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No Ordinary Forklift: The Origins of Arctic Cat


(8/11/2018)

Roger Skime-built Arctic Enterprises forklift. Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

It isn't every day that you see Arctic Cat legend Roger Skime standing atop a weathered old forklift.

But this no ordinary forklift.

Roger himself built it not long after he was hired to work at Arctic Enterprises in 1962. For several years it touched every single Arctic Cat snowmobile.

And like a surprising number of things sitting in fields and in barns in northwest Minnesota, this old forklift connects Polaris and Arctic Cat and the generations who helped build both companies.

To understand the connection, let's start with a brief history lesson.

 

Polaris founders L-to-R: Allen Hetteen, Edgar Hetteen and David Johnson.

Polaris Industries was founded in Roseau, Minn., in the mid-1950s by brothers Allen (left) and Edgar Hetteen (middle), and David Johnson (right), three remarkable visionaries. The three had already worked together for many years, but it wasn't until Johnson designed and built the first snowmobile that they branded the company "Polaris."

That first snowmobile would set in motion a series of events that would build two companies, help create a new sport and give millions of people a reason to love winter.

 

Original Arctic Cat production facility in Thief River Falls, MN.

Five years after Johnson built that first Polaris snowmobile, Edgar pulled up stakes, left the company he helped found and headed 60 miles south to Thief River Falls, where he established his new company Polar Manufacturing in an unused grocery warehouse next to the river.

And in less than one year the first Polar snowmobiles emerged from the lower level of the old Barzen building. While the exact number is lost to history, it's believed that roughly 30 Polar snowmobiles were produced that first model year.

 

Original Arctic Cat production facility in Thief River Falls, MN.

Arctic Cat snowmobiles loaded onto a truck in the 1960s.

As the fledgling company concluded its second year of business, Edgar renamed it "Arctic Enterprises." Its snowmobiles became "Arctic Cats." 

The good news for 1963 was that snowmobile production numbers crept upward. The bad news for the employees was that each one had to be lifted up a long ramp from the basement level of warehouse before they could be loaded on trucks. Those rear-engine Arctic Cats were damn heavy.

The company needed a forklift, but it didn't have the money to buy one.

So a few of the employees, including a recently hired young man by the name of Roger Skime, fabricated one.

 

Arctic Cat Panthers in production in the late 1960s.

And for the next eight years, that custom forklift carried every Arctic Cat snowmobile off of the assembly line, up the ramp and onto semi trucks.

Every red Arctic Cat. Every white Arctic Cat. And, for the first few years, a bunch of black Arctic Cat snowmobiles.

The forklift was finally put to pasture around 1970-71, when the company relocated to a newly built facility on the edge of Thief River Falls.

At some point in the 1970s, Edgar brought the forklift to his farmstead near Roseau, where he occasionally used it to move the various inventions he built at his shop there. And once he was done using it, it sat outside the barn like any old piece of tired, old equipment.

Fast forward 40 or so years.

 

Roger Skime-built Arctic Enterprises forklift. Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

A "For Sale" post for "the original forklift used at Arctic Enterprises" on an online forum caught the eye of Tom Rowland, an Arctic Cat dealer (and collector) from Ogilvie, Minn.

Over the years Tom has amassed a wonderful collection of Arctic Cat machines at his dealership Thomas Sno Sports. While the prospect of owning a forklift formerly used at Arctic Cat wouldn't capture the imagination of most sane people, it did exactly that for Tom. Because, Tom.

For sure Tom was interested because it was an Arctic Cat forklift, so to speak. But he was also interested because the person selling the forklift was Aaron Johnson, youngest son of David, the inventor of the first Polaris snowmobile.  Tom is a student of snowmobile history, and he knows that David Johnson is important and meaningful to that company much like Roger Skime is to Arctic Cat.

The forklift was at Aaron's place, which just so happens to be Edgar's old farm, and which also happens to be just a few miles from Roger and Bernice Skime's ranch.

A plan was hatched, phone calls were made and in late July I found myself a passenger in Tom's truck, along with Kale Wainer, as we headed north.

Six hours, 5 boxes of Mike & Ikes, several cups of coffee, three bottles of Pepsi and one package of Twizzlers later, we arrived at Skime Ranch, where we plucked Roger from the middle of feeding cows, then drove the final few miles to Johnson's place.

