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Willmar salvage man's snowmobile collection is one for the ages

Harlan Rohner works on the engine of a snowmobile Feb. 17 at his snowmobile salvage business north of Willmar. A self-described adrenaline junkie, Rohner has been collecting snowmobiles since he was 17 years of age. In the process, he has accumulated more than 700 sleds as part of his collection. (PHOTOS BY DAN BURDETT | TRIBUNE)1 / 7
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The glacial mid-February current makes the building feel as if its interior is infinitely on the wrong side of the sun. Harlan Rohner, however, couldn't care less. 

The moment he enters the 10,000-square-foot edifice, his naturally florid cheeks light up like a neon sign.

He’s a genial but soft-spoken sort, with a uniquely Minnesota parlance strewn with “yas” and “ya knows.” But it’s in this place one gets to see his inner merriment.

He quickly breaks into a disquisition.

“That one there is an original, ya know,” he says. “One-of-a-kind. Model-T doors. A guy would have to go a long way to find one like her. That’s one to fix up.”

He lets out an aw-shucks kind of chortle.

“She’s a beauty,” he says. “And that one there … it has never even been ridden.”

He pauses for a moment to take stock.

All told, hundreds of these “beauties” line the cement floor and maze-like rows of shelving, and offer but a glimpse into one of the largest-known vintage snowmobile collections on the planet.

“Ya, there’s not much that’s better than this stuff,” he says.

Engines and riding

A professed adrenaline junkie, Rohner purchased his first snowmobile at 17.

It was a 1966 300cc Rupp. He quickly wrecked it.

So be bought another … and another.

Soon, an occupation and hobby were born.

Today, he stores many of the 700-plus snowmobiles in his collection and hundreds of others used for parts at Harlan’s Snowmobile Salvage, a division of his family’s 65-year-old auto salvage business five miles north of Willmar. The site is also home to the epic structure in which he stands for this interview.

“I guess you could say I was hooked from the beginning,” he says. “There’s still no better sound to me than an engine ticking over. It’s perfect.”

Rohner learned the ins and outs of mechanics at a young age, tinkering with his siblings on the diminished shells and remnants of old automobiles at the salvage yard.

Over time and as demand grew, the business began stockpiling vintage snowmobiles and harvesting parts.

The sleds stoked the young Rohner’s curiosity, and he developed a tenacious approach to the machines: ride fast and ride often.

Oh what fun it is to ride ...

On its website, the Department of Natural Resources lists some 22,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails in Minnesota. From the regional flats to the small border towns of the northern woodlands, Rohner can chart this topography like the lines on the palm of his hand.

There were periods he’d ride in excess of 100 miles a day, sometimes with like-minded pals, other times solo.

“It was a way to clear the mind,” he recalls. “When I was out, nothing else mattered.”

His early sleds featured two-stroke engines, an internal combustion mechanism which completes a power cycle with two up-and-down movements of the piston during only one crankshaft revolution. The sleds, he says, could be cumbersome, often requiring extensive maintenance during a ride.

“Oh ya, it could be an adventure,” he says.

As technologies progressed in the 1960s and 1970s, manufacturers began to experiment with four-stroke engines, which use four distinct piston strokes - intake, compression, power and exhaust - to complete one operating cycle. The sleds, Rohner says, are heavier and can log more miles with less maintenance.

They remain his preferred sled models.

A growing scene

Rohner’s prized collectible was shaped by his own design from parts extracted from 1996 Arctic Cat ZRT 600 model sleds. It is black with bold yellow and green lettered decals, and outfitted with a 1,200 cc engine and chrome carburetors.

“I used it to compete in radar racing,” he says. “... which is to see how fast a guy could go for 660 feet. It did 123 mph, though a lot of sleds will go faster than that now.”

The sled has accompanied him to many of the shows popular on the state’s vintage snowmobile scene. One, the Waconia Snowmobile Show, has morphed into the largest and most comprehensive event of its kind in the world, per its website. It draws thousands of people each January to Waconia, a lake community some 35 miles southwest of the metro.

Willmar, too, is getting in on the act, with an inaugural event from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. today at the Kandiyohi County Fairgrounds. Dubbed the Vintage Race and Show, the occasion is sponsored by the Sno Skippers of Kandiyohi County and will feature drag racing, a show and swap meet and a ride around Foot Lake.

“There’s some great stuff at these shows for collectors,” Rohner says. “A lot of fun.”

A collector sought

These days, Rohner’s time on the trails is nominal: the demands of his business are constant and a growing curiosity for aviation ingests much of his spare time.

He owns a 280FX Enstrom, a light piston-engined helicopter, a model popular with airborne law enforcement personnel and sometimes used to haul military and medical equipment, enstromhelicopter.com states. The copters are easily customizable: Rohner’s boasts a flaxen and gold hue, and has the polished lines of a classic muscle car.

It rests upon a trailer in his shop, amid some new model snowmobiles and a dismantled engine that hints it has perhaps seen better days.

As for the collection housed just a few steps away, Rohner hopes to one day find a buyer elsewhere who is interested in beginning a museum exhibit. He tried that venture a number of years back, but local demand just wasn’t there.

He has just one stipulation: “I don’t want to break the collection up.”

“If I wind up selling, I’d rather do it to one person who can store the entire collection,” he says. “I hope people don’t think I don’t appreciate them anymore. I just think it’d be neat for someone to enjoy them and like them as much as I have.”

For more information on Harlan’s Snowmobile Salvage, call 320-235-2059 or email sales@snowmobileparts.com. The business is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and is located at 1750 County Road 27 N.W. in Willmar.

Dan Burdett

Dan Burdett is the community content coordinator at the West Central Tribune. He has 13 years experience in print media, to include four years enlisted service in the United States Air Force. He has been an employee of Forum Communications since 2005, joining the company after spending two years as the managing editor of the Redwood Gazette and Livewire in Redwood Falls. Prior to his current position, Dan was the presentation editor at the Tribune.

(320) 214-4338
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