Snowmobiling’s golden age in Greene County revisited
By JIM WYCKOFF
Special to The Jefferson Herald
Fifty years ago on any snowy winter night in Jefferson, Lincoln Way was a thoroughfare for dozens of brightly colored snowmobiles whizzing through town.
The sport of snowmobiling was at its zenith.
Many town kids would lay in bed awake at night listening for that distinct whine of a two-stroke engine zipping by their house. They would then get up the next morning to inform mom and dad they were missing out on a new and exciting fad and needed to join in by purchasing a family snowmobile.
However, if their pleas fell on deaf parental ears, the kids would have to settle for riding their feet-steering Flexible Flyers down the slopes at Seven Hills or Hyde Park.
Indeed, from the late 1960s through mid-1970s, the sport of snowmobiling exploded across America, including in Iowa and Greene County.
That period of time was the “golden age” of snowmobiling, which saw total U.S. sales from 1969 to 1975 exceed 3 million units. That averaged out to just slightly less than half-a-million snowmobiles sold in each of those years, and compares to recent years when U.S. sales have been around 50,000 units annually.
There were more than 200 snowmobile manufacturers that sprang up in the 1960s, including the long-forgotten brands Galaxy, Viking, Norway, Sno-Prince, Wheel-Horse, Sno-Pony, Ski-Whiz and Ski-Daddler. Boat and motorcycle manufacturers also joined the booming snowmobiz, including Johnson, Larson, Mercury, Evinrude, Yamaha, Harley Davidson, Suzuki and Kawasaki.
Even big farm equipment makers Massey Ferguson and John Deere jumped into the fray, as did yard equipment firms like Homelite and Ariens.
One could even order a new snowmobile out of the Sears or J.C. Penney catalogs.
In Greene County, the more popular snowmobiling venues were Slininger’s Woods, Spring Lake, Squirrel Hollow, Hyde Park, Flack’s river farm (now called River Farm Recreation), the Raccoon River and, of course, the city streets.
There were several sanctioned snowmobile races that took place in the 1970s at the Greene County Fairgrounds oval track.
In 1972, local snowmobile riders formed the Raccoon Valley Snogoers and quickly gained 180 members, according to the Bee & Herald newspaper archives. Yes, this was front-page news back then.
Original club board members included Tom and Jeanette Flack, Ron Zwicky, Doug Monagin, Danny Pemble, Bonnie Burkhardt, Lois Murphy, Dean Wolf, Dick Murphy and Craig Sorenson, according to the newspaper archives.
In February of 1973, 41 club members rode from Slininger’s Woods into Gene’s Lounge in Jefferson, where owner Gene Leonard served the group chili.
The front-page headline in the Jefferson Herald on Jan. 6, 1971, was entitled, “Snowmobiles prove their worth in emergencies during blizzard.”
The police, led by patrolman Wayne Helms, ferried on snowmobiles doctors and nurses to and from the hospital, and helped out in several other situations where only snowmobiles could travel.
Local snowmobile owners Jack Mitchell, Bob McPherson, Dick Pauley and Art McCollum loaned their machines to Jefferson police officers during the storm, the Herald reported. Mitchell and McPherson also drove their own sleds in helping out the police and several citizens-in-need during the blizzard.
Winter Saturday afternoons in Greene County would find dozens of snowmobiles on trailers at local gas stations, with their owners busy filling five-gallon gas cans and mixing in oil — as oil injection for two-stroke snowmobile engines was virtually non-existent back in those days.
A typical winter weekend afternoon at Spring Lake would see more than 50 snowmobiles buzzing around the lake and surrounding park area. The daredevils would seek out a stretch of open water on the far west side of the lake to do some showing off by water-skipping their sleds.
Rules and regulations in county and state parks were much more lax in the early snowmobiling years.
This writer remembers in the early 1970s, Greene County Conservation employee George Gymer telling riders at Spring Lake one Saturday afternoon that they had to stay on the roads. Then upon re-examining the landscape that just had several inches of new snow overnight, Gymer quipped, “Oh hell, where are the roads? Ride where you want to.”
As a token of their appreciation for George’s easygoing attitude toward snowmobilers, many local riders would leave George a beer or two on the table at the Spring Lake shelter house.
At Flack’s river farm, a big and foreboding hill was the challenge for riders to climb. In that time period, a 15 to 30 horsepower snowmobile was the norm, with no studded track, so climbing all the way to the top of a large, icy hill was a formidable challenge.
Slininger’s Woods was a place for riders to gather at the club house and around a crackling fire for some warm (or cold) beverages after a ride at Flack’s or on the Raccoon River.
On snowy school days in the county, several high schoolers would ride to school and park their snowmobiles in the school parking lot, with nary a notice from the school administrators or most law enforcement.
Snowmobile dealers in Jefferson in the late ’60s into the early 1980s were Harvey’s Sales and Service (Ski Doo) on Highway 4, Binns Equipment (John Deere) on Highway 30, and Flack’s Rupp Sales and Service.
Craig Flack, of Jefferson, said he and his brother, Curt, and their father, Tom (the proprietor), sold 90 new and used snowmobiles one year, with the business based right on their farm west of Jefferson. Business was so brisk that Craig said he and Curt had to get up early, before school started, to prep and service all the sleds coming into and going out of their shop.
Craig said other snowmobile dealers in the area were Dean Wolf, who sold Chaparrals; Loren Jessen, who sold the Polaris brand north of Scranton; and Gary Louk, who sold Yamahas out of Yale.
Rupp awarded Tom and Jeanette Flack a snowmobiling trip to Yellowstone one year for selling so many of their machines.
“You don’t ride much when you are a dealer,” said Craig, who at 58 is still known for racking up high miles riding in Greene and surrounding counties.
Last year, he logged 1,250 miles. His best year was riding 2,480 miles in the area in 1983-84.
If the river freezes up well this winter, Flack said River Farm Recreation will be hosting some “fun runs” that will rival the old poker runs held by the Raccoon Valley Snogoers of yesteryear. Flack remains a member of the newer iteration of that club formed in the early 1970s — now called the Raccoon Valley Snow Chasers, which can be followed on Facebook.
The glory days of snowmobiling in Greene County and the U.S. began to wind down rapidly in the late 1970s.
Generally declining snowfall totals in Iowa and the Upper Midwest (at least from the perspective of snowmobilers), high interest rates and economic recession pushed many enthusiasts and dealers out of the sport for good.
Just maybe, too, Americans had become more “cushy” and instead of the action of riding a snowmobile in the outdoors they preferred curling up in a warm blanket and watching TV on a cold winter day.
Today, just four snowmobile manufacturers remain in the U.S. — Ski Doo, Polaris, Yamaha and Arctic Cat.
The average age of a snowmobile rider today is 45 years old — another testament to a sport that hit its popularity peak long ago.
However, it appears the sport has stabilized in recent years and many thousands of Iowa snowmobilers still “get out there and get to winter — before it gets to them.”
Jim Wyckoff is a Jefferson native and longtime financial journalist.