There seems to be no limit on the American and Canadian hunger for all things nostalgic, and snowmobiling certainly hasn’t been exempt from the desire to re-create good memories and fun times from days gone by. In addition to the obvious warm feelings these old sleds generate, vintage snowmobiling has proven to be a relatively low-buck way for people to get out and have fun with their favorite mechanical past time.
All of this has led to an explosion in popularity of vintage snowmobiling in recent years. From group ride-ins to racing to unique shows and events, antique and vintage snowmobiles are seemingly everywhere — including in dedicated snowmobiling museums scattered across the North American Snowbelt. These great outlets preserve the history of our sport and take us back to the days when anybody with some scrap iron, a welder and a way to source engines could create a brand.
In this feature, we’ll focus on one unique snowmobiling destination tucked atop Lake Michigan in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and then share details on a dozen more top snowmobile museums scattered from Maine and Quebec through Indiana and Wisconsin all the way out to Washington state.
NOTE: This article first appeared in the January 2013 issue of Snow Goer magazine. To subscribe to Snow Goer, click here.
Top Of The Lake Snowmobile Museum
Highway 2 cuts an interesting, meandering path through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, wrapping up and around the northern reaches of Lake Michigan stretching from Escanaba to St. Ignace. This is widely regarded as one of the most scenic drives in the state, dotted with small villages and wide vistas overlooking the big lake. Naubinway is a small fishing village located along U.S. 2 at the very northernmost point of Lake Michigan, and it’s host to one of the true gems of vintage snowmobiling.
The Top of the Lake Snowmobile Museum has been open since July 4, 2007, and now houses one of the most eclectic groups of vintage sleds on display anywhere. You’ll find the old “iron dog” sleds that look like some sort of runaway mechanical fugitive from a mid 20th century farm implement store, all the way up through the metalflake painted, multi-piped free air monsters from the 1970s that many gray haired men fondly recall lusting after and reading about when they were in school. The museum actually grew out of a vintage show and ride held annually in Naubinway. In 2003, a few show regulars got together after the show to discuss the possibility of creating a more permanent, indoor display for some of the machines, and the idea of the Top of the Lake Museum was born. In 2006 the idea became more than a concept, as a business plan and mission statement were created, non-profit status was gained and fundraising became more intense. All of the hard work, endless meetings and money-raising efforts came together in 2007, when an old laundromat became available in town. Suddenly, the museum had a home.
The collection of vintage machinery on display at the Top of the Lake Snowmobile Museum differs from most others in its incredible diversity. In addition to the usual Arctic Cats, Ski-Doos, Polaris and Yamahas commonly found in most vintage and classic snowmobile displays, you’ll find some of the most unusual and odd motorized vehicles to traverse the winter northwoods at the Naubinway facility.
Some of the more noteworthy sleds displayed there include the metalflake bronze 1971 Phantom, which was built in West Virginia, of all places. The 1972 Sno-Coupe was an innovative design in its day, featuring side-by-side seating and an enclosed cockpit and promised a “sports-car like ride.” The 1969 Sno Ghia was built in Turin, Italy, and featured what must have surely been the epitome of Italian-cool design in its day, but was arguably one of the worst snowmobiles ever built. Evidence of the Bell and Howell decision to throw its hat into the snowmobile ring in 1972 is on display with the “Howeller” prototype, which thankfully never made it into production.
The one-of-a-kind, never-completed 1974 factory twin track prototype from the Mercury Racing department is worth the $5 cost of admission on its own. Other highlights in the collection include a 1957 Bosak Power Toboggan, 1958 Sno-Bi-Kin, 1959 Simko ice sled, 1965 Allis-Chalmers prototype, 1971 NGC and a very unique Arctic Cat Kitchen Cutter. There are also two rare Michigan-built brands, a 1969 Ski-Kat and a 1971 Big Boss.
Many of the sleds on display from the oddball manufacturers in the late 1960s and early 1970s are almost cartoonish in appearance, which when combined with sub-par mechanicals doomed many of them from the initial production run. Just when you think you’ve seen the most unusual or unique sled on display, the next one will prove even more interesting. Make sure you set a couple of hours aside to visit the museum, as it will take a while to check out everything on display there.
