9th Annual Antique Snowmobile Rendezvous - 2003
January 25, 2003 7:30 PM - Pequot Lakes, Minn.
Transcript of Randy Harrison's keynote address to a standing-room-only crowd of several hundred:
Realizing that many of you have already read the recent articles in Iron Dog Tracks or have been to my website, TrailASled.com, I’m certainly NOT going to read from these sources verbatim but I will try to hit a few highlights over the next 30 minutes or so.
In the 1950’s Central Minnesota was much different from what we know today. Few residents had attended college, and many people - such as my father never even finished high school, my grandfather went only as far as the 6th grade. In those days, the land was much wilder and game was abundant. Much of the work was seasonal and most men would be, what would now be called an “outdoorsman.” This was certainly the case with my father and grandfather as they spent countless hours hunting and trapping, not for sport, but to survive.
On the eastern edge of the Minnesota’s Central Lakes Area ran a rich vein of iron ore known as the Cuyuna Range. Many small communities, including the twin towns of Crosby-Ironton, Trommold, Cuyuna, and Manganese sprang-up to support the open pit mining activities that once flourished in the area. The Cuyuna Range bustled with activity until demand for steel waned with the passing of WWII and the discovery of richer ore on the Mesabi Range, some 70 miles to the NE. As the mines closed, the community’s economic base imploded and families did what was needed to survive. In my father’s family, that meant fending for yourself and being willing to eat just about anything. From squirrels to muskrats, nothing was off limits to my grandmother’s kettle.
It was in this struggling environment that my father quit school in the 10th grade to become a truck driver. As the years passed he become an accomplished mechanic – he just loved tinkering with motors and building things. He took various jobs in Minneapolis and the Mesabi before returning to Crosby-Ironton with his beautiful bride, Eileen, to help his father refurbish a wild rice processing facility that lay idle, just across the alleyway. My parent’s bought a renovated barn for $1,000 – very humble beginnings indeed as the home lacked indoor plumbing and was infested with rats. In fact, the home was so porous, that if the wind below too hard, the linoleum on the floor would rise like a balloon.
Undeterred, my father dug right in, doing what he could to improve the wild rice plant. Soon he perfected a unique set of rubber and steel contraptions that greatly increased the productively of the plant and allowed the Harrison-run facility to land a couple big contracts, including one with Chung King Foods. My dad was very proud of his contraption yet he never boasted about it – in fact, he kept it perpetually under lock and key. For you see, even at a young age my father never sought-out attention for himself. The inner pride of a job well done was all he needed.
Along the way, my father learned of hobby air-sleds in various trade magazines and intrigued by the idea, he traveled to Saint Cloud where he bought an old Culver fuselage, stuffed it into the back of his rickety van and drug it home. Soon it would become a high-powered air-sled - a real thrill, and considerably dangerous to drive. Spurred on by his success, he continued in the hobby with a SeaBee fuselage – a large photo of which is posted in the rear - until a fellow resident of Crosby-Ironton, Glen Gutzman invited him and my grandfather to join in the formation of a new company, Trail-A-Sled, Inc. and in April of 1959 the firm was formed. For you see, Glen had already been involved in the manufacture of aluminum-based air-sleds for some time but his business partners had dropped-out and the firm was in dire need of a lift and some additional capital. Glen would take the title of President and pursued the firm’s sales and finance interests. My grandfather Eugene, a talented painter and sculptor, took the title of Vice President and began crafting the stylish designs that would be a trademark of the firm for years to come. Lastly, my father Richard became Secretary-Treasurer, focusing on manufacturing and engineering. The name Trail-A-Sled seemed to fit well, as the firm intended to manufacture sleds that could be easily towed, or trailed behind a family sedan by simply dropping the wheels and replacing the front ski with a tow coupling.
One change was immediately apparent, having grown tired of the inherent inflexibilities of existing fuselages and the difficult process of fabricating aluminum, the new partners sought a more flexible and stylish approach. They found it in fiberglass. Work was begun immediately on a revolutionary and highly stylized fiberglass air-sled that would prove to be years ahead of its time. It would contain luxury features, an air-bag suspension, and a 125 HP power plant capable of speeds up to and beyond 100 MPH – you will be able to see one of these amazing machines outside. The air-sled soon won a major design award and was even sold through Polaris Industries. A total of 50 such machines were manufactured through 1963 in two styles, a four-seater with a side door and a two-seater with a retractable canopy.
