In 2019 we lost two of snowboarding’s founding fathers: Sherman Poppen and Jake Burton Carpenter. One, the pioneering inventor of the Snurfer, the first commercially produced board. The other, the founder of Burton Snowboards, and the man whose unending drive and passion for snowboarding was responsible for getting us all access onto the hill. Read on to find out how their stories intertwined, and some of the key actions taken by these two men which helped to shape and guide snowboarding to where it is today,
On a cold and snowy Christmas Day, near the wave-capped shores of Lake Michigan in 1965, Sherman Poppen was trying to think of how to have outdoor fun with his two daughters, Wendy, age 10, and Laurie, 5. He looked at a snow-covered sand dune behind his house and said to them, “You know that hill? It’s like a permanent wave. If you could get up there, you could surf that wave all day long.” Then he had a novel idea: he would join his eldest daughter’s two skis together with wooden crossbars to create something on which they could slide sideways and standing up. Some quick tinkering with tools took place, and as soon as the toy was ready, the girls were on it, having heaps of fun. Sherman’s wife, noting that it enabled one to surf on snow, dubbed it a ‘Snurfer’. They didn’t know it yet, but it was the prototype for what would become the world’s first commercially available snowboard. Sherman Poppen and his two oldest daughters gave the world a grand Christmas gift in 1965, by laying down the roots for what would become a multi-billion dollar industry, and a way for millions of people to have a ton of fun.
The Snurfer was so much fun to ride that the Poppen family’s friends and neighbors - both children AND adults – wanted to slide down the snowy hills in the neighborhood on it too. So Sherman ended up making more Snurfers, and when he did, he made improvements, such as adding a hand-held rope to the front of the boards for better steering and control. He could see the commercial potential for his Snurfer from the get-go, so he patented it in 1966 and later that same year persuaded product executives from the Brunswick Corporation to meet him at a snow-covered hill on a freezing cold day in Michigan, USA - to see the Snurfer and his oldest daughter Wendy, in action. Both made such an impression on the Brunswick executives that Poppen secured a licensing contract with the company and Brunswick began producing, distributing and selling Snurfers all over the USA.
Sherman Poppen’s story is a bit ironic though – in two respects. Firstly, because the invention that made his name famous was never the primary focus of his career (which was instead on the far more profitable welding company he owned). Secondly, Poppen was a self-professed hardcore skier, who never seriously rode a snowboard until 1995, three decades after he invented the Snurfer. According to his daughter Julie, Sherman ended up loving snowboarding far more than skiing, and totally converted. That’s what happened to a lot of ‘used-to-ski-snowboarders’, myself included.
Poppen passed away on July 31, 2019 at his home in Griffin, Georgia, USA, aged 89. He is survived by his second wife, Louise; daughters Wendy Poppen, Laurie Poppen and husband Kelly Gorton; Julie Poppen and husband Dean Pajevic; stepson Patrick Kelly and wife Danielle; sister, Leila Reynolds; and five grandchildren, Nikolai and Erik Poppen-Chambers, Milena Pajevic, and Aaron and Jason Kelly.
Sherman was inducted into the Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1995. The profound contribution that he made to snowboarding has been acknowledged not only by the industry & its historians, but also by the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C, which now houses some of the original vintage Snurfers, the patent documents, as well as original Snurfer print marketing media. This has cemented Sherman Poppen’s place and status as a fundamental figurehead of snowboarding – or, as he would have had it, ‘snurfing’.
So why is it now called snowboarding, instead of snurfing? This comes down to the fact that Sherman owned the rights to the names/words ‘Snurfer’ and ‘snurf’ – a point that he had his attorney bring to the attention of a young man named Jake Burton Carpenter. After a brief stint in an investment bank in Manhattan, Jake, aged 23, had relocated to Vermont, and was making rapid improvements to Sherman’s design. As Sherman explained in an interview:
“So here comes Jake with his stuff, and he goes back to Vermont (after a Snurfer competition) and he starts manufacturing ‘Snurfboards’. Well, I own the word ‘snurf’, and any derivative thereof – because we were gonna have Snurf gloves, Snurf mittens, Snurf scarves… So I had my patent attorney write his (attorney) and say, ‘Hey Jake you can make all those Snurfboards you want, but you’re gonna pay a certain royalty each time you use the word ‘snurf’.’ So what did the guy do? He called it a snowboard.”
Jake admitted that when he started making boards it was as a ‘get rich quick’ scheme, but it fairly quickly became apparent that his dreams of riches were misplaced. The first few years of business definitely had their ups and downs - One notable low point being when he took out 38 boards to sell to retailers, and came home with 40. One shop had returned two unsold boards. Jake persevered through over 100 different prototypes, determined to develop his vision of snowboarding as an accessible activity for a younger and more irreverent audience than that of skiing. Though sales were initially slow, by the time he met his future wife and business partner Donna in the early 1980’s, Burton Snowboards had become a multi-million dollar company.
There was still enormous resistance from the ski establishment though, and there wasn’t a single mountain that allowed snowboarders access to their lifts. This was partly due to the negative ‘partying’ image surrounding young riders, but also largely due to the fact that – unless you knew exactly what you were doing - the boards were very hard to control. Jake his friends would either hike slopes, or bribe cat drivers to take them up illegally at night. Always highly driven by detail focused product design and performance, Jake returned to the workshop. Taking influence from ski production, he brought metal edges and Ptex bases to his boards, allowing them a far greater level of control.
The first resort that gave them a chance was Snow Valley. After speaking with Paul Johnston, the Mountain Manager, Jake and his crew were given the opportunity to demonstrate what they could do in front of the ski patrol. They didn’t disappoint – a fact not entirely due to the very warm day and soft snow, but it definitely helped tip things in their favor. Snowboarders still had to be ‘certified’ before being given access to the mountain, but the fact remains that they had gained access.
The rest is history. Jake’s constant drive and passion had brought snowboarding from a ‘hidden in the backcountry’ activity for a small minority of riders around the world, into a major winter sport. Speaking of Jake’s contributions to snowboarding and of their own personal relationship, Poppen noted, “I thank him forever – because of the energy and the devotion, and the sacrifice this young man went through (for snowboarding)… because it was his drive that got us on the chairlift.”
As well as business challenges and constant product development, Jake had also fought his way through multiple health issues in his life, including heart valve surgery, his original fight with testicular cancer, a knee replacement, and a severe neural disease called Miller Fisher Syndrome which left him with almost no motor or communication skills for close to three months. Despite all of these setbacks, he managed to recover and once again take down over 100 days on the hill through the winter.
On November 20, 2019, just a few months after Sherman left us, Jake also passed away due to complications related to a rapid recurrence of his cancer. He was surrounded by family and friends at the time. He is survived by his wife Donna who took over the reins of Burton Snowboards in 2016, and sons George, Taylor and Timi.
From Method Mag and snowboarders globally: RIDE IN PEACE Jake Burton Carpenter and Sherman Poppen. Our condolences and thoughts go out to families and friends. Thank you for everything you both gave us, your legacies will continue on in every turn we burn.
Article by Jason Lopez, with additions from Theo Acworth.