Complementing the 70-plus vintage sleds on display are old snowmobile dealer signs, along with sales and promotional items from over the years. A vintage snowmobile enthusiast could spend hours checking out all of the old products and accessories decorating the museum, most produced by companies that are no longer in existence.
One company that is still very much in existence is the LeMans Corporation, parent company of snowmobile aftermarket powerhouse Parts Unlimited. The vintage LeMans branded products on the shelves here provide an interesting contrast to the current offerings from the modern snowmobile aftermarket.
Speaking of contrasts, the vintage snowmobile clothing on display is the antithesis of what the late model sledders are sporting on the trails today. The classic suits and helmets are sure to provide older riders with fond smiles, while the younger crew will probably shake their head in disbelief over what used to be considered “state of the art” snow gear from back in the 1960s and 1970s.
Your hosts at the Top of The Lake Snowmobile Museum, Charlie and Marilyn Vallier, have an encyclopedic knowledge of the machinery and accessories housed within the museum walls. Both serve on the 10-person board of directors for the facility, and Charlie also owns quite a few of the sleds on display. The Valliers are more than willing to spend time with visitors, explaining not only the history of the museum, but sharing personalized stories of the snowmobiles and related memorabilia on site. Taking the time to listen to these snowmobile historians’ short anecdotes will provide any visitor with a new and unique perspective of the vintage snowmobile scene.
The museum is rapidly outgrowing its current building, and a fundraising effort is now underway to help the nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation compile enough capital to build a new, larger, more high-profile facility with a much larger museum display area, a meeting room and an on-site snowmobile library. The museum is open daily from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., but is closed on Tuesdays.
Top of the Lake Snowmobile Museum Naubinway, Michigan | 906/477-6298 or 906/477-6192; snowmobilemuseum.com
The Dignified Dozen
There are a variety of snowmobile museums scattered across the North American Snowbelt, from private, personal collections of a handful of sleds to large, well-designed facilities custom-built to showcase the sport. Here are 12 of the most impressive facilities that we’re aware of, but feel free to contact us with information on other facilities that have impressed you. Some also have great websites where you can view some of their prized possessions.
Germain Beausejour Snowmobile Museum | Prevost, Quebec
450/224-4772 evenings before 9 p.m. This private collection of approximately 30 machines includes several rare brands built in Canada or the eastern United States. It is available for inspection by serious vintage snowmobile enthusiasts by appointment only. The exhibit is subject to change, but permanent items include a 1967 Eaton Sno Trac built by Polaris in Beausejour, Manitoba, for sale only in Canada; a very rare 1969 CMC Ski-Jet built in Pennsylvania; and an equally rare 1974 United Snow Sports Bearcat Kodiak built in New York. Also included are a 1972 Moto Kometik and a 1975 Pro Am built in Quebec; an Ingham Ski Bee and a Roll-O-Flex both built in Saskatchewan; and a Sno Hawk and an Argo both built in Ontario. Other interesting displays include a BGW TrakCycle, a Rustler and a collection of snowmobile helmets.
Indiana Antique Snowmobile Museum | Morocco, Indiana
219/285-2008 or 219/863-0500 Located 10 minutes off I-65 between Chicago and Indianapolis, this snowmobile museum has 32 vintage machines and many related items on display. Dan Blaney’s collection features numerous John Deere snowmobiles, apparel, promotional items and other memorabilia. Interesting machines on exhibit also include a Poloron snowmobile that was manufactured in nearby Michigan City, Indiana, and a 1969 Yamaha SL-351, that company’s first full production sled. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and weekends by appointment. There is no admission fee.
J. Armand Bombardier Museum | Valcourt, Quebec
514/532-5300; bombardiermuseum.com Begun in 1968 and opened to the public in 1971, this is the most professionally run snowmobile museum in North America. It presents an excellent overview of the history of snowmobiles as seen in the context of eastern Canada. The J. Armand Bombardier Exhibit shows the history of Mr. Bombardier, his snow vehicles and inventions, and the Bombardier Corporation, with numerous historic vehicles. Mr. Bombardier’s garage, the original home of the company, is also preserved. The International Snowmobile Exhibit shows the development of the modern sport snowmobile and the worldwide snowmobile industry with snowmobile apparel, promotional materials, and approximately 35 carefully selected machines, which are not limited to Ski-Doos. Excellent audio-visual presentations throughout may be played in French or English. The museum includes interactive displays, a gift shop and other attractions. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from May 1 to Labor Day, and Tuesday through Sunday the rest of the year. Adult admission is $7, $5 for students and seniors, and children under 5 are free. Tours of the nearby Bombardier Recreational Products factory are also available.