Along the way, Trail-A-Sled made other fiberglass-based products as well, including pontoon boats (which were highly acclaimed for stability and ride), duck boats and sleeper cabins. They also began making component parts for other firms, including a number of budding snowmobile manufacturers like Polaris Industries, where Trail-A-Sled supplied a wide range of parts for the 1964 Comet. In fact, trying to supplement their income, Trail-A-Sled even acted as a dealer for Polaris in those early days.
As I already noted, most of you probably noticed one of those historic air-sleds parked outside. I have to tell that, it was a lot of fun hauling that contraption up from Madison, Wisconsin. Every other car that passed on the freeway would turn to look. Children would point. Drivers would slow down for a better view. For most of them, they were probably just trying to figure-out what it was. An airplane? A boat? Maybe even a rocket ship? I can clearly image that in its day, it was indeed a site to behold as that four-cylinder Lycoming roared into action for a test drive up and down Serpent Lake. You couldn’t go anywhere with that contraption without the entire town knowing about it. As a result, the air-sled was variably loved and hated, even by the people in Crosby-Ironton. Yet the air-sled wasn’t just a mechanical wonder in it’s day, it also served to pay the bills and kept the small firm alive and able to investigate new opportunities.
One such opportunity presented itself when my dad and his partners saw one of those new-fangled Bomardier Ski Doos on display in Aitkin, Minnesota. For the first time, the founders envisioned a new type of snow travel that didn’t rely upon the large, cumbersome and arguably dangerous air-sled but rather, allowed the traveler to move quickly in solo with a much lighter engine and a circular track. Their interest peeked, the founders began experimenting with a Ski Doo-inspired forward-mounted snow machine as early as 1961. Yet with one obvious innovation that was to be all their own, the chassis and hood would be made not with tin, but fiberglass. Soon the firm had completed two crude prototypes, code-named the Scorpion and the Sidewinder – the Scorpion being the much smaller of the two.
As a fiberglass fabricator, Trail-A-Sled had become expert, growing a reputation for quality and innovation in design. Believe it or not, even today my father is still messing-around with that stinky fiberglass. Just check-out the brand-new, hand-laid teardrop hood on display in the rear!
It’s somewhat ironic, but in many ways you could credit Polaris for getting Trail-A-Sled into the tracked snowmobile business in the first place. While building parts for the Polaris Comet, my father and his partners were struck by how many parts they wanted – not simply a few dozen as had been the case in the past, but hundreds. Clearly Polaris was taking a run at Ski Doo with the Comet’s new forward-mounted engine, Arctic Cat had already done so with their Model 100, and Trail-A-Sled figured it was time to do the same and in the fall of 1963 they went whole-hog for snowmobiles, abandoning all other product lines – the era of the air-sled had officially closed. In case you are wondering, that was the last time Polaris ordered any parts from Trail-A-Sled!
Sensing a ready market for their smaller prototype – the Scorpion, Trail-A-Sled would build 38 of the little machines. These all-fiberglass machines were revolutionary in their day – no one else had built a production, all-glass snowmobile before. Given the sculpting capabilities of fiberglass, the machines were lightweight and stylish but did utilize a rather cumbersome cleated track system – you will find such a machine in the hall here today. Setting-out to find a better way, the little company began experimenting with rubber and a high-pressure vulcanization process. Utilizing the knowledge he had gained at the wild rice processing facility, my father conceived of an idea to take steel detachable chain (the same type he had used in his wild rice processor) and embed it into a continuous rubber track. Incredibly, the innovation worked and my father soon filed for and received US Patent protection. Amazingly, that rubber track, conceived of and invented by high school drop-outs would propel the firm’s growth in the years to come, in fact, the track was used for a total of 8 model years, an amazing feat given the radical changes in technology and approach that occurred within the industry during these years of explosive growth. The rubber track had many advantages over competing tracks and helped the firm land several key contracts, including one with Sears Roebuck. Prospective dealers were so excited by the firms prospects, some even paid for inventory in advance! Capitalizing upon their innovation, the growing firm built 575 of the all-fiberglass wonders for the 1965 model year – a number of these are featured on the home video on display in the rear. The firm owed its future to that little 65 as the buzz surrounding the machine and its track provided the initial thrust that would propel the firm in the years that followed.
