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Boomer’s Journal: Snowmobile capital of the world

It was right around 1969 when staff writer Ron Schara wrote in the Minneapolis Tribune, “No one complains about snowmobiles in this western Minnesota community. The last resident who complained ended up winning a snowmobile in a drawing. Now he’s an avid fan.”

He was talking about Evansville. A sign on Main Street proclaimed the quaint little town “the snowmobile capital of the world” and as far as the residents and surrounding community were concerned it was absolutely true. Almost all of the 553 residents (population then) rode a snowmobile or knew someone who did. There were three snowmobile dealers in town, all working together.

For example, they advertised together in local newspapers. Schara wrote of Vern Ostrom saying, “We just say, ‘come buy a snowmobile in Evansville.’  We decided to work together and not fight one another. Everyone talks snowmobiles year-round. I don’t think anyone wants to go to Florida in the winter around here.”

Along with Ostrom dealing snowmobiles were Arlyn Johnson, who was also a local farm-implement dealer, and Jim Berry, who said some families had two or three snowmobiles. Snowmobiles lined Main street right alongside, and taking over, parking spots once filled by trucks and cars. There were “no snowmobile ordinances in Evansville.” And, despite the abundance, “there has never been an incident of snowmobile thievery,” wrote Schara.

Ray Elmer, local feed-mill operator, said he had five snowmobiles, but hadn’t ridden one all winter. He was too busy keeping them running for the “racing team.”

That’s a whole other story. The racing team was composed of guys using a variety of snowmobile models. Said Arlyn Johnson, “after the law was changed we quit chasing fox and started racing.”

The six to 10 racers were known for their fearless driving and the number of trophies they brought home. Evansville’s racing team included (some names may inadvertently be missed) Randy, Kim and Shane Elmer, Monty Carlson, Donn Johnson, Steve Mattson and Kent Gulbrandson. Speaking for myself, it was a thrill to see the races. It was also a thrill to take an occasional ride with one of the team members.

I had more than one ride with Donn and seriously thought I was going to lose my life every single time. He had no fear. Back then there were no groomed trails to ride casually like we have today at Carlos State Park. Instead, we rode the plowed fields, the road ditches, and piled high snow hills built by the plows. We rode up and down steep hills, blazing our own trails and looking for the most sensational ride we could find. It wasn’t about riding casually, it was about speed. One night, (yes, night riding was the most thrilling) I ducked as we basically sped under telephone wires. Donn told me to “just hang on.” Mom and dad would never know.

Yes, speed. That was the key. The racing team was competing all over the state, speeding to one win after another. There was one particular local race where one of the members of the race team almost didn’t win their “sure win.” Instead, coming in first were my sisters.

Not realizing that they were on the race route, my sisters were on a casual ride, not necessarily riding fast in their enjoyment of the outdoors. As they were minding their own business, cruising along, they turned a bend and looking behind them, realized they were being followed by about 50 snowmobiles at a very fast pace.

First reaction? Gun it and ride. Squeezing the throttle they tried to outrun the racers, surely going faster than they had ever gone before. Mom and dad, spectators at the finish line, had no idea that two of their daughters were in the pack, riding the one machine dad had purchased for the family, racing toward the flag. That is, until later, when the adrenaline oozed and the truth came out. Once again, as in other cases of death-defying situations, we all found ourselves seated at the kitchen table with dad lecturing us about safety first and “thinking.”

Forty-five-plus years later I still consider Evansville to be “the snowmobile capital of the world.” It seems like yesterday that Main Street was lined with a variety of snowmobile models, the guys on the team were bringing home trophies and teenagers were having snowmobile parties.

It doesn’t seem that long ago. Today, those first snowmobiles are vintage, just like us. The dealers of back then may be gone, and the racers may not be racing.  Yet, the history provided lives on. Some stories for grandchildren may be embellished. And, we “teenagers” are now enjoying the groomed trails at a much lower speed.

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