A co-founder of Polaris Industries and inventor of the first Polaris snowmobile, David Johnson has died at the age of 93.
Although his brother-in-law Edgar Hetteen is often credited with creating the first snowmobile at Polaris, it was Johnson and two others who actually pieced together the first vehicle while Hetteen was on vacation in the winter of 1955-56.
In a 2013 interview with Snow Goer, Johnson — then 90 and still mentally sharp, though hard of hearing — explained the reasoning behind the design.
“We were pretty much outdoors people, and we did quite a bit of hunting in the Northwest Angle [on the Minnesota/Manitoba border] for all kinds of game,” Johnson recalled. “We had a lot of snow in some of those winters, so you had to go on snow shoes or walk or whatever. So, I used to tell people that we were lazy, we didn’t want to walk, so we had to think of something we could ride on.”
Johnson would remain a regular at Polaris his entire adult life — leading manufacturing for a long time at the Roseau, Minnesota, plant and regularly visiting the company for coffee with longtime friends at the company into his 90s. He also regularly rode snowmobiles into his 90s.
Johnson was a soft-spoken, humble man, with a high level of loyalty to everybody who worked for the company, and that inspired an even higher level of loyalty in those people for him.
“David was never the company spokesman or president or anything — Allan [Hetteen] was known as the businessman, and Edgar [Hetteen] was the marketing frontman, but David was the guy that was the glue,” explained Ed Skomoroh, a retired Polaris executive and historian, in the 2013 story in Snow Goer.
“No matter how bad things were or how good they were, he kept sense and unity in production. And when the money got tight and Polaris couldn’t make payroll, the people would come in and work anyway. Many of those people weren’t working for Polaris, from their perspective: They were working for David. They respected David as a person, and they knew that he would make sure they were taken care of.”
In February of this year, Snow Goer conducted a snowmobile tour in conjunction with Decker Sno Venture Tours that visited the snowmobile factories of Thief River Falls and Roseau, Minnesota, homes of Arctic Cat and Polaris, respectively, and Johnson was there to greet the consumers on the tour at the Polaris Experience Center museum, with the help of one of his sons, Mitchell Johnson.
Another son, Aaron Johnson, had been posting on social media over the summer details abouthis father’s fall into dementia. Yesterday, Aaron posted this:
“The man, the machine. The town, the culture. The jobs, the mentality. People are who they are. We all have Dads, this was my Dad. He loved everybody whoever he had the chance to get to know. 93 years makes a good path through the snow, and through life.”
Click here to read the 2013 interview and story on Johnson.
UPDATE: Below is a press release issued by Polaris on Sunday evening:
Polaris Employees Celebrate the Life and Accomplishments of David Johnson, One of the Company’s Three Co-Founders
Polaris employees and Polaris riders worldwide are celebrating the life and mourning the passing of one of the company’s co-founders, David Johnson. He passed away yesterday in Roseau, Minn., after an extended illness. He was 93 years old.
Since he helped start Polaris in the early 1950s, David focused his career on product engineering and manufacturing, and developed a deep connection with Polaris employees during his four-plus decades with the company. In the years following his retirement in 1988, he remained one of the faces of Polaris as he enjoyed visiting the Roseau manufacturing facility and often gave tours at the Polaris Experience Center located near the plant.
“David Johnson embodied the Polaris culture and work ethic, and his positive impact on the company continues to inspire us today,” said Polaris Chairman and CEO Scott Wine. “David valued hard work, passion for the riding experience, and an unwavering spirit of innovation. He set a tremendous example with his dedication and commitment to the company and employees. We are saddened by his passing and offer our sincere condolences to Eleanor and David’s family and friends.”
After working together for a few years, David and his two cousins, Edgar and Allan Hetteen, officially founded Polaris in 1954. Polaris produced a variety of products, including several agricultural products such as straw cutter attachments for combines. But David Johnson and several co-workers who were avid outdoorsmen envisioned a vehicle – a snow machine – they could use in winter to reach their remote hunting shacks. In late 1955, David and his cohorts created the first Polaris snowmobile, a machine that made its first run across a snowy Roseau field in January 1956.
Polaris began producing snowmobiles and helped create the global market for the versatile winter machines. David later said that while Polaris did not invent the snow machine, the company was the first to successfully market snowmobiles. With David in production roles such as Vice President of Manufacturing, Polaris became the snowmobile industry’s long-time market share leader, the dominant brand in snowmobile racing, and the brand known for delivering the best ride and handling. By the time David retired in 1988, the company had begun to diversify and was also producing and marketing off-road vehicles.
David was inducted into the Snowmobile Hall of Fame in 1999, and he received numerous honors from snowmobile clubs and associations worldwide.
David Johnson is survived by his wife of 68 years, Eleanor, and their children, Rodney, Mary, Mitchell, and Aaron. Information about funeral services is forthcoming. All Polaris employees are honorary pallbearers for the service.