Addressing durability issues resulting from the fiberglass chassis, Trail-A-Sled switched to a steel tunnel for 1966, as production grew yet again, a whooping 370%, to 2,100 total units. The era of the all-fiberglass snowmobile had ended.
Space was always a problem for the burgeoning company. There were no industrial development zones and few suitable buildings. As such, the firm spread itself across a number of facilities in the area. In addition, the company began to specialize into numerous product lines and, in fact, created several independent legal entities to perform such, including Rubber Drives, Inc (for rubber products, including tracks, engine mounts and bogy wheels), GlenDick (for metal machining, including clutches and axles), H&G (for welding, fabrication, and chrome plating) and Trail-A-Sled for final assembly. Amazingly, nearly every component was manufactured in-house. Leveraging their manufacturing prowess, Trail-A-Sled provided parts for many other snowmobile manufactures as well, becoming of central importance not only for their own success but for the industry as a whole.
One thing that I’ve always been struck by was Trail-A-Sled’s work ethic. The founders literally worked day and night developing, testing, running trials, making modifications and doing it all over again. In many ways, the firm was built by doggedly determined trial and error. You should also know that the founders were die-hard users, and abusers of their snowmobiles. They didn’t just design them, they rode them, and rode them hard. Generally for testing, occasionally for hunting but sometimes - just for fun! They too enjoyed their beloved snowmobiles and the newfound winter freedom they brought.
Now back in the mid-1960’s there was snow, and plenty of it - but there was no organized trail system in which to ride. That meant a driver had to make their own way, and the founders did just that, often-times running their sleds in a chain, one pushing behind the other as the little machines made their own way through area forests, lakes and frozen riverbeds.
My dad often tells the story of one such outing through deep powder near the Big Pine River where, after taking the lead for some time, he noticed that the rest of his group had fallen behind and out of site. Knowing they would soon arrive, a mischievous thought occurred to him, the same kind of thought that he still gets from time to time. As quick as a lick he slid over the hood and buried himself it the powdery snow between the skis – leaving the snow around him completely untouched. He then carefully pulled the sled forward until it completely covered him. Can you image the look on his companion’s eyes when they approached the abandoned sled with no rider – Dick had disappeared without a trace! That is just one example, they worked like the dickens but they had a lot of fun as well.
In February of 1966, the Brainerd Jaycees hosted the first-ever Paul Bunyan Snowmobile Rally. Featuring a wide-range of heats, the event was held on Gull Lake and the popular 40-mile cross-country event passed through the Pillager Hills. You might have noticed excerpts of these races running on the video in the rear. In these early days the Jaycees were making a strong bid to become a leader on the racing circuit. After all, a major manufacturer was located in the area and Brainerd was far easier to reach then a number of other rallies on the circuit. Soon moving to the new Donnybrooke Raceway, the Jaycee-sponsored event ran for many years attracting top racers from the US and Canada and featured a wide-range of celebrities. Much like the present-day Jaycee-sponsored Ice Fishing Contest, the Snowmobile Rally became “the big event” of the winter as local sponsors chipped-in and the area rolled-out the red carpet for visitors. There even was an annual torchlight parade. The Jaycees actively promoted the area as the “Snowmobile Capital of the World” and in February of 1967, Vice President Hubert Humphrey agreed, issuing an official proclamation while attending the festivities in person.
As for Trail-A-Sled, as the firm prepared for the 1967 build, plans were laid to grow dramatically yet again, in a push to manufacture 8,000 snowmobiles. To help in this effort, Crosby’s Arena building was leased and soon converted into a bustling assembly and administrative building. The firm also released its first full-color, multi-page brochure, featuring a beautiful Swedish model, my mother – Eileen.
