FULDA -- There's been a lot of grumbling this year about the amount of snow that has fallen from the sky. But you won't hear Leo Voss complain. The piles of white stuff enabled him to take his vintage Polaris snowmobile out for a spin for the first time in seven years.
"I've had it since 1977, '78," explained Leo, who lives in Fulda and retired last summer from JBS in Worthington. "I was racing at the time, and my neighbor was a mechanic. He was racing also, and his motor blew up. I had an extra motor, and he had the sled, so we traded."
The 1956 Polaris Sno-Traveler has been among Leo's prize possessions ever since, although it was one of many vintage sleds he maintained during the years he raced snowmobiles.
"I don't know how I got into it," he said, searching his memory. "Through friends, I guess. The races were for '66 and older models. ... There was a yearly event in Green Lake, Wis. One year, I come home with seven out of 12 of the trophies. There was no competition."
Eventually, Leo got out of racing and sold off his extensive vintage sled stock.
"I kept Grandpa," he said, referring to the Sno-Traveler. "It was the oldest one I had. This was the fourth one to come off the assembly line. They made 13 that year, 13 in '56. You can tell by the serial number -- this one is No. 04."
Because they are produced in Minnesota and he knew the founding fathers personally, Leo is particularly passionate about Polaris machines, and he's collected some memorabilia relating to the company's history. One such article, titled "The Quest to Conquer Winter," begins with the anonymous quote: "The first snowmobile race was held the day they made the second snowmobile," and relates how Polaris began to manufacture motorized sleds:
During the winter of 1954-'55, David Johnson plunged through waist-deep snow on an unsuccessful deer hunt. Disgusted and tired, he decided there had to be a better way. A partner in the former Hetteen Hoist and Derrick, renamed Polaris Industries in 1954, Johnson suggested to his partners and brothers-in-law, Edgar and Allan Hetteen, that the company build a machine to travel over the snow.
Polaris Industries built lots of things. Special machines and parts for farmers in the Roseau area. Why not a machine for traveling on snow?
... The first machine they built used an auger as its propulsion device ... and it soon was nicknamed the "Screaming Lena" because of its tendency to snake sideways every time it hit hard-packed snow or road surface. Back to the shop it went, and soon a version with a track made of elevator chain appeared.
That was the prototype for the Sno-Traveler that now sits in Leo's garage on the north edge of Fulda. On a recent day, he started it up with a single pull of the rope and pointed out some of its attributes.
"No brakes, no lights, no cushion, no shocks," he said with a laugh. "The kill button is located between the clutch and the muffler. ... You've always got to warm it up with the belts off. You have to face it where you want to go, then you start it -- and make sure you have plenty of room.
"It's not a comfortable ride," he added, due to the lack of cushion and shocks. "I'd take a gunny sack, put a half a bale of hay or straw in it, and use that for a cushion. Cushions didn't come out until the mid-'60s. When it's on hard-packed snow, you can hear it a half a mile away. I don't take it too far; most of the time it's just around the block."
A winch on the back allows the rider to lift up the rear end on rough-riding snow so it floats above the surface, Leo also noted, and is also useful when the vehicle is stopped, keeping it from freezing to the snow surface.
"They rode these across Antarctica, too," he said. "They had to drain all the oil at night, so it didn't freeze, and they had to remove the clutch belts or they'd get stiff and shatter."
In addition to the Sno-Traveler, Leo owns one other snowmobile -- another Polaris, of course. The 1985 model features "all the '86 goodies" and was a prototype.
"It goes a little faster" than the Sno-Traveler, Leo said. "It'll do 100 (mph), this one does about 6."
A number of years ago, Leo paid homage to vintage Polaris snowmobiles in a now slightly yellowed essay. It reads:
I really enjoy riding these old machines. It is really a challenge because each one is different in handling, steering, starting, stopping and shifting. Back to the original concept of transportation, they really remind you of a "little bulldozer" with plenty of pep and power, but a mind of their own.
My collection of old Polaris sleds stopped when the 1966 models were introduced. The real challenge of antique snowmobiles actually ended. I am pleased with my collection of Polaris' sleds from 1956 to 1965 and at the same time to preserve some of Minnesota's history.
To the founding fathers of these old machines, no matter how crude or what color they were, they laid the basis for the modern snowmobile that we ride today. A very special thank you comes from me and everyone who rides a snowmobile to the founding fathers of modern snowmobiling. As for me, I will always ride a snowmobile, but nothing will replace my personal pride in my old antique snowmobiles.