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A Cat With Teeth

Movie stars from Betty Grable to Nicolas Cage have rumbled over snowfields aboard Tucker Sno-Cats.

The Medford-built snow vehicles with unique track systems also have propelled explorers and expedited repairs and rescues where other heavy-duty utility machines could never hope to go.

Yet their developer, Josephine County native Emmitt M. Tucker, was simply looking for an easier way to move about when snow was piled knee-deep or higher.

Tucker, one of 13 children, was born in a log cabin on Jump-Off Joe Creek in 1892 and spent his early boyhood near Trail in a stone house built by his father in 1901.

In 1914 he first came up with the idea of building a machine that would ride over unpacked snow. But it would take 24 years and a frustrating dead end before Tucker revamped his approach and focused on a vehicle supported by pontoons with revolving tracks.

A January 1957 profile in Mechanix Illustrated relates that after coming up with the idea, Tucker built the prototype "piece by piece, with hacksaw and file, of salvaged parts in his spare time."

While heading north in 1941 to test the first rig at Crater Lake, Tucker stopped for lunch and met a stranger, who managed a mine near Mount Shasta. The miner was so impressed by the test model's performance that he bought it on the spot.

But how could such a large device ride on top of the snow?

The key to making a heavy piece of snow equipment workable was maintaining a ratio of pounds per square inch similar to skiers. It was no easy task for Tucker, who spent much of his youth near Prospect.

In the decades since, Sno-Cats have carved a niche unparalleled in America and duplicated by just two other surviving firms worldwide.

From Alaska's oil fields to Antarctica's wilds and far-flung mountain tops and muggy marshes in between, Tucker Sno-Cats carry everyone from field scientists and maintenance crews to engineers and actors to their off-the-beaten-path destinations.

The company, under the third-generation leadership of Chief Executive Officer Maralee Tucker Sullivan and her cousin Jim Tucker, president and general manager, now includes its founder's great-grandchildren.

The Sno-Cat's accomplishments include the first motorized crossing of Antarctica as part of a British government 1958 survey, an expedition in which the leader's bright orange vehicle was nicknamed Rock-n-Roll.

One of the Sno-Cats that trekked across the unknown Antarctic wilderness is now in Christ Church, New Zealand, and another is believed to be in England; the third is on display at Tucker Sno-Cat's headquarters on South Pacific Highway.

The orange shade is custom-mixed for Tucker and now applied via powder coating.

"Our grandfather thought it was the best color to stand out against white snow in case someone got lost or had to be spotted on a snowy mountain," Sullivan said. "We have painted them white or camouflage as well, whatever the customer wants."

Although there isn't an official count of how many Tucker Sno-Cats have cut their way through the drifts, Sullivan said the company has averaged 100 units per year since its inception nearly seven decades ago. That adds up to somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 Sno-Cats, ranging from two-track Sno-Kittens, built in the 1950s, to the 1643 model — officially known as "the tour bus" — capable of carrying 15 people and used by researchers in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

"They run practically forever, if you can find a part," Sullivan said. "We have people with 1940s models and we give them the drawings to build the parts they need. We're still getting part requests for the Kittens."

Emmitt Tucker's idea to attach tracks to pontoons in an effort to skim over the top of accumulated snow led to a four-track solution to traverse rugged terrain. In the 1990s, rubber tracks replaced the metal cleats, allowing cats to cruise over environmentally sensitive areas.

"Innovation happens every year," Sullivan said. "Our engineering staff is always trying to improve on our machines. We've worked in implements, blades and tillers over the years."

Custom orders are commonplace. In early 2009, the company began developing an ambulance on tracks for the military.

"It's still in the works," Sullivan said. "Hopefully, they will order more."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.

Tucker Sno-Cat