In February of 67 the firm’s public relations efforts received a boost when David “Pappy” Burns, their distributor for the state of Alaska conceived of an unprecedented endurance test, traveling from Crosby, Minnesota to Anchorage, Alaska, with no support staff of any kind – a total of 3,800 miles. It was a crazy idea, downright dangerous, but Pappy and two of his young employees had set their minds to it – Trail-A-Sled donated three machines and soon the trio were off, sporting a single sleigh of supplies and donning the bright red snowmobile suits now being sold through the company. Battling Chinook winds and –70-degree wind chills the little group pressed on. Encouraged by well-wishers and dignitaries they met along the route, the trio finished in only 26 running days. Amazingly, the machines held-up exceptionally well and the molded rubber track passed with flying colors. The Alaskan adventure helped to put Minnesota’s Cuyuna Range on the map and was widely covered by the international media. Completely unprecedented for it’s time (and even today), the adventure was a public relations coupe and became the cornerstone of the following year’s marketing campaign … Scorpion, The Proven Snowmobile. Sir Edmund Hillary (conqueror of Mount Everest) was so impressed that he chose Scorpion snowmobiles for his upcoming expedition to the Antarctic.
Soon the firm was setting-up for the 68 build, sporting a new tear-drop hood design and trademark red-on-black rally stripes. The firm’s hopes were running high as production reached 80 units per day, employing 153 local residents.
Yet during the night of November 2, 1967, everything changed. Just as the firm was reaching maximum production capacity, a fire broke-out in the Arena assembly building. Fueled by multiple explosions, the flames quickly engulfed the facility and area firefighting crews could do nothing more than keep the fire from spreading to surrounding buildings. To Trail-A-Sled and the community at large, the fire was an unmitigated disaster. More than 1,000 engines were lost as well as priceless company records and documents. Only a handful of items were spared the horrific flames. Overnight, fully one third of the community’s workforce was without employment. In addition, the city-owned assembly building also contained Crosby’s city library and maintenance facility. Valuable city records and historical artifacts were also lost. It was truly a time of collective despair. Few believed that the firm, if not the community could survive the most catastrophic economic loss of its history. First the mines closed, now this … what more could go wrong?
For many, the fire was a defining moment. For myself, it is one of my most painful early memories. Only six years of age, I can still feel the heat, smell the burning rubber and fiberglass, see the ashen faces of the townspeople … but perhaps most poignant, I saw for the first time my father – always so strong – hold his head in his hand and weep. Although I didn’t understand all that occurred that November night I knew that something terrible had happened, not just to a building or a company, but to us as a family.
But something strangely powerful, I dare say even miraculous soon occurred – the founders, the employees, the community at large simply refused to be beaten. In a legendary exhibition of what can be accomplished by men and women united in common cause, the firm was slowly, painstakingly reestablished. Employees worked with no guarantee of future pay. Industry rivals graciously provided parts and material – thank you Edgar for the Tillotson carburetors. Glen traveled abroad in search of engines to replace the hundreds destroyed by the fire while my father and grandfather set-up temporary production facilities in nearby city-donated buildings. Amazingly, only fifteen days past before the first Scorpion slowly rolled off the jury-rigged assembly line.
Although significantly short of their earlier production goals, Trail-A-Sled was able to produce 6,000 units in 1967 and in fact turned a modest profit.
Continuing to recover from the devastating Arena fire, Trail-A-Sled soon moved into their newly built (and fireproof) processing facilities. These new buildings (spread across an initial 7-acre campus) allowed the firm to finally consolidate its operations into a single location. The complex allowed Trail-A-Sled to better meet the seemingly endless public demand for more and more snowmobiles. The firm’s new facilities could easy produce 50,000 machines during a conventional 8-month production run - an expansion in capacity that would have been unfathomable only months earlier. In a very real sense, the tragic fire had become a blessing. Recognizing the firm’s continuing success despite extreme adversity, the Small Business Administration named Glen Gutzman as their “Man of the Year” in May of 1968.
Although rebounding nicely from the fire, it became increasingly difficult for privately held Trail-A-Sled to compete for the long-term. The industry was going corporate, Polaris had recently been sold to Textron, Arctic Cat was about to float a $6 Million stock offering, and much larger publicly-held firms like John Deere and OMC were pressing hard, able to support financing incentives that were beyond reach for Trail-A-Sled. As such, when a large corporate suitor approached the company, the founders agreed to a buy-out offer and the firm was sold to Fortune 500 conglomerate Fuqua Enterprises of Atlanta, Georgia in February of 1969. The founders stayed on for a time, until management disagreements lead to their resignations in the fall of 1970. Although the founders officially remained on the payroll as “consultants,” Fuqua was anxious to instill their own culture and the founders were tapped only once, their experience and expertise unutilized, even during the troubling years that lay just ahead. Innovative attempts at diversification like the Spyder, a forerunner to today’s ATV were abandoned as Fuqua focused on the firm’s core competencies and hoped to entrench itself as the second largest domestic manufacturer of snowmobiles.
