Poppen Title and Snurfer

For those who don't know, Sherman Poppen is the inventor of the Snurfer, forerunner of the modern snowboard. While Tom Sims complains incessantly about not getting the credit he deserves, most everyone knows that Sherman Poppen is quite literally snowboarding's founding father. Period. TeaWorld was wise enough to give Poppen props at their Banff, Canada advertiser suck job in early December 1995 by presenting Sherm with their very first Tranny Award. What a great place to start.

In this day of companies claiming all kinds of shit, we just wanted to lay down the law on this man. The interview which follows was conducted on November 10, 1994. As with most of the stuff we run, we don't know who interviewed Sherman, but we do know that he was at his Steamboat Springs, Colorado home and had just come in from a day of skiing. Yeah, he still doesn't snowboard.

Rumor has it that Mr. Poppen put the first Snurfer together because his daughter wanted to standup on her sled. He supposedly built it on Christmas day 1965. Here is his interview:

What happened on Christmas way back?

What do you know about it?

The mythology that I've been passing on is that you put a pair of skis
together. . .

. . .two 36 inch skis that came in a bubble pack that came at the corner drug store. They had a little leather strap over the top of them that kids could slide their shoes into. Then I put a couple of cross pieces across them about five of six inches apart. The cross pieces were actually molding so you could put you feet up against it. Did that on Christmas day in 1965-66.

Was that 65 or 66?

Say 66, that way no one will get mad at me. They were just having a ball with them in the back yard. My wife dreamed up the name Snurfer as a contraction of snow and surf. And then the kids kept saying Mr. Poppen, make me one, make me one. The reason I did all that then, by the way, was that back then the thing for hot skiers to do was to kick off one ski and ski down on one ski. And I was never able to do that so I thought this was the next best thing, so I started messing around with it. The thing was a big hit and it looked like so much fun, that we went down to the beach and there were sand dunes with snow and then I started going to Goodwill and all those places were people sell junk and started buying old water skis. And then I made a couple routing tools and started routing different grooves into the bottom. At that time all skis had a groove down the middle. And jumping skis had three grooves and I tried different things like that. And I made a Snurfer for myself that was longer and heavier. I as continually wearing out the edges so I routed out a little strip there and put in metal edges. That was the true beginning, when the edges would hold. That's what they granted the patent on. There was a time when Sherm Poppen owned the rights to any downhill device that had metal edges. But I didn't think about going after Rossignol or Kneissel and everybody else that was doing it. But no one had ever patented it.

Was that in 65?

Yeah, 1965. But Jake came along in 1979, I'm reading from this article. Carpenter introduced a Burton board to a Snurfer contest. And that's when we had a big brew ha ha. And everyone was on my boards and here he comes on a board that he'd made. Actually, it was my board, but he had made some of his own that were a little longer and wider. But he had a binding on them, so we weren't going to let them race, but there were three or four guys from Vermont, so the powers that be at the local college said, well we'll have an open division and anybody who wants can ride whatever they want. Well, his boards were very slow compared to mine, so he didn't win anything, but that was the beginning of the binding.

Did Tom Sims compete in any of those contests?

No, he never did. I had a long talk with him. And I guess he was making boards, but he never did anything. We started checking dates and I think I pre-dated him, but not by much though. He had taken a snowboard and done some stuff, and I think he'd been playing on the sand dunes too.

What was happening then with Snurfer manufacturing?

Christmas 1965 was the exact day that I made the board. Then it wasn't until a year before they were in production by Brunswick. I sold it to Brunswick for royalty basis.

The amazing thing to me is that You had the patent on metal edges?

It was the whole device. A downhill device that you stood on. It had a lanyard coming off the front. You fell all the time and the board would go to the bottom of the hill, and that was sort of stupid. Actually it was my Dad's idea. He said, son you ought to put a rope on this thing. It was called a tether so you could actually steer with that. You could pull it back and put your weight on your back heel and roll your knees and control it. I did not put the skeg in the bottom that was Brunswick's idea. They put the V in the board because they could now mold plywood. And they put the little fin back there. And that gave the board a lot more control, but it really slowed it down for plain speed. But for slalom and messing around it really needed that. Then it sort of took off. It was the best year they had. They sold 300,000 boards. Then they decided they shouldn't be in that business. And some of their employees left and formed their own company called Jem. And Jem brought it out for a while. Then a wealthy guy down in Virginia bought the Jem Corporation and he did a lot with it--promoting contests. You used to get a little Snurfer emblem you could put on you T-shirt. Just as an aside, just to let you know how close this is to me, I just renewed my trademark and I still own the word Snurf and any derivative thereof. Although it doesn't mean anything because the board isn't manufactured anymore. Anyway the guy who bought Jem went through a nasty divorce and in order to settle out he had to unload it and that was the end of the whole thing.

Why didn't you pursue getting the Snurfer back on the market then?

Because I had was running a couple other businesses and I also had an employment contract and I would have had to quit that. In hindsight I probably did the right thing. I'm probably ahead of what Jake's ever going to make on the boards, but anyway. You just have to make life choices. You have a good job and you've got contracts so I had to devote my energy to the industrial gas industry. It was a good decision. Although I am deeply in debt to Jake Burton Carpenter for what he did. 'Cause he took it all the way. Thank God he had some money on the sides from his parents and his friends, but he dedicated his life to it and he did the right thing. He's got some heavy competition now. Whoa, I wouldn't want to be in that business now.

Do you still follow snowboarding?

Oh, yeah. I get Snowboarder magazine and the other one and I get a big kick out of it.

When you put those skis together to make that sled for your kids were you thinking beyond your back yard?

