Historians will remember Edgar Hetteen as the man who started Polaris and Arctic Cat and made historic journeys to prove the capabilities of the snowmobile. Those who knew him well will remember his sharp mind, determined nature, passion for snowmobiling and amazing story-telling abilities.
Hetteen died on Saturday, February 12, 2011, in a nursing home in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, at the age of 90.
Hetteen’s trail to greatness in the snowmobile industry began in 1944, when he opened his first business – called Hetteen Hoist and Derrick – after returning from World War II. It was a company based on invention – starting with a hoist used to place electrical pole and followed up with sprayers, choppers and other farm equipment. The company’s name would change to Polaris in the mid 1950s.
Though Hetteen is often credited with inventing the Polaris snowmobile at roughly the same time that J. Armand Bombardier was working up his Ski-Doo line, the company’s first sled was actually pieced together by business partner David Johnson while Hetteen was out of town in January of 1956. Edgar’s response? “Anger isn’t the proper word to describe my emotions, but I certainly was miffed at my longtime friend,” Hetteen was quoted as saying years later. “Why was David wasting his time like this? Our factory builds farm equipment.”
But soon Edgar and his brother Allan Hetteen were hooked, and worked to improve the original Sno Traveler. And, in 1960, he embarked on a 1,200-mile, cross-Alaskan adventure to document the cross-snow capabilities of the machines. But, to hear Edgar tell the story, instead of being accepted as a conquering hero upon his return, the Polaris board of directors questioned why the company president went on such a junket. The dispute led Hetteen to leave the company that summer, and eventually to start Arctic Cat down the road in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, in 1961. He would sell Arctic Cat to Lowell Swenson in 1965.
“For all of the success, a funny thing was happening to me,” he wrote in his 1998 autobiography, Breaking Trail. “As a company prospers, an entrepreneur has to transform and grow with it in stature and knowledge and sophistication. I didn’t particularly like that. As I examine my past, I was much happier when we were struggling and things were rough than when we started to boom and I had to wear a suit to board of directors meetings.”
Hetteen would later return for spells at both Arctic Cat and Polaris, he would start a company that made powered wheelchairs, and he would partner with Gary Lemke at the heavy equipment manufacturer ASV. He served as a lobbyist and marketer for the sport of snowmobiling, and in 2000 he relived his 1,200-mile cross-Alaskan adventure with 11 other snowmobilers – he was 79 at the time!
In a press release today, Polaris President Bennett Morgan said, “Edgar was an icon, a snowmobile pioneer and visionary who helped grow a seed of a sport and industry into a thriving pursuit and business that people love worldwide. He was an inspiration to generations of Polaris employees who admired his desire for innovation, and the way he enjoyed interacting with the people involved in snowmobiling.”
I wasn’t around when Edgar was in his inventing mode, but I can tell you that listening to Edgar tell stories was a great joy, as he recaptured the many challenges of inventing products and companies in great detail. He was a man of many well-chosen words, with a sharp wit.
Edgar Hetteen’s formal obituary:
Edgar Emanuel Hetteen
(Died February 12, 2011)
Edgar E. Hetteen, age 90 of Grand Rapids, died Saturday, February 12, 2011 at Diamond Willow in Grand Rapids. Edgar was born in 1920 to Emanuel and Mae Hetteen in Roseau, Minnesota where he grew up and attended school. Edgar served in the U. S. Navy during World War II and returned to Roseau following his discharge. He was a co-founder of Polaris Industries and the founder of Arctic Cat Enterprises and the May Corporation. Edgar was also a co-founder of A.S.V. He was often called the “Grandfather of Snowmobiling”. Edgar loved flying as a private pilot and his hobbies included snowmobiling, working and tinkering in his shop, and he enjoyed engineering equipment and snowmobiles. Edgar enjoyed the time he spent going snowmobiling with his children and grandchildren.
In addition to his parents, Edgar was preceded in death by his first wife, Ruby; a daughter, Nancy Triviski; a son, Ronald K. Hetteen; a brother, Allan Hetteen and a sister, Doreen Hetteen.
In lieu of flowers, memorials are preferred to the Itasca Hospice Foundation, P.O. Box 853, Grand Rapids, MN 55744
He is survived by: his wife, Hannah. A daughter – Patricia Glagavs of Maplewood, Minnesota; Two step-daughters – Mary Ann (Jeffrey) Miels of Grand Rapids, Minnesota; Jheri (Georgina Cantoni) McMillan of Dallas, Texas; His Daughter-in-law – Nila Hetteen of Grand Rapids, Minnesota; Numerous Grandchildren, Great Grandchildren and Great Great Grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 12:30 p.m. until the 2:00 p.m. Funeral Service on Saturday, February 19th, at the Grace Bible Chapel in Grand Rapids (2452 County Road 76). Pastor Charles Nelson will officiate. Burial will be in the Harris Cemetery in Harris Township, Minnesota.
Arrangements are by the Rowe Funeral Home in Grand Rapids.