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Willmar man still has collection of vintage snowmobiles, but no museum to show them

Harlan Rohner stands among his many vintage snowmobiles and motorcycles in a storage shed near Long Lake north of Willmar Wednesday.Rohner had the only snowmobile museum, located south of Willmar, in the United States in the early 1990's

WILLMAR -- In the early 1990's, Harlan Rohner could have been seen as a visionary.

He opened the first-ever snowmobile museum, located south of Willmar. People flocked to see the sleds, at first. But after about 18 months, the lack of interest forced him to close.

Today, Rohner still has a gigantic collection of more than 700 sleds kept in rows and rows of storage sheds at his salvage yard north of Willmar. But only in the last few years has what is now known as 'vintage' snowmobiles become more popular.

In fact, there will be a vintage snowmobile run on Green Lake Feb. 19 at Saulsbury Beach. It will be the first of its kind in the area, presented by the Sno-Skippers Snowmobile Club.

But what is now seen as vintage was not so old in 1992. That was one reason Rohner said the museum idea didn't take well.

"At first it was really good," he said of the interest. "But it was actually too new. I couldn't generate enough revenue to pay for the heating and the person taking care of the place."

So now the sleds sit in storage -- which is cold during the winter -- without a place to go. Rohner said people still ask about the collection, but he doesn't open it up to viewing, especially during the winter months, when he is busy with his salvage business.

But it's still quite a collection. Yamaha Exciters, Yamaha GPXs, and more brands that can be listed.

"I started collecting them about 25 years ago. I used to go to Canada to buy a lot of them, or northern Minnesota. Back when I was collecting, they didn't have the internet then. Otherwise I possibly would have had more," Rohner said. "But I'm not going to by any more. I have my fair share."

One rare sled is a Snow Goose, which Rohner said was made around 1965 in Idaho Falls, Idaho. It's the only one like it he's ever seen. Then there is the Diplomat, which was made by Leisure Design Corp., in Excelsior from 1971-73.

"They made like seven of them," Rohner said.

Vintage race

Like most collectors, the drive to accumulate comes from a love as a child. Many Minnesotans spent their formative winters speeding across frozen lakes and snow-clogged ditches.

"A lot of the people that are collecting them are in their 50's," Rohner said. "When they were a kid they might have had a 1970 Panther. They think about all the fun they had with that Panther and they want to find one and restore it and ride it around again."

That's what Smokin' Joe Shimota felt and still feels and it's why he's one of the reasons for the vintage race.

"These are the sleds we used back in the old days when I was a kid," said the 57-year-old. "They were fast and lightweight."

The Feb. 19 race is part of a number of radar runs in February held by the Sno-Skippers club.

"Spicer hasn't had a vintage race in a long time. I thought people might like to see all the vintage sleds, like the Scorpions and Yamahas," Shimota said. "I'm hoping to bring people out to watch them race and see the old sleds. They can get in the pits and look at sleds and talk to drivers."

Vintage sleds

None of Rohner's sleds will make it to the radar run. They are stacked three-high on metal frames and packed in as close as can be.

He said he quit collecting snowmobiles a few years ago. Though Rohner noted he has no plans to revisit the museum idea, he hopes one day someone else will.

"It would be nice if someone could buy this collection from me and move it somewhere else," he said.