Fuqua was also anxious to abandon the name “Trail-A-Sled.” Now considered an obsolete relic of the past, the name was immediately cast aside – soon people began to forget what a “Trail-A-Sled” even was. What was also largely forgotten was the fact that Trail-A-Sled, Inc. constituted one of the industries most compelling early success stories – one of three simple men, possessing a strong work-ethic, common sense, and in my father’s case - the power of a praying wife. A trio of men who were able to build a true manufacturing powerhouse and, almost sensing the troubles that laid ahead, were smart enough to get-out at the top – avoiding the financial disasters that were to plague the industry for the following decade.
The company’s record of achievement is clear, from a single employee to over 500, from a 600 square foot shack to a high-tech manufacturing campus hundreds of times larger, from a handful of crude prototypes to 22,000 high-quality units per year, from literally nothing to a top-three, and at times a top-two domestic producer of snowmobiles. All from a trio who at first, could barely afford to feed their families yet went on to became the area’s largest employer - all in the space of 10 head-spinning years.
Following the sale of the firm, Glen Gutzman nurtured his love of flying and was involved in a number of business ventures, most notably a gravel business he ran until his retirement. As for my father and grandfather, they had the foresight to buy large parcels of real estate in central Minnesota. A young man of only 36 at the time of the sale, my father has been involved in the development of such land ever since. My grandfather spent a few years in retirement, now with more time to return to his beloved outdoor pastimes.
As for the firm that remained, many of us know the story – Fuqua pushed hard to produce even more snowmobiles and fell headlong into the recession of the early 1970’s. This, combined with several brown winters and a fuel shortage, turned the industry completely upside down. As time progressed, even Brainerd’s Paul Bunyan Snowmobile Rally was disbanded.
As for Scorpion, they found themselves heavy with inventory carryover and in an effort to cut their losses, Fuqua soon sold the firm to an internal management group led by Harvey Paulson. Once again under local control, Harvey and crew fought gallantly to keep the firm alive but as the decade progressed, despite numerous product innovations and a loyal following, profitability proved elusive and the firm was eventually sold to rival Arctic Cat in 1978 who later closed the Crosby-Ironton facility in an effort to consolidate their own tenuous financial position. The final Scorpions were produced in Thief River Falls under the moniker, Sidewinder. Interestingly enough, the same name as the all-fiberglass prototype Trail-A-Sled had fashioned some 17 years earlier.
In closing, standing here today I can’t help but reflect upon the difference a year can make. This time last year my family and I were nearly oblivious to the growing interest in vintage and antique snowmobiling – and in our beloved Scorpions. We simply assumed that no one really cared anymore. Presently surprised and deeply moved, we’ve come to realize that we were wrong. Had it not been for the interest shown by organizations such as the ASCOA, the Trail-A-Sled/Scorpion story - a small portion of which you have heard this evening – may have faded from memory, never to be recorded. For this, you have my heartfelt thanks.
Recently, my family has been heartened by the renewed interest in Trail-A-Sled, its history and designs. Thousands of hits have now been registered to our website, TrailASled.com and dozens of people have extended their thanks for the site, the articles and the memories they keep alive. There are even rumors of a Trail-A-Sled and Scorpion reunion in the coming year.
At times I’ve been nearly brought to tears as people have contacted me with old stories – like the gentleman in New Hampshire who’s father owned an early Trail-A-Sled dealership, or the welder who used to work at the factory, or the Montana distributor who so fondly remembers the boom years and the memorable times they brought. For so many, Trail-A-Sled and Scorpion were a major part of their lives and to see the firm’s memory preserved honors not only the founders but the hundreds of men and women who poured their hearts into the enterprise.
In a few weeks my father will receive the high honor of being inducted into the International Snowmobile Hall of Fame in ceremonies to be conducted in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. For myself it’s a dream come true and it is with great pride that I look forward to that weekend, set aside to honor a man who’s quiet contributions played a central roll in shaping the industry that we all know and love today.
Thank you very much and may God bless you.
- Randy Harrison