Web posted Sunday, February 21, 1999

Snowmobiles: from garage enterprise to major manufacturer
Crosby, Minn., men were pioneers with their snowmobile plant

Story from The Brainerd Daily Dispatch

Senior Reporter

CROSBY, Minn., -- Fast, furious and fun. Eventually carrying the name of an unlikely creature found in more southerly climes, the Scorpion snowmobiles created jobs and a new industry in Crosby. At its peak, the snowmobile manufacturing company employed about 500 people. But by about 1979 and 1980 the last Scorpions were being constructed at Thief River Falls.

Jerry Thompson, Brainerd, bought a Crosby Scorpion in 1967. The snowmobile had been made for Brainerd Marine, which was located roughly where Greg Larson Sports is now in the Westport Mall.

Sold under another name, the snowmobile had a red hood and two headlights.

"It was fun," Thompson said. "Did they go like crazy. They had a good product."

Originally marketed by the home-grown company of Trail-A-Sled, the propeller-driven air sleds were powered by war surplus airplane engines and became part of Cuyuna Range lore in 1959.

Glen Gutzman, an administrative assistant at the Crosby Armory and Eugene Harrison, an area painting contractor, along with his son, Richard Harrison, began the business in a garage workshop.

"It was kind of a crazy business," said Harrison, who still lives in Crosby. "It was booming. The sled business was just getting started and we got into it at the right time."

Business operations eventually included pontoon boats. But the major enterprise came from snowmobiles and the first was constructed in 1961. Made of fiberglass and with an iron track, the snowmobile could reach speeds of 30 mph.

Harrison said Trail-A-Sled's molded rubber track gave the business an edge and became a big influence in the Crosby company's entry into the market. The business became self sufficient and had a machine shop in Minneapolis. Most other snowmobile makers were using steel cleats, which Harrison said were noisy and not as fast.

In the book, "Cuyuna: A Chronicle of the Iron Range," it was noted an improved version of the snowmobile was the one taken, strapped to the back of the family Volkswagen, to the east for a 1964 selling trip by Gutzman. A New York dealer ordered 100 of the snow craft.

The company continued to experience success. A Small Business Administration loan helped the company. In 1964, 20 people were employed in the snowmobile manufacturing business. There were eight different models with speed options reaching 40 mph.

By 1966, Trail-A-Sled accomplished another expansion moving into the old skating rink in the arena in Crosby. Two years later, the business began construction on an 38,500 square foot assembly plant that eventually produced 180 snowmobiles each day. Even after suffering major losses of 1,000 engines and $2 million in damages in a Nov. 2, 1967, fire, the company produced 8,000 sleds in the 1967-1968 season.

By 1969, the business caught the attention of a company with more southern leanings than may have been expected. Atlanta-based Fuqua Industries purchased the business. That year the company took on the new name of Scorpion Inc.

Growth continued and by 1976 the company employed 350 with an estimated payroll of $2 million. Sleds carried stylized names such as Lil' Whip, which sported a 290 twin cylinder fan-cooled engine called the "Cuyuna." And a 1970s pamphlet titled "The Scorpion Story" sported a clothing line, as well as snowmobiles.

Just a few years later, the company was sold to Arctic Cat, which Harrison -- who keeps a scrapbook of his snowmobile business -- estimates ran the business a year or two before moving operations to Thief River Falls. But as shoppers kept returning to major retail brands, the wide variety of smaller manufacturers were weeded out of the competition. In a February 1980 Dispatch news story, Arctic Cat was announcing layoffs, noting snowmobile purchases had steadily declined since 1971.

No longer cutting trails through virgin snow, the vintage Scorpion snowmobile rests in the Cuyuna Range Historical Society Museum. The snowmobile manufacturing business in Crosby began with Trail-A-Sled, named because early machines could be towed behind a car by raising the skis and lowering wheels. The business expanded into the snowmobile industry and eventually employed about 500 people in Crosby. -- Dispatch Photo by Renee Richardson