company  

1954: Reincorporates the business as Polaris Industries, Inc.

1956: Produces the first Polaris snowmobile at the company's Roseau shop.

1960: Takes a 1,200-mile snowmobile trek across Alaska to prove the machines can work.

1960: Leaves Polaris less than a year after his Alaska trip.

1961: Founds Polar Manufacturing Company in Thief River Falls. 

1962: Polar Manufacturing is renamed Arctic Enterprises, Inc. 

1965: Resigns from his leadership position at Arctic Enterprises. 

1983: Founds ASV, Inc., a company that manufactures all-season vehicles.

2011: Dies in Grand Rapids at age 90.