I have invented other things, and you know you have this kind of fertile mind and you're always messing around with stuff and I sort of thought, when I saw the results that day, that this was very interesting. The next days the kids were all coming up and saying, I want it. I thought these kids are no different from kids in Nebraska so they'd want one too. Brunswick did a very poor job of marketing. At the Harvard School of Business they use the Snurfer as a study case in school of how not to merchandise a product.

How did they mess up?

I'll give you a classic example. I don't know how much it costs to run a color comic strip in newspapers in snow country. But they ran a three horizontal column comic strip of little Johnny who goes to the sledding hill with a Snurfer. And everyone is kidding him about his funny sled, so he stands up on the board and goes whipping down the hill and around the trees. It was a really interesting cartoon and that thing went out. And I remember that in Grand Rapids, Michigan I had a guy selling quite a few. He was inundated with phone calls and Brunswick wasn't ready to ship. It was a total lack of communication between marketing and production. It was a mess. The other thing that I learned out of this whole thing, and this is strictly an academic observation, is that it's mighty tough to be the first person. I have great appreciation for competition. I had to educate the public that it was possible to slide down perpendicular to the hill on a board. If I'd had somebody at least get something going after that then he could advertise and it would be up to whoever had the best product. But, we had to do it all. We had to literally let people know you could do this. Competition is valuable. We sort of owned the whole thing for a while.

The sport was called Snurfing, but the way, it was not called snowboarding. And that had a lot of good connotations because it could sound sort of dirty [laughter]. And there was a lot of fun things going on about that. When he got started and Burton was calling his board Snurfboards, and mine was a Snurfer, and I didn't like that because he was taking my name away and I hired an attorney to tell him that, hey, that name is trademarked. Well, I wish I hadn't done it now, because that's when the sport became snowboarding. He couldn't use the word Snurfer or Snurf anywhere in his stuff so he called it the Burton Snowboard and that kicked off the whole sport.

So you think that if you hadn't written that letter snowboarding would still be Snurfing?

I think it would have stayed as Snurfer and the sport of Snurfing. The other thing that happens when you have something like that and it goes in the public domain it's not used anymore and by law you lose it. There are a lot of words that we have in our language now that are really manufactured things. Remember for years people never made copies they Xeroxed them. Anyway it was a kind of fun time. I've given a couple boards to some of the shops here in Steamboat and I autographed them and they have them hanging up in the shop.

Are you surprised about how big it is now?

I tell you when it really hit me. They had three premiere showings of these snowboarding movies this fall at a local bar and I sat there dumbfounded. The things they went off and the courses they were running and I just couldn't believe it. It's really fun to watch.

How many Snurfers do you think were made?

Over the years I would guess probably no more than a half a million. They really went downhill after that. But when they got started they had two or three great years. I built a lovely home with the royalties. I called it the house that the Snurfer built.

Do you still live there?

No, I had to move away.

I heard there was a plaque that said, "The House that Snurfer Built." Do you still have it?

As a matter of fact, now that you mention it, I haven't thought about that for ages. That's probably still screwed into the garage back at the house. I'll have to go see who lives there and get it.

Do you still ski?

Oh yeah, I'm a very aggressive skier.

But you don't snowboard?

One daughter does, but the other two ski. I don't know if you noticed but I did mess around up there in Vermont, at the U.S. Open. And I got about 100 yards and got two turns in and I was exhausted. The guys up here still want to teach me and there are so many good training boards out there.

Do you see anything in the future that the industry should watch out for?

I think it kind of hurt the whole thing with the kind of people that got into the sport. But I think it's getting better. I see a lot of fathers and sons going down the hill together. There are more responsible people doing it. Because if you get hit by a snowboarder it a serious hit. God, I just love to watch them go through the trees in the powder, though. Steamboat has great trees. I just sit there and have the biggest grin on my face. I love to stand next to them in line, and they're all talking, and if they only knew who was standing next to them. I get a little silent vicarious thrill out of that.

What industry where you working in?

My first business was industrial gases, but I invented an aerosol product for cleaning spatter out of a welding gun and that got me a condominium in Grand Cayman for 10 years.

Did you dive?

I didn't dive because I went down there to be with the family and that's an all-day thing. But I got pretty proficient with a Hawaiian sling and a mask and snorkel. We had fresh snapper every night. I got pretty good at those rubber bands.

So you had a lot of other stuff going on?

Yeah that's the whole point. See, also I had sold it and I no longer had control over it. That restricted me. What Burton did was so dramatically different in carrying it on that nothing was violated. It really started out as a toy. But Paul Graves used to take his spring vacation from college and go out to Vermont and stay in a cabin and play in the woods. That guy is still a dedicated fan. He's a great guy. We tried to bring it out again. We formed Snurfer USA as a Vermont Corporation. And we came within inches of having it all brought out. In fact, he spent time with the Daisy Corporation, the B-B gun company, and they wanted to bring out a new product line of short golf clubs for kids the short shafts or the Snurfer and the golf clubs won out.

They're probably doing okay with the golf clubs.

I suppose.

It seems like it would be a perfect thing now that there is actually an industry?

You're right. I think the market is still there, because what dad is going to give his eight-year-old kid a $500 board. And these things are so much fun on small hills. I think the market is still out there as a beginning board for a five to nine year old, instead of a sled. Black Snow brought a board out for about 50 bucks, but it didn't slide at all. It was really sluggish on the snow and a kid wants something that is fast. When you're nine you want to go fast.

Any predictions for the future?

Well, I think if someone came along and wanted to bring that board out again I think I'd work very hard with them. And the original name is still there. People remember the name.

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