Thief River Falls: Exploring its Rich History and Culture

Thief River Falls is one of those small Midwestern towns that may not seem like much at first glance but is actually steeped in a rich history and culture that is worth exploring. Located in northern Minnesota, this town has a fascinating story that includes everything from the fur trade and Native American tribes to the birth of snowmobiles and the creation of one of the world’s most successful electronic components companies.

Early History

Thief River Falls gets its name from the Red Lake River, which flows through the town. The river was named by French trappers in the 18th century, who referred to it as “Rivière aux Voleurs,” or “Thief River,” due to the fact that they frequently had their furs stolen by Native American tribes. The Ojibwe tribe, who lived in the area before the arrival of European settlers, called the river “Waabizipinikaan-ziibi,” which means “River Where There is Stealing.”

In the 19th century, the town was home to a number of fur traders and lumberjacks, who used the river to transport goods. As the town grew, it became an important center for agriculture and transportation. The railroad arrived in Thief River Falls in 1898, making it easier for farmers to get their crops to market. The town also became a hub for the timber industry, with mills processing millions of board feet of timber each year.

Snowmobiles and Arctic Cat

One of the most interesting aspects of Thief River Falls’ history is its connection to snowmobiles. In the early 1960s, a mechanic named Edgar Hetteen and his brother Allan started building a prototype snowmobile in their garage. They founded a company called Polaris Industries and began mass-producing the machines. But Edgar Hetteen soon left Polaris and started a new company, Arctic Cat, which quickly became one of the world’s leading snowmobile manufacturers.

Arctic Cat is still based in Thief River Falls, and the town is home to a museum dedicated to the history of snowmobiling. The museum showcases numerous vintage machines, as well as artifacts and photographs that document the evolution of the sport.

Electronic Components and Digi-Key

In the 1970s, a man named Ronald Stordahl started a small electronics business in his basement. The company, which he named Digi-Key, specialized in selling electronic components by mail order. Over time, the business grew and moved to a larger facility in Thief River Falls.

Today, Digi-Key is one of the largest electronic components distributors in the world, with over 4 million products in stock and more than 2,500 employees. The company’s headquarters in Thief River Falls includes a massive warehouse that holds billions of electronic components. Digi-Key has had a major impact on the town’s economy, providing jobs and helping to put Thief River Falls on the map as a center for technology and innovation.

Exploring Thief River Falls

Today, Thief River Falls is a vibrant town that offers lots of opportunities for visitors to explore its history and culture. In addition to the snowmobiling museum and Digi-Key’s headquarters, there are a number of other interesting attractions in the area. The Pennington County Historical Society Museum showcases the town’s history, with exhibits on the fur trade, agriculture, and industry.

One of the best ways to experience Thief River Falls is to attend one of its many festivals and events. The town hosts an annual Riverfest celebration, which includes live music, food, and a parade. The Arctic Cat Stampede is a snowmobile race that takes place in the winter, while the North Country Trail Run is a popular trail race that attracts runners from all over the Midwest.


Thief River Falls may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of Minnesota, but this small town has a fascinating history and culture that is well worth exploring. From its early days as a fur trading outpost to its role as a center for technology and innovation, Thief River Falls has a story that is both unique and inspiring. So the next time you’re in the area, be sure to take some time to discover all that this town has to offer.

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