Not much kept David Johnson down.
When he was 77, the Polaris Industries co-founder and creator of the company’s first snowmobile, hopped aboard a modern version and gunned it 900 miles across Alaska.
Until recently, the inventor of the Polaris snowmobile was a regular fixture at the company’s Roseau, Minn., plant, despite retiring in 1988. He would check in on the next generation of the machines he had nurtured. He would also give tours and share stories about company history.
That first snowmobile — powered by a 10-horsepower lawn mower engine — spurred a company that today generates $4.7 billion in revenue and manufactures all-terrain four-wheelers, motorcycles and modern-day snowmobiles with more than 100 horsepower.
On Saturday, Johnson died in his Roseau home after a long illness. He was 93.
Johnson, the youngest of five children, was born Feb. 5, 1923, on a Malung Township farm in Roseau County in northwestern Minnesota. His mother died in childbirth, and he was raised by the Swedish farm owners Betty and Peter Hetteen and two of their eight children, Elsie and Albert.
Growing up among adults in farm country, Johnson was given free rein to explore and fish, and he was taught to build just about anything, said son Mitchell. “His adopted mom and dad were Swedish immigrants, and they built and designed all the things they needed.” He didn’t learn to speak English until the second grade.
Johnson became fast friends with the Hetteens’ grandchildren, Edgar and Allan. Those friendships would span decades and various businesses. The men later became brothers-in-law through marriage, but were really family early on. As a kid, when Johnson’s biological father and his new wife tried to visit, Johnson would hide for hours, fearing that his father would take him from the Hetteens, his son said.
In his early 20s, Johnson was in the Navy, stationed in China helping to decommission U.S. ships that were being turned over to China. That’s when he received a letter from Edgar Hetteen, saying he had founded a business that made straw-chopping equipment for farm combines and pole-hoisting machines for the electrical cooperatives that were newly electrifying the Midwest. He needed help.
Johnson immediately invested — sending $11 of the $21 he received each month from the Navy. That kept the doors open at the new company, Hetteen Hoist and Derrick.
After leaving the Navy, Johnson went to work at the new company, focusing on product engineering and manufacturing. Allan Hetteen joined them in 1948 after graduating high school. The three men changed the company’s name to Polaris Industries in 1954 and took in about seven investors to help with cash flow.
While the original business focused on serving farmers and electrical co-ops, Johnson and two co-workers had other ideas. They envisioned a vehicle that could zip them 20 miles away to their hunting and fishing shacks in winter. With a company to run, they could no longer afford to spend all day skiing to and from the shacks.
Using a car bumper as the skis, a Briggs and Stratton motor and chains and other parts grabbed from the machine shop, Johnson, nephew Orlen Johnson and Paul Knochenmus created Polaris’ first “snow traveler” in 1955.
The machine, fashioned after a military motorized toboggan that Johnson had seen in a photo, made its first run across a snowy Roseau field in January 1956. Soon, the men were making excursions across the country in search of dealers who could sell the idea that the snowmobile was a recreational wonder that would help fishermen, hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts conquer winter.
In 1960, Edgar Hetteen took the machine on a trip across Alaska.
In 2000, Hetteen, Polaris CEO Tom Tiller and 12 others joined Johnson on the 11-day, 900-mile anniversary trek across Alaska.
For his 90th birthday, Johnson took a three-day, 150-mile ride aboard a Polaris snowmobile from Roseau to his old cabin in the Northwest Angle. He spent a day riding near Lake of the Woods and returned to Roseau on the third day. Johnson was inducted into the Snowmobile Hall of Fame in 1999.
But building Polaris from nothing wasn’t easy.
In those early years, Edgar Hetteen and Johnson didn’t have money for Christmas bonuses for 30 employees. So Johnson got creative. He charged into Gordy’s Hardz store on Main Street in Roseau, bought lots of candy and packaged it in brown paper bags. Hetteen circled his airplane over each employee’s farm a couple times until the family flew out of the house in wonder. Johnson then dropped the candy bags out the window to the delight of the gawkers below.
“In those days, candy was not something you could afford. It was a special treat. So a bag of candy to a kid was a really big deal,” said Marlys Knutson, who remembers Johnson telling that story for the company’s 50th anniversary.
Mitchell Johnson grew up hearing that story repeated by gleeful kids who remembered that Christmas surprise well into adulthood.
“If you ever heard my dad talk, he would almost break down in tears. He said, ‘The employees who worked for us, many times often didn’t get paid for weeks. But they still came and worked and said, “Pay us when you get the next contract.” They are the reason why we succeeded.’ ”
It’s also why, in later years, Johnson offered worker benefits and profit-sharing so he could take care of the employees who had taken care of him.
One line worker Johnson hired 50 years ago praises him regularly for making her a millionaire in Polaris stock. That made Johnson smile, family members said. The company he started reached its first billion-dollar sales year in 1995. It generated $4.7 billion last year.
“Dad was basically a mechanical prodigy of sorts but he had a huge heart for people, especially if they were in need,” Mitchell Johnson said. “If you were just out of prison or had been fired because you were drunk and if you then showed up at Polaris and needed a job, David Johnson hired you. And he always gave you a second and third chance.”
Knutson, who knew Johnson for 30 years, said Johnson was a great people person. “David was the shop guy and he knew how to deal with people. He could have people do what he wanted him to do without them feeling like they were being pushed.”
And Johnson loved pulling a prank. Co-workers remember him coming into the office from the shop floor and sticking his greasy finger into one worker’s coffee mug “because it looked like it needed a stir.” He’s a legend for sneaking a small unlit firecracker on a friend’s welding bench and patiently waiting for one of the welder’s sparks to light the firecracker and explode. “These are things you can’t do at work now, but Dad had a way,” his son said, chuckling.
Johnson is survived by his wife of 68 years, Eleanor; sons Mitchell and Aaron (both in Roseau) and Rodney (in Two Harbors) and daughter Mary Johnson (in Minneapolis). Johnson’s funeral service will be Oct. 22 in the Roseau High School gymnasium.