 

Aaron Johnson and Roger Skime.

When we popped out of the truck, Roger (right) and Aaron immediately embraced like old friends.

The Skime/Johnson bond goes back decades, to the very beginning of Arctic Cat and Polaris. Theirs is a friendship that ignores the brand label on the jackets.

Roger and David Johnson might have worked at companies that competed with one another, but they were also true friends. The kind of friends who know each other's kids and grandkids. Who sit together at weddings and funerals. Who share the forging of character that comes with suffering through tough times while trying to build a company and a sport.

So when Roger sees Aaron (who works fabricating future Polaris vehicles), he sees a true and cherished friend...

 

Roger Skime-built Arctic Enterprises forklift. Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

...and then (on this day) he saw the old forklift!

 

Roger Skime-built Arctic Enterprises forklift. Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Roger Skime-built Arctic Enterprises forklift. Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

And then just like that, the stories started flying as fast as Roger could get the words out.

He vividly remembered building it.

 

Roger Skime-built Arctic Enterprises forklift. Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

The front end is from an Allis Chalmers tractor, the engine and rear end from a Chevy truck. The fuel and oil tanks are repurposed fuel tanks from Model 500s, as is the seat base. Though it's weathered and faded, it's still wears the classic Polar/Arctic Cat red of the rear-engine snowmobile era. 

 

Roger Skime-built Arctic Enterprises forklift. Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

That box with sprouting weeds was used for ballast. We shared a huge laugh when Roger pulled out some of the Polar metal stampings that were originally dumped into it some 56 years ago.

 

Roger Skime-built Arctic Enterprises forklift. Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Roger Skime-built Arctic Enterprises forklift. Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Roger Skime-built Arctic Enterprises forklift. Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

I can't begin to tell you how happy these photos of Roger standing on the forklift make me.

 

Roger Skime-built Arctic Enterprises forklift. Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

If Tom (above, right) had any doubts beforehand about buying the forklift, the stories Roger told about building red Arctic Cats and its constant use completely erased them. History has a way of connecting people with things. Tom presented a check to Aaron. Done deal!

 

Roger Skime-built Arctic Enterprises forklift. Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Then the beast was loaded onto a trailer for the drive back to its new home in Ogilvie, where it will be made mechanically operational (but kept original).

But some of the best stories were yet to be told.

 

Super cool swamp buggy built by Polaris founder David Johnson. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

A former airplane hanger housed another incredible machine: this "swamp buggy" that David Johnson built in 1958 for the Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources, for getting through swamps and lowlands to access remote areas in northern Minnesota. 

It might look primitive by today's standards, but Johnson's 60-year old creation was a visionary foreshadowing of what Polaris would eventually become.

 

Super cool tracked vehicle built by Polaris founder David Johnson.

Another creation of David's, this steel tracked machine they called the "potato digger" hauled the family's gear to their cabin and blazed trails across frozen Lake of the Woods for decades.

 

Aaron Johnson's farm, formerly Edgar Hetteen's.

This Cat Cutter is a leftover of Edgar's, who converted it to be a rear-engine, propeller-driven machine. No, I'm not kidding.

 

Roger Skime at former farm of Edgar Hetteen.

In a nearby shed, among some of the machines that Aaron has accumulated while building his own collection, Roger spied an original metal shear used at Polaris, and later at Arctic Enterprises.

 

Aaron Johnson's farm, formerly Edgar Hetteen's.

Next to the shed stood this bead roller that was also used at Polaris and later at Arctic, where it was rolled the edges of side panels on Arctic Cat Model 100 snowmobiles.

Like the shear, David Johnson gave the bead roller to Edgar when the former started Polar/Arctic Enterprises.

When Roger saw these machines he shared something I'd never heard before: In the early days of Polar/Arctic Enterprises, when the company was behind schedule and struggling to meet production deadlines, David Johnson and Allen Hetteen sent Polaris employees to TRF to help them build components like gas tanks and clutches, and to assemble snowmobiles.

Let that sink in for a moment.

The president and leadership at Polaris sent their own employees to Arctic Cat, their competitor, to help build snowmobiles in order to meet production schedules.

There is something profound in that gesture that gives me pause and puts a lump in my throat.

