Knowing about my love of vintage vehicles, a friend suggested we take a tour of the Top-Of-The-Lake Snowmobile Museum while we were in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It’s one of the highlights of that little town at the top of Lake Michigan, Naubinway.
Being a native Floridian, I’ve walked around in cold. But I’d never sat on a snowmobile. I’d never seen one in person. In my youth I vaguely remember reading about people zipping through the snow-covered woods in search of adventure. But I don’t know a lot about snowmobiles and their evolution.
That’s why the Top-Of-The-Lake Snowmobile Museum is here. When we arrived, Marilyn Vallier met us to show us around. She mentioned something her husband Charlie’s “collection outgrowing the house” and I could understand completely. Once they opened the museum in 2006, more snowmobiles kept showing up. “We attract donations,” Marilyn said.
Which is a good thing. Capturing the history of snowmobiles means showing off how the idea began: as skis added to utility vehicles. A Model T shows that off. By the mid 1920s, companies were adding motors to toboggans. Seeing the Eliason Motor Toboggan, a huge contraption driven by a two-cylinder Indian Motorcycle engine, has to be a very rare sight. I wonder how many still exist today?
Being an old motorcycle rider, I recognized names like Suzuki, Yamaha, and Harley Davidson. I had heard of a few of the snowmobile manufacturers, but there were still dozens of names I didn’t recognize. I remember names like Polaris, Snow Cat, Ski-Doo, and Arctic Cat. But brands that only someone from the really cold regions of the north would recognize? Try Autoboggon, Bonham, Mallard, Scatmobile, Trail Roamer, and Viking. Many companies jumped on the band wagon of snowmobile production in the late 50s and 60s.
On display are snowmobiles from large farm equipment companies like American Machine & Foundry, John Deere, Wheel Horse, and International Harvester. Even Mercury, Johnson, and Evinrude – known for their outboard motors – got into it. Coleman Outdoor Products tried its hand at producing snowmobiles. Who knew there would be such a market for a vehicle with a limited season and region?
If you didn’t have a dealer nearby, you could always order one from Sears, Montgomery Ward, or some other retail catalog, or you could always just build your own. The oldest home built “snowmobile” on display is the 1936 Westendorf. Fred Westendorf of Zilwaukee MI built this to go to go ice fishing on the Saginaw River. It’s not much more than an aluminum box powered by a 5 HP Briggs & Stratton motor, but Fred rode it out to his favorite fishing spot.
Then there is the home-built 1950s SNO-BIRD. In a 1961 issue of Science and Mechanics Magazine they wrote “the ‘Snow-Skimming Sno-Bird’ takes you there.” It was craft project No. 325, advertised as an engine powered sled that your could build for under $200. Grab some plywood, two-by-fours, screws, nuts & bolts, some angle iron, and your choice of motor. You’d be zipping across the snow in no time. My favorite part was the ’tiller steering’ made of old iron water pipe. I miss the days of magazines that encouraged people to actually build useful things for themselves.
What I especially enjoyed about the museum was all of these early and home-built snowmobiles. It was these early pioneers that planted the seed that would become the modern snowmobile that we see today carrying people across the frozen lakes and “Great White North” of today. With my not knowing the mechanics of snowmobiles, having a great deal of interpretive information along with each exhibit helped me related them to other, wheeled, vehicles.
As much as I loved seeing and learning about these vintage machines, my favorite part of our visit was listening in to a father and son visiting the museum. It was it was fun just to overhear them talk about how much they enjoyed their time riding on machines like these. Dad pointed out all the models that he had ridden, and his son noted the newer ones that he and his friends had taken for a spin.
If you enjoy well-built mechanical objects, antique cars, or vintage boats, you’ll certain find the Top-Of-The-Lake Snowmobile Museum in Naubinway worth a visit! While it’s unlikely we’ll ever return in winter – that Florida blood, you know – they hold a flurry of winter events, including a Snowmobile/Tractor Show in St. Ignace, an annual Antique & Vintage Snowmobile Show and Ride, as well as “Snowmobile the Mighty Mac,” a group crossing of the Mackinac Bridge in the dead of winter.