Miracle of America Museum, Inc. | Polson, Montana
406/883-6804 or 6264; miracleofamericamuseum.org With a very diversified collection of American history featuring an eclectic winter exhibit covering various forms of snow and ice recreation and snow removal, the Miracle of America Museum is unique partly because many exhibit items are presented in unrestored condition. The vehicle collection has many rare over-snow machines and snow-removal pieces including a fully-tracked Model A Ford and two Snow Planes, one of them home-built. Four snow vehicles from Glacier National Park include a one-of-a-kind snow crawler built by the Park maintenance staff. More conventional snow vehicles include a World War II vintage Eliason Model C motor toboggan; a pair of post-war Eliason K-10 iron dogs; a Fox Trac iron dog; a red and white Arctic Cat; four Raiders (including an Eagle and a Double Eagle); a Chrysler Sno-Runner snow bike; and numerous other leaf spring trail sleds from Ski-Doo, Polaris, AMF, Outboard Marine (Evinrude) and Mercury, among others. The museum is open daily 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday plus Sunday afternoon for the rest of the year. Admission is $5 for adults and teenagers, $2 for kids 3 to 12 years old.
New Hampshire Snowmobile Museum | Bear Brook State Park Allenstown, New Hampshire
603/809-8700 nhsnowmobilemuseum.com This is the only state-operated snowmobile museum in the country, and one of the few that is directly accessible from snowmobile trails. The collection currently includes 90 sleds from 33 brands, and will expand this year as the museum adds another building. Exhibits span the entire history of the snow machine. The earliest years are seen with a Virgil White Model T tracked conversion that introduced the word “snowmobile” in 1913, and a 1918 Lombard Log Hauler. The Antique and Vintage era is represented by Eliason and Polaris iron dogs, and an impressive collection of early Ski-Doos including serial number 22, thought to be the first sold in the United States. Other interesting machines include a 1965 Polaris Lil’ Andy compact sled; an Innovar Sno Coupe; a 1975 Arctic Cat Trail Cat that never went into full production; and a flotation device for late 1960s Arctic Cats. Historic newer machines include a 1992 Arctic Cat Panther that completed a 10,252 mile transcontinental trip from Alaska to Nova Scotia. Call for information and event schedule.
Northwest Museum of Vintage Snowmobiles | Spokane Valley, Washington
509/220-7091; snoprousa.com/northwest-museum-of-vintage-snowmobiles.html The only major snowmobile museum in the far west has more than 125 snowmobiles, including many racing machines. Jerry Kienbaum’s competition-oriented collection is headlined by a one-of-a-kind 1976 Arctic Cat twin-track race sled. The exhibit also includes many Polaris sleds starting with a 1957 Sno-Traveler iron dog and continuing through numerous Polaris racers. Other historic, interesting and unique machines include the first Yamaha snowmobile, a 1968 SL-350, and a historic 1972 Chaparral IFS racer. Evil Knievel’s personalized Ski-Doo RV-245 special is on display along with one of every model of Mercury Sno Twister, a Merc Sno Pro racer and more. Open by appointment only, so call ahead.
Pickenpaugh Snowmobile Museum | Elizabeth, Colorado
303/646-3776; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org The only dedicated snowmobile museum in the Centennial State includes examples of both brands built in Colorado: Shark and Chaparral. It is located 35 miles southeast of Denver off Highway 86. Dan and Betty Pickenpaugh’s collection features more than 150 machines from about 50 brands. They include two Sharks, the first brand built specifically for mountain riding. A unique white Chaparral is thought to be a prototype for the 1974 SSX water-cooled trail sled, another machine that was well ahead of its time. Admission is free and by appointment, so e-mail or call ahead.
