‘Scorpion’ history is part of the culture ... Crosby man patents track; develops snowmobiles
October 9, 2002 - Deerwood, Minn.
Aitkin Independent Age
By ANN SCHWARTZ
Soon, white stuff will cover the ground again and families will take to the hills — to sled and ski, and, most of all, to snowmobile.
The late Hubert H. Humphrey dubbed Central Minnesota the “snowmobiling capitol of the world” and one local family with roots in Aitkin County has made their mark on the history of this sport.
Dick Harrison, son of a Crosby painting contractor, and his wife Eileen (Bodin), a nice Swedish girl from Glen, were honored by a surprise party thrown for their 50th anniversary. The Deerwood Auditorium contained the traditional party trappings — pretzels, punch, balloons and photos of the couple. But there was an interesting twist to this party as vintage Scorpion snowmobiles and Scorpion and Trail-A-Sled memorabilia such as a board game, clock and other advertising items were on display.
The couple’s son, Randy, hosted a program outlining how Dick Harrison invented and patented a rubber snowmobile track and helped to build Scorpion Industries in Crosby to the second-largest snowmobile manufacturer in the nation.
The Harrison's were recovering from the shock of the surprise party and the first part of the program highlighted their deep Christian faith and work in missions.
Then, Randy Harrison took the microphone, and, his voice breaking many times — with a presentation that moved grown men in the audience to pull out their hankies — he outlined the saga of a local snowmobile dynasty.
Road trip memories
Vintage snowmobile collectors are keeping the old models and the sport alive, Randy noted, and when he and his dad took a quick trip to Montana to pick up an old Scorpion, he had the type of trip: “Every son needs to make with his father.”
Randy brought along his laptop computer and, since the men had about 20 hours to just talk, the following bit of Minnesota history was recorded.
Dick Harrison was the son of Eugene “Stub” and Delina Harrison of Crosby. Stub was a painting contractor.
Born during the Great Depression, Dick learned to love the great outdoors as he hunted to provide food for the family.
Although he left school in the 10th grade and took work driving truck, Dick loved to tinker with any mechanical contraption he could get his hands on.
Times were tough when he and Eileen married in Virginia, Minnesota in 1952, where Dick worked for the mines. Eileen also worked to support the family.
They moved back to Crosby, to a converted barn, with no running water, rodent infestation and a floor that flew up when a strong wind blew. However, they were near Dick’s parents and Dick and his dad refurbished a wild rice processing plant and soon had a contract from Duluth’s Chun King, owned by Jeno F. Paulucci.
Just for fun, Dick would convert old aircraft fuselages to air sleds which he displayed at the Spot Drive-In and offered for test drives on Serpent Lake.
Dick, his dad Stub, and Glen Gutzman, formed Trail-A Sled in 1959 and produced the apparatus, meant to be towed behind cars.
“But the firm’s future relied not on aluminum, but on fiberglass,” noted Randy.
In addition to air sleds, they manufactured pontoons, duck boats, canoes and sleeper cabs for semi trailers.
The stylized air sled starting garnering attention and was displayed at Dayton’s. Trail-A-Sled manufactured 75 models. They could hold four passengers and travel at speeds to 100 mph.
Meanwhile, snowmobiles were starting to come of age when Polaris industries began producing a smaller-tracked snowmobile.
Trail-A-Sled hastily geared up and produced it own tracked snow machine, named the Scorpion. In the fall of 1963, 36 were made, with an all fiberglass-body and a noisy, cumbersome cleated track.
Dick, seeing the need for a better track, invented a continuous rubber track and got the first such track patent in the United States.
Armed with the firm's invention, Glen Gutzman set out East in a Volkswagen trying to drum up business and came back with an order for 100 Scorpions. Customers paid for inventory in Eileen Harrisonadvance and the model gained national exposure through an article in Mechanic’s Illustrated and by other means.
In 1964, the firm really took off. With 20 employees, it manufactured all of its own components: hoods, windshields, seats and more, and produced parts for other manufacturers.
By the fall of 1967, it had produced 5,000 units and moved into a converted ice arena owned by the city of Crosby.
That year, Cliff Kittelson, still of Deerwood and a former plant manager, set the world snowmobiling jumping record with a Scorpion. He sites Dick’s hard work as the reason that the business was so successful. “The Scorpion Stinger was one of the finest and most durable sleds on the market, due to Dick’s dedication,” said Kittelson. A large man, he joked that he set the jumping record “many years and many pounds ago.” Kittelson said the Harrison's were a close-knit family and like a second set of parents to him.
The 1968 model year was looking like a winner, with the new teardrop hood design, snowmobiles selling like hotcakes and HHH proclaiming central Minnesota as the “official snowmobile capitol of world,” The demand for sleds seemed to have no limit.
North to Alaska
A publicity stunt really put the Cuyuna Range on the national map in 1967. Three Scorpion employees, with three new sleds, an extra sleigh of supplies and no back-up crew, rode 3,800 miles from Crosby to Alaska, braving Chinook winds -70-degree temperatures and more. Dignitaries met them along the route and they completed the trip in 28 days.
“The Alaskan Adventure helped to put the Cuyuna Range on the map and was widely covered by the national media,” noted Randy.
Then, the bottom fell out. One of Randy’s first and earliest memories was from November 1967. Randy watched a fire rage through the plant and saw his strong father put his head in his hands and weep.
Everything was lost to the fire: plans, prototypes, the patent, the manufacturing facility and city of Crosby’s records and its library. Also, about one-third of the local workforce was put out of work. “First the mines are closed and now this!” People shook their heads. Would Crosby survive this?
Rising from ashes
Well, the plant slowly recovered. It opened in temporary quarters. Competitors donated parts, employees worked with no guarantee of pay, engines were located oversees. And 6,000 models were somehow produced.
The firm moved into a new, fireproof facility, where it consolidated operations and could produce 50,000 snowmobiles in eight months.
At the height of its operation, Scorpion employed 500 people in the Crosby area.
But soon, the bottom fell out again. A recession and several mild winters devastated the snowmobile industry. The firm’s founders sold out, first to Fuqua International of Atlanta and then to an internal management team. Eventually, Scorpion could no longer make it and by the late 1970s snowmobiles were no longer manufactured in Crosby. Operations moved to a former competitor’s plant in Thief River Falls.
But the contributions that Dick Harrison made to the industry are important to this day as vintage snowmobile enthusiasts search out and restore the grand old machines.
As a highlight of the program. Dave Guenther, president of the Antique Snowmobile Club of America, presented Dick with an honorary membership.
The Harrison's were visibly moved by the standing ovation they got, but that wasn’t to be the end. Randy brought forward a framed copy of Dick’s rubber track patent, secured through the United State’s Patent Office. Dick hadn’t seen that document since the fire of 1967 and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place when the framed patent was presented to him.
Those of us who can remember the “60s laugh when we remember those classic snowmobiles that tipped over on every little drift and were so slow that a poodle could outrun them. But those early beginnings were the genesis of a sport that survives to this day, a sport that the economy and the leisure-time fun of this part of the state are based on. And Dick and Eileen Harrison did much to contribute to that sport.