I like to tease the other snowmobile brands, but the truth is I have tremendous respect for them. Especially for Polaris, because theirs is a story that is SO similar to Arctic Cat:

Same company founder. Same farmer influenced, make-do inventiveness. Built by humble people who embrace winter for five months of the year.

Polaris has also weathered some really, really lean times during its history which, like Arctic Cat, makes their success all the more impressive.

 

Roger Skime at former farm of Edgar Hetteen.

We're at a turning point in the history of snowmobiling. Until very recently, most of the people who founded the sport/industry were still alive.

David Johnson passed away less than two years ago. Edgar Hetteen passed in 2011.

Roger is still very much here (and still helping bring future Arctic Cat snowmobiles to life). And so too are a handful of others from Polaris, Ski-Doo, Yamaha and other brands.

Their stories are crucial to understanding where the sport of snowmobiling came from, its struggles, its successes and lessons for tomorrow.

But the last of these original pioneers won't be around forever.

 

Roger Skime-built Arctic Enterprises forklift. Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

After spending a couple hours listening to one of the originals talk about the old times with Edgar and David, as well as hearing Aaron's own family stories, I was reminded about something that Edgar once said:

"We were all so dedicated to the little beast we called the snowmobile. That's all we talked about. That's all we dreamed about."

My goodness, how lucky we are today for the dedication those pioneers had so many years ago!

 

I want to thank Aaron Johnson for being a gracious host and sharing his family's history with us.

Thanks to Tom Rowland for having endless passion and an infinite desire for adventure.

And special thanks to those who were so dedicated to the little beast we all still dream about: David, Edgar, Allen and Roger.

Thanks for reading.



Comments (32):

Mike F says:
8/13/2018 8:56:00 PM

Thank You John....Just when I think your stories can not get any better....
Jason Ha says:
8/13/2018 9:05:00 PM

Great story.
Pluedy says:
8/13/2018 9:26:00 PM

Outstanding tale, Johnny. Thanks for sharing some "new" history.

An STP sticker makes any machine faster!
Jim Dimmerman says:
8/13/2018 9:39:00 PM

Man O Man I'm just shaking my head. What a GREAT story !
Thank you Tom for being the junk yard dog.. What a find !
There's just no end to the Skime stories...
Eric Bergstrom says:
8/13/2018 9:51:00 PM

Fantastic story. Really fantastic. This is the kind of thing that I love about Arctic Insider - and the story itself stirs up enthusiasm and imagination for all things vintage Arctic Cat that I haven't felt in a long time. The cool factor is off the charts!
Eric Bergstrom says:
8/13/2018 9:54:00 PM

Also, it has a certain Johnny Cash One-Piece-at-a-Time flare to it!
Jeff says:
8/13/2018 11:03:00 PM

Fantastic story. That lift is part of three of the greatest brands of all time.
Allis Chalmers, Chevy and Arctic Cat. Sweet.
Here I thought way back that Edgar and Allen and David must have had a falling out hence the reason Edgar went on his own. But this story erases those thoughts.
Larry Preston says:
8/14/2018 12:56:00 PM

Wow - WELL DONE JOHN! Best read I've had in some time! I've had the honor of hanging out at Aaron Johnson's "Broken Cleat Junction" and it really is a special place - with Edgar's history and all that Aaron has done there. When I first heard Polaris loaned employees to Cat.. I was stunned by that. Can you imagine ANY modern-day company doing that? Could you imagine Facebook loaning staff to Apple? No, neither can I. Just goes to show the amazing power of community that exists in Northern Minnesota, and how really close the two companies were. Again, fantastic read John and thank you!
Steve Senger says:
8/14/2018 2:15:00 PM

This story brings back fond memories of my father, who also built his own forklifts out of need and lack of funds when he started Senger Lumber back in 1959. Very good read. Thanks for sharing!
Tom Rowland says:
8/14/2018 4:15:00 PM

Spending the afternoon with Aaron and Roger, hearing stories that only they could tell, walking on the very soil where some of these snowmobile pioneers walked/worked, and looking around at some of the things that they built...definitely gives me an even deeper appreciation for all that these people did 50-60 years ago to help create this sport and industry that we love so much!
John Deere Joe Rainville says:
8/14/2018 4:17:00 PM

Excellent, excellent story John, brings a smile to your face.

