Jan. 1, 2012
The original snowboard makes a comeback
above: The newly-developed Novak Snurfboard in action
left: Vintage ads for the original snurfer.
Sherman Poppen leaned back in his chair and a big smile came to his face as the Gold Medal was placed around the neck of Shaun White during the 2010 Winter Olympics. While the redheaded White is the international face of snowboarding today, Poppen is the grandfather of the snowboard.
On Christmas Day in 1965, Sherman Poppen saw his 10-year-old daughter try and stand on her sled and go down the big snow covered sand dune in the backyard of their Muskegon home. That’s when the light turned on.
“I rushed into the garage, clamped two water skis together, tied a rope around the tip for control, and turned her loose,” said Poppen. “Pretty soon the neighbor kids started coming over and asking if I could make one for them.”
Before he knew it, Poppen had trademarked what would become known as the “Snurfer” (his wife came up with the name). He licensed it to the Brunswick Corporation and in 1966 the first commercial Snurfers hit the market.
“I never got into manufacturing them myself. I just licensed it out. I had owned a successful company, Lake Welding Supply, and I am proud to say it is now employee-owned and thriving in Muskegon,” said Poppen.
“I was surprised that the first year they sold a lot of them (by 1976 more than one million Snurfers had been sold). A lot of that had to do with the fact that there was an ad for them in the 1966 Sears & Roebuck catalogue.”
FROM SNURFERS TO SNOWBOARDS
Snurfing remained popular until the late ’70’s when it was eventually replaced by the snowboard. The most famous name in snowboards, Jake Burton Carpenter, became fascinated with the Snurfer and had entered Snurfing competitions. Carpenter eventually was inspired to develop what would become his famous Burton Snowboards.
“I started thinking about what would give me more control and I added essentially a front and back binding to my Snurfer,” said Burton.
“They wouldn’t let me compete in the World Snurfer Championships with that modified board but people thought it was pretty cool. Eventually they created an open class in the competition and I was able to compete. Soon I figured out that having the bindings and not having the rope was even better.”
While Burton was developing his version of the snowboard, so were skateboard legend Tom Sims and surfing legend Dimitrije Milovich. While in college Milovich would use cafeteria trays to try and ski down a hill. All three, among others, were inspired by Poppen’s Snurfer and these second generation board builders would usher in the snowboard rage.
The snowboard craze took off in the early ’80s and by the mid ’80s production of the Snurfer ended. Poppen eventually retired and sold his welding supply business and moved to Colorado.
“I decided to take up snowboarding. After all, I had a hand in getting it started,” said Poppen, who now lives in Georgia. “People still track me down and ask if I have any of the original Snurfers I might be able to sell them. I don’t and I tell them to go to Ebay. They are there and for some reason there is a big interest again in the Snurfer.”
Yes, the Snurfer is back. Just ask Bob Novak of Muskegon, a former winner of the World Snurfing Championships. Novak grew up in Muskegon and after successfully beating Jake Burton Carpenter in the World Championships, Carpenter hired Novak to help him design and build some of his early snowboards. Those boards built by Novak helped Burton Boards win several major races and championships and put the snowboard manufacturer on the map.
“Yeah, I moved to Vermont and lived with Jake building snowboards,” said Novak. “But you don’t need bindings or special boots or buy a lift ticket to enjoy them. Plus you can use them anywhere. I get e-mails everyday from people who are taking them to ski resorts or places that have snowboard parks. But what is great is you can go anywhere there is a hill. They work great on groomed sledding hills or on fresh powdered hills.”
The original Snurfer retailed for $6.88 in 1966 and the Novak Snurfboards retail between $225 and $265. Novak has some retail locations at shops that specialize in winter sports sales, but most sales happen online.
“This time of the year, a day doesn’t go by that we don’t receive several orders online,” said Novak. “Now I am getting inquiries about doing demos at resorts and there is talk about bringing back snurfboard competitions.”
I could see that eventually I wasn’t going to be needed so I returned home and got into the custom motorcycle painting business.”
A few years ago Novak started thinking it would be fun to have a Snurfer again so he made one in his shop. “I made a few for fun and people who tried it loved it, so I thought why not bring the Snurfer back,” said Novak.
SPACE AGE SNURFING
“I launched Novak Snurfboard in 2006 and started making what I like to call the indestructible snurfboard. I am using ‘space glass’ or as it is known Makrolon Polycarbonate and not only will they last forever but they are also flexible. We tested these things and bent them in half and even shot at them and they don’t break.”
The original Snurfer was made out of wood and besides using the new space glass ,Novak has also made a few additional modifications. He added a safety strap to go around the ankle to keep the board from going down the hill if one wipes out on their way down.
“These new boards are so fast and slick that you can use these boards like a skateboard in the snow,” said Novak. “You can glide along on flat trail doing the same motion you would if you were on a skateboard.”
Sales have exceeded Novak’s expectations. He splits his time between his two businesses by painting motorcycles in the spring and summer and building snurfboards in the fall and winter months.
“What has happened is people have started taking my snurfboards to ski resorts and sledding hills and people think they are cool and word has kept spreading and we have been shipping these things all over the place,” said Novak.
“Longtime snowboarders think they are great because they like the challenge of going down the hill without bindings. People who are older like them because regardless of your age you can use them, you are not strapped in a binding so for that person who has never snowboarded you feel safe using it.”
While Novak doesn’t see snurfboards replacing snowboards he does believe they are back for good.
“They are gaining in popularity for some of the same reasons they were poplar when Sherman Poppen invented them,” he said.
“One thing is they are very affordable and
The Snurfer will receive a couple of tributes this summer. A $50,000 sculpture created by artist Jason Dreweck will be unveiled this July in Muskegon. It will depict a Snurfer at the top of a sinuous ribbon of bronze and a snowboarder at the bottom essentially illustrating the evolution of the sport. In 1995 Poppen was the first inductee into the Snowboarding Hall of Fame and now the Snurfer will become an exhibit at the Smithsonian.
“They contacted me a few years ago and asked for copies of my original designs, some of the prototypes. So I went to Washington D.C. and dropped all of that off along with a couple of the original Snurfers,” said Poppen. “They will be putting together an exhibition this summer. So I will definitely look forward to that and I will also return to Muskegon for the unveiling of the sculpture.”
So does Poppen remember those first trips down the hill his daughter took 46 years ago?
Yes, as if it was yesterday,” said Poppen.
“When you pause for a moment and sit back and think about it my daughters were the world’s first snowboarders. That is a pretty awesome thought.”
To learn more about the history of the Snurfer, check out the Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame website at www.mashf. com and click on Sherman Poppen. There is a year-to-year collection of articles about Snurfing. If you are interested in purchasing a modern version check out Novak Snurfboards at www.novaksnurfboards.com