Grandfather of snowboarding
Sherman R. Poppen, who would come to be known as the “grandfather of snowboarding,” was just trying to get his daughters out of the house to give his pregnant wife some peace and quiet on Christmas Day in 1965. He hit on the idea that became the Snurfer and set in motion the evolution of a new snow sport.
Poppen, who died at age 89 in Griffin, GA, took a pair of skis belonging to one of his daughters and nailed them together with pieces of wood at the tips and tails. He did it so Wendy, age 10, and Laurie, 5, could ride thin snow on sand dunes behind their home in Muskegon, Michigan. His wife, Nancy, was three days shy of giving birth to their third daughter, Julie, and the girls were revved up from eating Christmas stocking candy.
“Julie wants to take credit for the whole invention,” Wendy joked in a joint interview with Julie on Monday, recalling that fateful day by the shore of Lake Michigan. “Laurie and I are bouncing off the walls because it’s winter, we’re cooped up, it’s snowy outside. Mom’s all nervous, she’s sick, and she can’t handle us leaping all over, so she said, ‘Sherm, please get these kids out of the house.’ We bundle up in our winter gear and go outside.”
Because the snow was thin, sleds wouldn’t run on the dune behind their house. The connected skis offered some flotation to solve the problem.
“We just went crazy,” said Wendy, who lives in Fort Collins. “We were taking turns sliding, laughing. At the time we lived in a teeny, tiny little cottage. My mom opens the creaky back door and says, ‘That looks like a fun toy, you should name that a Snurfer,’ for snow and surfing. It was really cool.”
Poppen owned a welding supply company and had a mind for innovation. For the next step in the development of Snurfing, he bought a used water ski, drilled a hole in the tip and attached a tether for the rider to hold.
Brunswick Corp. had a manufacturing plant in the area, and Poppen persuaded company executives to come see the Snurfer in action. The water ski prototype he showed them is now on display in an exhibit at the Colorado Snowsports Museum in Vail. Wendy has vivid memories of the day the men from Brunswick came to the dune wearing suits and wing-tipped shoes.
“My dad brings me like a little trained monkey, and all the suits are on this hill watching me,” Wendy said. “I had to slide down this hill and climb back up. My dad told me, ‘Keep Snurfing until I tell you to stop.’ I went up and down, up and down like 15 times; it’s freezing out. The rest is history. He sold them the patent and they produced the Snurfer.”
Brunswick made Snurfers out of the same laminated wood they used for bowling lanes, and more than a million Snurfers were sold. One of the kids who fell in love with Snurfing was Jake Burton Carpenter, later the founder of Burton Snowboards.
“In my world, Sherman Poppen was the guy that started snowboarding.” Carpenter was quoted as saying last week in an obituary published by Snowboarder magazine. “He for sure changed my life by introducing the concept of surfing on snow to me. Not only did he start the sport, but he never gave up on it.”
Nancy Poppen died in 1993. Poppen lived in Steamboat Springs from 1994 to 2008 with his second wife, Louise. It was there in 1995 that he took up the sport he invented 30 years earlier. He became especially fond of riding the area’s famed tree runs.
“My dad ended up being a total convert and loving snowboarding even more than he loved skiing,” said Julie, who lives in Boulder. “He described it as this whole zen sensation. Couldn’t get enough of being in the trees, even after breaking a few ribs in there in his 60s or early 70s.”
In 2008, Poppen and Louise moved to Griffin, Ga., to be closer to her family, but they also maintained a condo in downtown Denver which they loved. His daughters are planning celebrations of life for him in Griffin, Muskegon and Steamboat. They want to hold the Steamboat affair on the mountain next winter.
Visionary and Philanthropist
In addition to being a visionary, Poppen was a civic-minded philanthropist. In Muskegon, he sold his company, Lake Welding Supply Co., to his employees. He set up a fund in Michigan to help low-income students with an aptitude for the arts. In Colorado, he was involved with SOS Outreach, an Eagle County non-profit devoted to providing adventure opportunities for at-risk kids.
“He really supported this idea of getting under-represented kids, kids without all the opportunities that we had, to be able to experience all these things in the mountains,” Julie said. “He was very passionate about that.”
Wendy still can’t believe what her dad did with her skis that day in 1965, though.
“I want to tell you, I was not happy when my dad nailed my skis together,” Wendy said. “I loved those skis. When you’re a little kid, it’s like your bike, it’s your best friend. Even though the Snurfer was born — the snowboard — I was not happy at the time.”
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