It was an honor to buy a new sled from one of these characters (Rowland) named after another (Skime) just I can come north to enjoy winter on a machine invented by Aaron's father David. You all are gloriously bad influences, and we are all the better for it.

Later Liquidator,
-Joe Rainville
Mark Hazzard says:
8/14/2018 4:30:00 PM

Wonderful story. I hope you can keep finding these great historical stories, while those from years ago are still with us.
I think it's time for a sequel to the Arctic Cat "Legend" book. What does everyone else think?
I did visit the Bombardier museum this year. There is lots of history there also. Amazing what these men did back in the day.
Matt Pfankuch says:
8/14/2018 5:31:00 PM

Wow! Such a great story! Such a great industry!
Paul Nadeau says:
8/14/2018 6:15:00 PM

Wow! You have raised the bar even higher John with another great story and photo's. Thank you Tom Rowland for preserving more of Arctic Cat history. Would have paid (you name it) to see when Roger first laid eyes on that forklift after so many years. What was going on in that great memory bank of Arctic Cat history? thank you all involved! greatly appreciated by an old northern Mainer.
Mike Mattson says:
8/14/2018 7:48:00 PM

Great article and photos John. Keep them coming!!!!
Hal Armstrong says:
8/14/2018 10:29:00 PM

Great Story John. I can can add to that story about my own dad who was hired by Edgar back in 68 to set up the clothing plant in Rainy River Ontario across from Baudette. Edgar asked my dad at the end of the interview what made him think he could train and work with a large number of women sewing up snowsuits. My dads answer? I grew up with 8 sisters. My dad got the job as plant maker for Arctic Enterprises new plant in Rainy River Ontario that made the famous one piece Cat suit with leopard and red lined hoods.
Chad Colby says:
8/15/2018 7:12:00 AM

Another great story John, well done.
Shane Zeppelin says:
8/15/2018 7:35:00 AM

What a gem of a story! You’ve captured some great photos and history here. Thanks for sharing this, John.
Jeff says:
8/15/2018 8:15:00 AM

Thanks for sharing that story Hal.
It seems we all forgot about the plant in rainy river Ontario.
After reading that I clearly remember dad had bought in the 70's
a purple and white 68 GMC half ton with a cat head on the doors and Arctic Enterprises Rainy River Ontario in black letters below it.
He never took a picture. Oh how many times I told him he should have kept it that way instead of painting it.
Phil says:
8/15/2018 12:02:00 PM

Ran when parked?
dave beito says:
8/15/2018 3:22:00 PM

I remember driving that beast at the river plant
Tom Rowland says:
8/15/2018 5:44:00 PM

Dave Beito: Do you have any snap shots of inside/outside/around the old original river plant? Or does anyone? That place continues to fascinate me and I have seen very very few images of that place ever.
Scott says:
8/15/2018 9:22:00 PM

Great job John.....I met you a few years ago at Hay Days and we started B.S.ing look old school friends. You do a great job with all your “stories” and we all greatly appreciate your dedication to Arctic Cat and the sport. Maybe we will cross paths again in about a month.

Thank you again, please keep up the great work!
Skip Albanese says:
8/16/2018 6:07:00 AM

Great story, enjoyed reading it.
Premium says:
8/16/2018 11:38:00 AM

"We were all so dedicated to the little beast we called the snowmobile. That's all we talked about. That's all we dreamed about."

My God. Right in the feels.
John Sandberg says:
8/17/2018 12:38:00 PM

Thanks for all the nice comments and added perspective from y'all!

That day was truly a gift for which I'm very, very grateful. Such great people and incredible stories.

There's a Part II to this same trip that is coming here soon. Doesn't have anything to do with Arctic Enterprises. But it's a pretty fun and interested tale that is still being discovered. More to come...
dave beito says:
8/17/2018 1:05:00 PM

Tom Rowland Sorry no pictures Back then more interested in cars and girls not pictures of where I worked
Eli says:
8/18/2018 9:37:00 AM

Awesome story and pictures!
David Good says:
8/20/2018 11:16:00 PM

John, you outdid yourself on this one! Great reading.
GregJ says:
8/24/2018 12:01:00 PM

Fantastic story John. Thanks for sharing the adventure....Such cool history...
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