Donation allows the Colorado Snowsports Museum to add early snowboards to its permanent collection
What do the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution and the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame have in common? Both cultural institutions house a permanent collection of artifacts from Sherman Poppen, the inventor of the first commercially viable snowboard in the United States: the Snurfer.
One of the original boards resides on display at the Smithsonian and five, which were originally on loan to the Colorado Snowsports Museum, are now part of their permanent collection thanks to the generosity of Poppen’s wife Louise.
“We are honored Louise and the Poppen family entrusted the Museum to permanently house these artifacts. They are tangible connections to the past and help tell the story of the birth and rise of snowboarding in North America,” said Jennifer Mason, the Snowsports Museum’s executive director.
On Christmas morning 1965, at home in Muskegon, Michigan, Poppen’s pregnant wife Nancy begged him to go outside and entertain their rambunctious daughters, Wendy, 10, and Laurie, 5.
That morning, Poppen first took out a sled, but its blades cut through the snow and got stuck in the sand beneath. Then he spotted Wendy’s child-size skis. Envisioning the dunes as surfable waves, he created a surf-able board by bracing the skis with wooden crossbars.
His daughters caught on quickly and soon so did their friends. His wife — who gave birth to a third daughter, Julie, three days after Christmas — thought up a name for the board: the Snurfer, a contraction of “snow” and “surfer.” More than one million were sold in the 1960s and 1970s, introducing surfing on snow to many early snowboard pioneers.
One significant artifact in the Poppen Family Collection includes the first mass-produced Snurfer intended to be ridden using a sideways stance. It belonged to Wendy. Her name can be seen written on the board along with words like “Groovy” and “Wipeout”, as well as a hand-drawn flower. This Snurfer is currently on display at the Colorado Snowsports Museum.
Also currently on exhibit is Poppen’s first production prototype (c. 1965), a model he submitted for his Snurfer patent application, which he filed in early 1966. During production, the grip tape surface was changed to staples to improve grip, and a V-shaped tail was added for better turning performance.
After he was granted the patent in 1968, Poppen licensed the Snurfer’s manufacturing rights later that year to the Brunswick Corporation, a bowling alley equipment manufacturer with a factory in Muskegon that was expanding into consumer products. By Christmas, Brunswick was selling Snurfers made of the same laminated wood it used for bowling alleys.
Other artifacts in this recent donation include Transworld Snowboarding Business “Tranny” Lifetime Achievement Award trophy awarded to Poppen in 1995, a 1966 newspaper clipping about Snurfers, and other Snurfer boards.
One of the earliest fans of the Snurfer was Jake Burton Carpenter, who got his first board in 1968 at age 14. Carpenter eventually began making a more advanced kind of snowboard himself in the 1970s, initially calling it a snow surfer. His product had bindings and other features that Poppen’s design did not, and sales took off. His company, Burton Boards, grew to become the world’s largest snowboard manufacturer.
“He saw a future that I dreamed about but didn’t dream possible,” Poppen said of Mr. Carpenter on the FNRad snowboarding podcast in 2015.
Prior to Poppen’s invention, Vern Wicklund, Gunnar Burgeson, and Harvey Burgeson patented a curved wooden sled, the Sno Surf, in 1939. Their hopes of selling the boards commercially were abandoned with the start of WWII and an inability to find a financial partner. The Colorado Snowsports Museum is home to one of only three Bunker “Sno Surfs” in the world. The donated items can be viewed on the digital resource tab on the Museum’s website at http://www.snowsportsmuseum.org.
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