Restoring vintage sleds a favorite pastime for two local snowmobilers

Andrew Johnson
Farm Forum

We all have our allegiances: Coke or Pepsi, Big Mac or Whopper, Chevy or Ford, Vikings or Packers. The list could go on.

A friendship between two area snowmobilers that has spanned the last five decades, however, has been marked by their respective affiliations with Polaris and Arctic Cat.

For James Gelling of Frederick, snowmobiling has been his passion since he bought his first sled in 1967 when they first arrived in Aberdeen.

“At the time, Anderson Welding was selling Polaris snowmobiles,” he said. “I was just out of high school, and I bought the smallest one they had. It was a little Polaris Colt for right around $700.”

Gelling said he had always enjoyed playing outside in the wintertime, and the idea of traveling on snow fascinated him as a kid. He said in the late 1960s a few people in northeastern South Dakota had built what he called snow planes, where an airplane engine was fastened to a crude, winged frame that sat atop three skis.

“I always dreamed about having one of those snow planes, but then snowmobiles arrived,” Gelling said. “That Colt had a single-cylinder engine, and I think it was around 16 horsepower. It had a little lever on the dash, and if you pulled that lever it would bypass the exhaust and go a couple miles per hour faster. Back then we used to chase jackrabbits as a hobby, and if I pulled that lever I could just about catch one.”

Kenny Ham, an Arctic Cat loyalist from Westport, began snowmobiling in 1968.

“I bought a Johnson snowmobile in 1968 — $875 I think I paid for it — and then traded it the next year and got an Arctic Cat,” Ham said. “Man, at one time there were over 100 manufacturers that made snowmobiles. There were all kinds of them.”

In the late 1960s and early 1970s household names such as Montgomery Ward, Sears, Kawasaki, John Deere and Harley Davidson all had snowmobiles on the market. But, much like the snowfall amounts the region has seen the last few years, the snowmobile market has since dwindled.

“Today, you’re down to just your main four brands — Polaris, Arctic Cat, Yamaha and Ski-Doo,” Gelling said.

Restoring vintage sleds

Gelling and Ham still ride snowmobiles when there’s snow. They’re active members of the Driftbusters Snowmobile club, and both men volunteer to groom the 73-mile Dakota Midland Trail, which connects Aberdeen, Westport, Frederick, Richmond Lake and Mina Lake, when there’s enough snow.

However, restoring vintage snowmobiles is a year-round hobby they share, often bouncing ideas off of each other or asking for help finding parts.

“We both like older sleds, and we’re back and forth quite a bit,” Ham said. “I have pretty much found the parts I need, but if I can’t find it, I get ahold of James and he’ll come up with it. The internet really helps.”

Gelling said he began restoring sleds in the early ‘70s when he started a salvage business.

“I’d strip the sleds down for selling parts, and every so often I’d get one that was kind of an oddball,” Gelling said. “I accumulated about 25 of these older sleds, and about 15 years ago I had some friends that wanted to buy some of them. I ended up selling all but a couple.”

Today, Gelling said he’s in the process of restoring a 1969 Polaris Colt and has completely restored a 1981 Polaris Indy 500 and a 1972 Polaris Starfire. The Starfire is the very same sled he rode to a second-place finish in the 1972 Governor’s Cup cross-country snowmobile race, which ran from Pierre to Mobridge to Aberdeen. The race used to be part of the South Dakota Snow Queen contest.

“I actually had sold that Starfire, but I was able to trace it down,” he said. “It was sitting out in a pasture, but I found enough parts and was able to put it back together and restore it. It’s my favorite — a lot of memories go with that one.”

Ham said he currently has three snowmobiles he’s restored, as well.

“Two are Arctic Cats, a ‘76 3000 Jag and a ‘77 Pantera,” he said. “The last one I restored was a Kawasaki. I always liked them and had a chance to get one, so I got working on it.”

And although he admits he’s an Arctic Cat guy through and through, it’s actually that old 1979 Kawasaki that’s his favorite.

“I used to have more than just three,” he said. “I had six at one point, and years ago I had a guy talk me out of them. At that time I guess I didn’t realize there were things such as vintage shows, so I started over again.”

Gelling said vintage sleds used to have a large following across the Midwest, especially in Minnesota in Wisconsin and even in the Dakotas. Vintage snowmobile clubs, shows, fun rides and swap meets used to be more common, but events like those are getting harder to find, Gelling said.

“Interest used to be really widespread,” he said. “Kenny and I had a ball starting about 10 years ago where we’d go to these club meets around Minnesota and North Dakota where you basically display your snowmobile, and then in the afternoon you’d go for a short ride, kind of like a parade. But you just can’t find events like that anymore that are within reasonable driving distance.”

Gelling and Ham have tried to drive local interest in vintage sleds, but their efforts have found little traction.

“We’ve tried for several years to get people enthused about starting an antique snowmobile club,” Gelling said. “We just never could get any kind of enthusiasm going.”

No school like old school

Gelling said newer snowmobiles are, of course, more reliable and more enjoyable to ride, but the allure of restoring and riding older sleds is a pursuit he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

“There’s really no comparison between older sleds and the ones today,” he said. “Back then they were a temperamental thing. The joke was you’d work on them for a couple hours just to ride them for an hour. But if you ever go to one of those vintage rides and sit back on those old sleds, it’s kind of hard to explain how much fun it is.”

Ham echoed Gelling’s thoughts, saying today’s snowmobiles are far better than they were 50 years ago, but he also said there’s a level of satisfaction that comes with restoring a sled that otherwise would have been long forgotten.

“The newer ones are really nice to ride, but I just love the looks of the old snowmobiles,” Ham said. “I don’t really ride them anymore, but I like to get them running and do ride them a little bit, just to say I rode them. If you go through all that work, you might as well see if it works.”

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James “Mike” Gelling of Frederick shows off the People’s Choice Award he won at a vintage snowmobile show in Wilmot in 2012 for the 1972 Polaris Starfire he restored. Interest in restoring older snowmobiles has waned over the years and vintage shows are becoming harder to find across the Midwest. Courtesy photo