BOZEMAN — It wasn't avalanche study or even recreation that prompted Montana State University engineers to develop one of the first snowmobiles. It was agriculture.
Though little goes on in the farming world when the ground is frozen, in the early 1900s the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognized the value of measuring snowpack in the West to determine how it would affect the coming season's water resources.
In the beginning, the quest for snowpack data involved snowshoeing or skiing into remote mountainous areas around Montana, said Phil Farnes, who conducted snow surveys for more than 36 years for the USDA's Soil Conservation Service, now the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Rustic shelters for surveyors, who spent days traveling between research areas, dotted the wilderness throughout the Northwest. Surveys up to Hyalite Canyon, for example, could take three days or more, Farnes said, sitting in an office at the Museum of the Rockies last week.
All that changed in 1940 with a collaborative project between then Montana State College and the Soil Conservation Service, leading to the development of what engineers dubbed "the snow bug."
Other attempts at oversnow travel pre-dated the snow bug, such as putting tracks on Model A and Model T Fords. But with a 10-horsepower Harley Davidson transmission, MSU's machine was stronger, smaller and more durable than its predecessors.
As a snow surveyor, Farnes put more than 2,000 miles on a later-model snow bug, known as Lightning — many of the machines had names, including Lena and Columbine.
"The snow bug was the first small, open-air, one- or two-person machine," Farnes told USDA historian Doug Helms in 1992. "It was kind of frowned upon by other states because, at one time, it was felt that you had to have a big machine with an indoor cab with heaters or nobody would go out in them."
But the bug bit and "the evolution of the small machines actually took off," he'd said.
The bug's heavier forerunners, although functional where snow is typically wetter and heavier, would get mired in Montana's feathery, deep snow.
And the snow bug had other benefits.
The machine's narrowness, lightness and power let riders navigate through trees and climb steep inclines in deep powder, albeit at a pace laughable by today's standards. But you could go about 1,000 miles on a single tank of gas "at about three miles per hour," Farnes said.
Rails and a skirt along its sides kept the bug from skidding down side slopes.
The snow bug was a shortened Overland or Chevrolet vehicle with an endless belt studded by oak cleats. The steering unit sat in front of the driver as a sort of pontoon. The steering mechanism could fold back on the back end of the machine so it could be stowed in the bed of a pickup truck. And at 200 to 300 pounds, it only took two people to lift it.
The Soil Conservation Service used the snow bug up until the 1960s.
Then Al Lien had graduated from MSU's Agricultural Engineering Department with a degree in industrial arts. Lien worked in the university's agricultural engineering machine shop where, as a student and employee, he helped develop and maintain newer versions of the snow bug.
The snow bugs were cobbled together with little money, spare parts and lots of ingenuity, "a typical Montana project," said Dave Swingle, MSU professor of museum studies.
The Museum of the Rockies may have Lien to thank for saving that first version of the machine long after it was decommissioned.
"I kept it only because I was so fascinated with these things," he said. "I kept hiding it and hiding it," moving it from one building to another.
Swingle worked to make the machine operational and put it on display at the museum for MSU's centennial in 1993. But now it sits in the museum's basement storage area, with its faded orange body encased in a wooden frame.
The museum hopes to rehabilitate the snow bug and put it back on display in the history hall in the next few years.