My hobby is to collect old John Deere snowmobiles, I’ve explained the reasons for this interest in past columns. For the most part, this hobby is based on my personal history with John Deere snowmobiles and an appreciation for their simple, dependable design and function. This week I want to write about a sled whose own history is the real focus of my interest and at the same time explain what I’ve done to make it possible for this snowmobile to have a future.
The John Deere 400 I’ve spent the last year repairing was manufactured in Horicon, Wisconsin but made itself useful around the Bowman County, North Dakota area. It’s first owner was Doug Schwartz who purchased it in 1972, like most snowmobiles, it was used for enjoyment and to relieve boredom from a long winter spent but this sled was also used to help people who were sick and lost. Doug Schwartz was one of the first Emergency Medical Technicians around Bowman and used the 400 to find downed airplanes, deliver medicine in an area with few roads and actual emergency runs where he and the 400 hauled hurt people to the hospital. One night, a rancher ran his own snowmobile through the wall of his barn so Doug and e.m.t partner, Ervin Schneider (also on a Deere,) pulled a luggage sled out to the farm and hauled the rancher in to the Bowman hospital. This was a trip of fourteen miles, at night, in the snow and without the benefit of any moon which tells me that this sled was made tough in order to live up to the demands and abilities of it’s driver. I know people make longer trips today but long-travel suspensions and gps have made it possible for anyone to call themselves a snowmobiler.
I purchased the 400 one 35 degree below day last February; it had not run since 1992 and it’s recent history was spent on a hill in the middle of a pasture near Bismarck, North Dakota. Since then, it had sat in my shop until last November when I began by taking it apart and removing the damaged track. I don’t call what I do “restoration” because the raises expectations much too high; I guess maybe “redemption” is a better way to describe what I do with my old snowmobiles. I repair everything that is important to the sled’s operation, however cosmetics are left to only what is absolutely necessary. I wanted the 400 kept in original condition but to also feel a little proud; for this reason I had decals made up to tells it’s story. Along with the regular decals it has a red cross, a civil defense sticker and lettering that states “Bowman County First Responder” plus a mounted first aid kit which will help to tell it’s story even after I pass it along to someone else. In order to keep it operating like new I replaced the following (short list); new crankcase seals, replaced all bearings, new seat, new light bulbs, replaced the track, repaired trailing arms, new windshield and many small repairs made in the interest of making this sled more than just a static display.
I feel I’ve accomplished maintaining some history and at the same time the 400 is something I can drive right now as it starts on the first pull. The real reward was last Sunday; I took the little sled out for a short, initial ride; it performed better than my John Deere 300 and much more quietly than the JDX-8 with which it shares space. I thought how this was a good choice for first responder work; dependable and powerful with plenty of low-end torque and respectable top speed. I’d like to test the 400’s rescue abilities but that may be some time in coming; know any rancher willing to ride his own snowmobile through the wall of his barn? (before and after pictures)