June 15 – 21, 2018Vol. 20, No. 2

Snowmobiles in The Early Years

by Rod Johnson

For the sake of this story, let's say that the early years were the 1960s up into the 1970s. Certainly snowmobiles were invented and lightly manufactured prior to those years, but it seems to me that they were not prevalent, at least in Central Maine.

The concept and manufacture of vehicles for commercial purposes, made specifically to go through or on snow, came about many decades before. The Lombard Steam Log Hauler, a behemoth cleated track vehicle made to pull sleds loaded with timber, was invented in 1901 and built in Waterville, Maine. These are available to see in museums, one of which is the Woodsman's Museum in Patten, Maine and would not be included in the recreational use of snow traveling machines.

Snowmobiles began to creep into our little town of Belgrade in the 1960s, and I remember the first one that showed up belonged to Clayton Grant. It was a Motoski brand with a cleated track and an 8 or 10 horsepower Rotax engine. Not much else appeared until the 1970s arrived.

Suddenly an explosion of demand and the supply to fill it overtook all the states of America where snow sports were possible. Manufacturers popped up everywhere and brands were showing up that had never been heard of. Here's more than a few that I recall: Alouette, Skiroule, SkiDoo, Fox-track, Polaris, MotoSki, Moto-Jet, SnoJet, Chapparalle and Whippit. Even the American-made outboard motor companies like Johnson and Evinrude put out machines. You may recall others, and several of the aforementioned were Canadian products.

Like the early century automobile business, competition became fierce and the weaker companies had to accept being bought out or just plain folded their tent and called it quits. Soon the Japanese entered the market with Yamaha that really put the press on American and Canadian manufacturers to put out quality products and stay competitive in the pricing.

This new influx of machines changed winter life considerably. Trails were established to some extent but in the early 70s most everyone just went anywhere and everywhere. For many families, the old snowshoes were retired to the barn wall and became décor. The machines broke down quite frequently, and the group in Belgrade that we rode with spent at least two hours tinkering after one hour of riding. Undercarriage problems were a constant issue, as were clutch and engine problems. These were mostly overcome by the builders during the 1970s.

During the hard winter, the lakes were great places to ride, congregate and picnic. Ice fishing and socializing out on the ice increased as it was easy to get out there and back.

As the years went by, clubs were established and some built clubhouses or met in member's homes, basements and garages. Maine has well over a hundred clubs with some fun names. Here's a few: Belgrade Draggin' Masters, Rome Rough Riders, Readfield Blizzard Busters and Farmington's Shiretown Riders. Gatherings were planned such as races on weekends, more and more trails were established and members spent several days in the summer clearing and maintaining trails for the coming winter.

The possibilities seemed endless, but as with all toys, the prices of these vehicles that started in the hundreds in the early 1960s, went into the thousands and later many thousands. Today, Google says the Polaris line of models seem to run between $10,000 and $15,000. In 1971 my brother and I bought a new MotoJet for under $1,000. Like so many of our recreational toys today, as well as our automobiles, the technology has come a long way, though the high costs have made them unaffordable for many.

Perhaps it's time to dig out the old snowshoes that are hanging on the barn wall — or maybe splurge and buy a pair of those new-fangled aluminum ones so we don't have to patch the broken gut webbing. As you can see, The Luckiest Boy has clung to many of the old ways of thinking!

Rod Johnson was born and raised in the Belgrade Lakes in the 1950s and '60s.