The Snowmobile Barn Museum | Fredon, New Jersey
973/383-1708 or 973/548-7823 (8:30 to 4 weekdays); snowmobilebarn.com The Barn museum houses one of the largest collections of historic snowmobiles and related memorabilia found anywhere. It features more than 400 unique and interesting sleds including rarities like a 1949 Eliason Model A motor toboggan; the only known remaining 1950 Ingham Brothers iron dog; a pair of the rare Kellett Blue Goose iron dogs; a Pennsylvania-built Gorski; a Snow Mite from Beverly Hills, California; and a Swedish Larven. The museum also has toys, ornaments and promotional items plus motorcycle, automobile and personal watercraft exhibits. Hours are flexible, so call ahead. Admission is $7 for adults and $4 for kids.
The Snowmobile Hall of Fame | St. Germain, Wisconsin
715/542-4463; snowmobilehalloffame.com Established in 1983, the SHOF has operated a snowmobile museum since 1989 that features historic racing sleds, apparel and artifacts. Current exhibits include a 1964 Polaris iron dog from the first World Championship Derby in Eagle River; a Ski-Doo Double Eagle twin-engine speed sled; a very rare Gilles Villeneuve IFS Skiroule and his twin-track Moto-Ski; and of Polaris, Arctic Cat and Mercury Sno Pro sleds. Championship sleds on display include Mike Trapp’s 1971 Yamaha 433 World Champion oval sprint sled; Gerard Karpik’s four-time International Cross Country champion Ski-Doo RV XC; Mark Maki’s 12-time watercross champion Ski-Doo; Brian Musselman’s four-time Soo I-500 enduro winner; Blair Morgan’s X-Games snocross champion Cat; and Dave Dunnigan’s championship four-cylinder dragster. If you’re into snowmobile racing, the display here is amazing, and you can also see the plaques and read about the 93 inductees into the Hall Of Fame. Interesting trail sleds include a prototype Sno-Birdie that led to the Chaparral brand. Open Thursday and Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and by appointment. Open more days when trails are open because the museum is trail accessible.
United Sports Antique and Vintage Snowmobile Museum | Turner, Maine
207/224-8444; 207/597-2857 Located behind Scott’s Recreation, this museum is maintained by former Arctic Cat dealer Paul Bernier, and the exact size and composition of the inventory is subject to continuing change. The collection currently includes about 200 vintage snowmobiles with many rarities like one of the ten 1967 four-cylinder Rupp Sno Sports; one of the three Sno Jet Phantom Jets; a one-of-a-kind Boa-Ski 800; a Dauphin 800; five Auto-Skis including a Mach 650; and many rare Arctic Cats. Hours are flexible and admission is free.
Vilas County Museum | Sayner, Wisconsin
715/542-3388 This is a general museum with a significant snowmobile exhibit that features the original 1924 Eliason motor toboggan, felt by many to be the very first real snowmobile. The snowmobile collection also includes many interesting antique and vintage machines from Arctic Cat, Polaris, Ski-Doo, Evinrude, Bolens, Scorpion, Starcraft and other brands. Open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend through September 30. Adult admission is $3 and children under 10 are free.
World Snowmobile Headquarters | Eagle River, Wisconsin
715/479-2186; worldsnowmobilehq.com More of a total snowmobile experience than just a museum, World Snowmobile HQ combines extensive organizational and event exhibits with the official Antique Snowmobile Club Of America (ASCOA) museum and perhaps the largest snowmobile gift shop anywhere. Organizational exhibits cover the International Snowmobile Hall of Fame, the Iron Dog Brigade (snowmobiling’s old timers club) and Women on Snow. The World Championship Derby Walls of Fame chronicle the history of snowmobiling’s most enduring race. The ASCOA museum houses many interesting and historically important snow machines including an Eliason K-12 iron dog; a 1965 Hus-Ski with its “ironing board” tag-along seating; a 1965 Polaris Lil’ Andy that was one of the first downsized models from a major manufacturer; a 1966 Montgomery Ward’s Snow-Go built by Polaris; and some early Scorpions. One-of-a-kind machines include an Arctic Cat Pantera concept with wheels instead of skis; and a 1976 Evinrude sit-in prototype resplendent in patriotic graphics. Open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from December 10 to the end of March, and again from May 15 through October 15. Admission is free.
Now, check out one of the finest vintage sled museums on the continent:
Top of the Lake Snowmobile Museum!