Pete Wass moved to Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 1926. He was employed by the Blandin Paper Mill until 1938 when he as denied a leave of absence to trap out west. Upon his return, he was courted and hired as a truck mechanic for the Danube Iron Ore Mine.
A skilled and knowledgeable technician, he was an expert in his field, contributing ideas and improvements to the work place.
Pete enjoyed the changing seasons and the diverse outdoor life the Minnesota northwoods had to offer: Hunting, fishing and trapping. Heavy snow made winter travel a problem.
In the pioneering spirit of the early 1950s, Pete and friend Howard Carlson engineered an air sled to carry them over the snow.
Constructed of pipe and skinned with aluminum, a Ford flathead V8 engine propelled the sled. The ingenious design featured a sliding cockpit canopy and retractable rear wheels for transport.
Racing across frozen lakes was one thing, traversing swamp and woodland quite another.
The Eliason Motor Toboggan presented an alternative to long hours of snowshoeing on the trap line, but the wooden toboggan design was not favored Pete.
Through Sid Ketcham, a truck parts distributor from Eveleth, Minnesota, Pete learned of Edgar Hetteen and the new Polaris snow tractors being built in Roseau. He contacted Edgar directly, and when the early Snow Travelers rolled off the assembly line, Pete was among the first Polaris dealers to receive them.
Pete and son Jim assembled Sno Travelers and distributed parts from a rented basement warehouse in Grand Rapids until 1959. Still working full time at the Danube mine, he then set up shop in a two stall garage at his home. His son, Jim, enlisted in the Navy and left the business, returning after his tour of duty.
When Edgar Hetteen left Polaris and founded Polar Manufacturing in 1961, soon to be renamed Arctic Enterprises, he was quick to call and persuade Pete to change brand loyalty. Pete obliged.
Pete would phone ahead for needed parts and machines, making the long drive to Thief River Falls and back on Saturday nights because of his work schedule. He always paid in cash.
More than mere business acquaintances, Pete and Edgar had become fast friends.
With the snowmobile industry still in its infancy, dealers and their customers essentially were test drivers for a product still in the works.
Pete accompanied Edgar on many excursions, both in Minnesota and the deep snow country on Michigan's upper peninsula, trying new ideas.
Pete's input contributed to design changes on both Polaris and Arctic Cat snowmobiles. Track configuration, throttle placement, rear wheel lift, solid drive sprockets and less restrictive tunnels to alleviate grass wadding, all wore Pete's fingerprints.
In his autobiography, Breaking Trail, Edgar fondly recalls late nights spent at the Wass kitchen table, eating fresh biscuits and drinking coffee, discussing life and snowmobiles, what worked and what didn't.
He refers to Pete as gutsy and gritty, with an obvious sense of humor as he informed Edgar, who was working on the first front-engined Cat, the Model 100, that the hitch should be positioned on the front of the machine instead of the back!
The transition of the snowmobile from the workhorse to recreational vehicle came about in the mid-1960s as sporty models were introduced.
An early snowmobile congress was held at Sugar Lake Lodge near Grand Rapids, and Pete partnered with a local snowmobile club to address the inevitable problems facing a growing sport. Discussed were manufacturing and safety
issues, trail development, easements and license fees. All attending sensed regulation looming.
From his two stall garage, Pete's dealership boomed. Still employed by the mine, he was second in Arctic Cat sales in Minnesota from 1965 to 1967.
By the end of the 1960s, Pete had three-quarters of a million dollars in inventory crammed into the basement, hired three full time employees and was displaying machines downtown in the storefront window of Indian Joe's Trading Post.
In 1970, Pete retired from the Danube mine. The days of the old school, hand shake dealer were coming to an end. Cat and other manufacturers began imposing new inventory, showroom and accessory requirements on their dealers.
After the passing of his beloved wife, Carrie, and in failing health, Pete sold his Arctic Cat dealership on a contract for deed in 1972.
Shortly before his death in 1973, Pete was presented, by ceremony, a commemorative plaque from Arctic Enterprises proudly proclaiming: "In recognition to Pete Wass, Grand Rapids, Minnesota. The first dealer for Arctic Enterprises who has given ten years of faithful service."
History books will list Sparky Meyer from Neenah, Wisconsin as the first dealer for Arctic Cat. Sparky, however, soon became an Arctic Cat distributor.
Few outside the factories had the influence of Pete Wass on refinements to early Polaris and Arctic Cat snowmobiles.
Much was accomplished in the two stall garage, more impressive still considering Pete also worked full time and pursued outdoor interests during his tenure, serving the sport as Arctic's first ten-year dealer.
Reprinted with permission from the Antique Snowmobile Club Of America.