SAYNER — Ski-Doo, Polaris, Arctic Cat and Yamaha dominate the snowmobile industry these days.
But 95 years ago, one name stood alone — Eliason.
In 1924, after nearly two years of planning and building, Carl Eliason unveiled a handmade contraption powerful enough to skim over Wisconsin’s snow-covered Northwoods yet small enough to navigate trails just a few feet wide.
Born was the Eliason Motor Toboggan, precursor to the modern snowmobile.
Eliason died 40 years ago at the age of 80. But his original creation, in remarkably good condition after all these decades, is displayed here in Vilas County at the business he founded, Eliason Lumber and Hardware Company.
“We’re very proud of what he accomplished,” said his granddaughter, Jona Eliason, who operates the business with her father, John (Carl’s son), and brother, John Jr. “Not a lot of people can say their grandpa invented the snowmobile. So it’s a big thing for our family and for our community.”
Proving again that necessity is the mother of invention, the elder Eliason conceived the idea for the machine in his early 20s because he longed to hunt and trap in the surrounding woods. But a foot deformity prevented him from using skis or snowshoes.
He experimented with wind-driven sleds and automobiles with tracks, but they were too heavy. So he worked with available parts and pieces.
The Eliason Motor Toboggan, built in a shed behind a pub, used four snow skis joined together with beaded ceiling for the majority of the machine’s base. Two shorter skis, mounted under the front and controlled by a rope, steered the machine. An endless track drive was fashioned with bicycle sprockets and chains, wood slide rails and cleats, with a conveyor belt webbing for flotation. A seat was installed over the track drive.
The entire apparatus was powered by a front-mounted, shaft-shortened, 2.5-horsepower Johnson outboard engine. The motor, which Eliason rented out to anglers in the summer, was cooled by a section from a Ford Model T radiator.
“He was a very smart man,” said Carl’s son, John.
Once it hit the snow, the 10-foot machine worked splendid, topping out at 20 to 25 mph. In 1927, it became the first patented personal snowmobile, Jona said.
“He just wanted to get out in the woods like everybody else, and this is what he came up with to make that possible,” she said while standing alongside his original creation. “Everybody thought he was nuts for trying, but that didn’t stop him.
“So all of a sudden a lot of people were interested in what he was doing, because they had never seen anything like it. More and more people wanted them, and that got things going.”
Eliason constructed about 40 more Motor Toboggans during the ensuing 15 years. Using whatever parts he could find meant no two machines were the same.
Two-cylinder versions incorporated the Excelsior engine and sold for $350, while four-cylinder machines used Henderson engines and sold for $550. Marketing of the Eliason Motor Toboggans primarily targeted hunters, trappers and anglers.
With demand for the machines growing, the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company of Clintonville began handling production in 1940. Eliason assigned his patents to FWD in exchange for a 2 percent royalty on all machines produced and sold by the company. FWD marketed the machines under the Eliason Motor Toboggan name, and Eliason remained a prime consultant.
FWD built four models — called A, B, C and D — from 1940 to 1946. The Model A is believed to be the first known factory-produced, single-track snowmobile.
Models B and C were used during World War II, with war design improvements that included covering the exposed engine, enclosing the track assembly and, in some cases, adding width to the machine for better flotation. As World War II production tapered off, marketing efforts were aimed at utilities, rangers, conservation workers, doctors, mail carriers, trappers and other conventional uses.
Model D machines, featuring steering wheels, were the last of the Motor Toboggans to use Indian engines.
With increasing FWD truck sales and declining Motor Toboggan interest in the United States, FWD’s Canadian subsidiary in Kitchener, Ontario, entered the picture in 1947. Production of Model D machines was transferred to Kitchener. In 1951, the smaller Model K-10 was introduced, sporting a rear-mounted, 6-horsepower Salsbury engine and variable speed belt-driven clutch. Two years later, the Model K-12 entered the market with a larger 8.5-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine.
The Model K-12 turned out to be the last model of Eliason produced, and it was the snowmobile that some future manufacturers used as a framework in designing rear-engine machines. The Eliason/FWD effort continued until 1963, when the company sold its parts and rights to Carter Brothers of Waterloo, Ontario.
The original 1924 Eliason Motor Toboggan is displayed at Eliason Lumber and Hardware Company, 2954 Highway 155, Sayner, from October through Memorial Day. Also showcased at the store are a 1941 Model A, 1946 Model D and 1951 Model K-10. The business is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, with extended summer hours. Admission is free.
From Memorial Day until October, the original Eliason Motor Toboggan is showcased alongside other historically significant snowmobiles just down the road at the Vilas County Historical Museum, 2889 Highway 155. Admission is $4 for ages 10 and older.
“The original is in Sayner, and that’s where my grandpa wanted the snowmobile to stay,” Jona said. “I’m glad we have it here. When I think about it, that first machine used to just hang out on a wall in the lumber shed for years. And then a friend of my grandpa told him, ‘Carl, you have to tell people about this. You can’t just keep it up here on this wall.’ Now everybody can come and see it.”