Story of the Snowmobile

Feb 10, 2021

An early snowmobile race at Rangeline Lake.
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society

The town of Sayner promotes itself as the “birthplace of the snowmobile” and the community has a legitimate claim to that title.  However, as with so many historical topics, the story is a bit more complicated than that.  

Carl Eliason’s hand-built 1924 motor toboggan is on display in Sayner’s Snowmobile Museum, and Eliason’s design was the prototype for the modern snowmobile.  While Eliason’s model became the most successful, it was not the first, and Northwoods residents experimented with all sorts of snow machines before settling on Eliason’s toboggan.

One of the earliest attempts at over-snow travel accompanied the bicycle craze of the 1890s.  In Wisconsin people experimented with bicycles equipped with runners and gripping fins.  Unsurprisingly, this did not last long.  A few steam propelled sleighs appeared, and as early as 1895 a couple of inventors in Brule, Wisconsin, submitted a design for a propeller-sled.  However, the most successful design that predated Eliason came out of New Hampshire in 1917.

In West Ossipee, New Hampshire, a Ford dealer named Virgil White grew frustrated with trying to drive his Model-T Ford in winter weather.  It was White who invented a conversion kit for the Ford with skis in front and caterpillar tracks with metal cleats in the rear.  White coined the term “snowmobile” and in 1917 he applied for a patent on both the conversion kit and the name.

Of course, World War I intervened before White could market his invention, but in 1922 White’s snowmobile conversion kit for the Model-T Ford became commercially available.  It was a successful design and proved to be popular with doctors, mail carriers, fire fighters, and just about anyone else who needed all-weather transportation.

In 1925, before Eliason’s design became popularized, the Farm Specialty Manufacturing Company of New Holstein, Wisconsin, purchased the manufacturing rights to White’s conversion kit.  This company marketed their product as the Snow Flyer.  In the Northwoods these converted Model-Ts were at various times called Snow Buggies, Snow Snakes, and Snow Tractors, but whatever the name, the Snow Flyer presaged the coming popularity of snowmobiling as people immediately began racing them.

The first such race took place in January 1926.  In that year, three Northwoods communities joined together to stage a combined winter carnival that took place over a span of three weeks.  The planned events, which were typical of winter carnivals, included such favorites as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, figure skating, ice hockey, and more.  But for the first time a Snow Flyer race was included.

Representatives from nearly all Northwoods towns participated in the carnival events, but the towns hosting them were Three Lakes on January 31, Eagle River on February 7, and Rhinelander on February 14.  Three Lakes was the earliest, which means that Three Lakes has the distinction of holding one of the first sanctioned snowmobile races in the Northwoods.

One-hundred and four competitors entered that race, and William Neu of Three Lakes emerged as the winner.  Henry Hanson of Eagle River was second.

The Snow Flyer enjoyed a brief fling with popularity, but its day ended rather quickly.  Production of the Model-T Ford ended in 1927, and in that same year Carl Eliason applied for a patent for his design.  The Four Wheel Drive Auto Company of Clintonville purchased Eliason’s patent, and from then on the motor toboggan became the dominant snowmobile.