Farm Industry News took a trip back in time recently reminiscing about the 'good old days' with one of the founders of Polaris still telling stories at 91. David Johnson's perspective, along with that of his son, Mitchell, offers a look at how a group of innovators working in a shop setting innovated their way into a multi-billion industry today.
This gallery offers a glimpse into that past, which also shows that while Polaris may be known for all-terrain vehicles, side-by-side machines and other innovations, it all started with a company that was trying to help customers in the remote North woods area of Minnesota get work done.
Started in Roseau, Minn., the company maintains a large manufacturing presence in the city. It is part of a connected group of major manufacturers in Northern Minnesota - Marvin Windows in Warroad and Digi-Key and Arctic Cat in Thief River Falls - that have everyone up there saying "if you know someone looking for a job send them our way."
David and Mitchell Johnson shared the company history with media on a recent trip - more about what we saw in the way of new machines later this month - with a direct connection to agriculture. Check out the images that follow and read the captions to get a little Polaris history.
1. Telling their story
Mitchell Johnson, left, and his father, David, offered a look at the history of a company that may have had a humble start, but grew through its innovation and investment in new tools. Mitchell is now retired from the company, but helps out in the Polaris Heritage Center and keeps an active email address with the company. David, at 91, is enjoying his retirement. During the walk through of the heritage center looking at memorabilia and history, both Johnsons shared their passion for the work the company does.
2. Making tracks in the country
The first snow mobile, built by what was once Hetteen Hoist and Derrick, is considered the first commercially successful snowmobile introduced to the market. The company won't lay official claim to being the first to build a snowmobile since tinkerers and inventors in winter climes were hard at work on ways to have better access to snow-covered country than skis or snow shoes. This machine used the bumpers from a Chevy pickup truck for front skis and the track came from a grain conveyer the firm also built (an ag link to a popular product).
3. Starting small
The originating partners for what eventually became Polaris Industries, worked out of a shop in Roseau, Minn. - not far from the Canadian border. At the time, the land up there was being logged and opened up, and there were opportunities for innovators to build equipment to help the efficiency of those operations. Hetteen Hoist & Derrick was a farm innovator that worked with farmers to build new machines. The company, as it grew, also employed a lot of farmers too.
4. Pictorial history
Mitch Johnson shares a board that shows the range of products Polaris used to make, from pickup box extenders to tractor tire rims, to pressure washers. In addition to snowmobiles - first built in 1955 - the company played with "swamp buggies" as a business too, an early foray into the all-terrain business.
5. From grain mover to machine mover
This early grain conveyor - a popular way to move grain before augers came along - also had another role. The paddle-chain combo became the first "track" for that first snowmobile built by Polaris. This link to agriculture is interesting. Hetteen Hoist & Derrick changed its name to Polaris after the company bought a crop sprayer called Polaris. Given its Northern Minnesota location and that Polaris is the North Star - the new name made sense to company owners. That original sprayer was 32-feet wide and could cover 25 acres a day - a high-speed marvel for the northern wheat crops of the day.
6. Real money maker
Polaris had a hit when it built the straw chopper and spreader which became the preferred add-on to combines made by all but one company. The straw chopper was so popular that even 10 years after the first snowmobile was launched and that business began to take off, chopper sales were will more than 7%% of the company's business. Of course, as combine makers figured out how to spread chaff on their own, this business eventually dried up.
7. Sharing the history
David Johnson explains that each step along the way supported the next. Success of the straw chopper helped Polaris build its snowmobile business. Success in snowmobiles helped support development of the all-terrain vehicle. "Each one built on the success of the other," he explains.
8. All-terrain early on
While Polaris didn't build a successful all-terrain vehicle for market until 1985, this Trail Tractor two-wheeler promised buyers a host of features. With its rugged, tractor-tire-like rear wheel this machine is designed for off-road travel.
9. Many features
The Trail Tractor had a lot of features for the "sportsman, rancher, farmer who requires dependable, all-terrain transportation" according to this sales brochure. Power for this off-road traveler comes from a 6-hp Lauson engine and a two-speed design based on an adjustable sprocket that allowed travel at speeds up to 30 mph.
10. Three-wheel to four-wheel
The three-wheeler on the left is a bit of all-terrain vehicle history. The entire industry signed a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to stop building the machines. Polaris had already launched an early four-wheeler. Its first four-wheeler rolled off the line in 1985. Since then Polaris has rolled out a wide range of new machines and will offer more in 2015. Polaris entry into the Side-by-Side market with the Ranger - remember the first 6x6 - has been a significant success story for the company too.
11. A Victory ride
Rolled out in the 1990s, the Victory line of motorcycles has helped Polaris carve out growing market share in this competitive business. The company is also making the Indian line of motorcycles today too.