The ladies of the first Hodag Cross-Country Snowmobile Marathon
Northern Wisconsin is known for its pioneering snowmobile history, from Carl Eliason and his motor toboggan built in 1924 to the advent of snowmobile racing in the state with the first Eagle River Derby in 1964. The Hodag Marathon followed closely after in 1965.
During that first cross-country endurance race in Wisconsin, the Hodag International Cross-Country Marathon, racers came from all over, including Canada. However, there were few women among the entrants.
MaryAnn Montgomery was one of the few cold hearty ladies that competed in the backwoods adventure that was to open the second annual Eagle River Snowmobile Derby weekend. She is the daughter of famed outboard motor repair and salesman Duke Montgomery. Duke was the first Artic Cat snowmobile dealer in the area.
A close family, the Montgomerys all participated in boating and riding the new motor sleds of the era. Following suit, MaryAnn enjoyed snowmobiling as well.
In 1965 the Lions Clubs of Rhinelander, Three Lakes, and Eagle River organized a 35-mile race between the three communities. Duke had done business with First National Bank of Rhinelander, and they asked if he’d like to be involved in the race. Duke asked MaryAnn if she would be the sponsored racer. At 19 years old, she said why not!
On the morning of February 6, 1965, 107 snowmobiles lined up along Davenport Street behind Merchants State Bank facing the Wisconsin River. MaryAnn was there on her red and white 8 horsepower Artic Cat snowmobile. Dressed in a snowsuit, white bunny boots and hat, with no helmet.
The racers were started in pairs at two-minute intervals. MaryAnn left the starting gate and quickly gained speed taking a sharp right through a lot behind a then builders supply business, and after a short stretch dropped onto a frozen Boom Lake.
In the three mile stretch across the lake, snowmobiles were already jockeying for position, racing against the clock. At the end of the lake, a narrow trail wound in and out of the forests and across the frozen swamps between Rhinelander and Eagle River. A 10-minute pit stop in Three Lakes offered a quick warm up and break from the grueling conditions on the early trails.
Spectators would set up at points along the route, and after seeing a bulk of the racers, they would hop in their cars and drive to another point, so that groups of people were seen along the entire course. Police reported over 1,000 vehicles caravanning between Rhinelander and Eagle River, with thousands more stationed at the race’s end.
At one point in the race, MaryAnn’s machine began having mechanical trouble. Without a second to spare, her father Duke showed up seemingly out of nowhere, having been following the race closely. A little tinkering and his golden hands had the snowmobile up and running again as MaryAnn got back on the trail. The going was tough, as snowmobiles in those days had little in the way of shocks, and MaryAnn’s body took a beating as she cruised along the bumpy trail at a top speed of about 40 mph, a far cry from the speed machines of today.
MaryAnn crossed the finish line in 3 hours, 15 minutes and 40 seconds. She was cold, sore and tired after the hard ride through the northern Wisconsin back country. Of the 107 starters, 88 finished the race, and MaryAnn took 40th in her class. Only one other young lady took off from Rhinelander that morning and MaryAnn was first to finish. Barb Stefonik, a 14-year-old girl from Sugar Camp, came in with a time of 3:22:30. Both had achieved a marvelous feat of endurance. They made history for themselves and the sport of snowmobiling in Wisconsin.
Although MaryAnn did not win the cash prizes offered, the thrill and excitement of having competed has stuck with her all these years later. Of course, her father Duke and mother Dorothy, were very proud of her. Duke told MaryAnn they would buy her a special gift for having completed the race. She chose a new pair of skis.
Sources: Rhinelander Daily News Articles February 4th -10th, 1965, Interview with MaryAnn Montgomery Kolkofen.